Break into Sports Design: Tips from 3 Major Sports Leagues

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Getting your dream job in sports design won’t come easy, but fortunately for you three of the top creatives in sports have offered up personal advice on getting prepared and getting noticed. HOW interviewed Anne Occi, MLB head of design services; Paul Conway, NHL vice president of creative services; and Christopher Arena, NBA head of identity, outfitting & equipment to gain fresh perspectives designed to create a path toward a career in sports design.

graphic design career in sports industryimage from Getty | CSA-Archive

HOW: What should sports designers strive to do in their resumes and portfolios?

Occi: I won’t even look at a resume if it hasn’t been designed. It tells me about your proficiency in programs and about your own personal style. It is a reflection of your ability to design over telling me the depth of your soul. I have turned away some that are over embellished and some I don’t think would be a good fit because they have gone too far in any one direction to think I could pull them back.

You need to have an online portfolio that is easy to navigate. There is nothing more frustrating than trying to pull one up and not being able to get to the dialogue. Make sure it is a really beautiful experience.

Conway: Look for unique ways to present and sell your portfolio, not just show it. When I review portfolios, I’m looking for books that demonstrate smart visual thinkers who are providing quality creative over quantity. Those are the individuals that usually have a wow factor to their work. I’m looking for genuine, well thought-out creative that’s inspiring and shows a meticulous and meaningful visual solution.

While it’s necessary to have a solid design aesthetic quality and style, it’s even more important for me to see that a prospective designer is process-driven in their approach and capable of visually communicating brand-based strategies and objectives. I expect designers to show me more than just the final product in their portfolio; show the steps it took to get to the final piece, the inspiration, sketches and digital execution.

Occi: If you get the opportunity to show your portfolio to an individual, you should explain the design problems or issues you got to a conclusion on. You should be able to explain the problem you solved and not just what the class assignment was.

Conway: As far as resumes, I look for a progression in work experience and design disciplines relevant to the job post. You should understand the path you want to pursue and focus your efforts to get on that path.

Arena: Show activity. Any place, anywhere, any time. Internships, self-starter projects, grade school, high school, staff of your school newspaper, college … you name it. Make sure you’re involved at all levels and are contributing and utilizing your skills.

image from Getty | CSA Images

What are the best ways to break into the sports design world?

Arena: There’s no magic formula, but it’s important to network, work hard, stay humble, be nice, be productive and ask questions.

Conway: I think one avenue that’s important early on in your career path is to purse internships. It’s a great way to see the industry first-hand, be exposed to a multitude of disciplines and see the different lines of business within an organization while also helping you make some of your first connections and impressions in the industry. Stay engaged, be a sponge and absorb as much as you can. Listen, ask questions and always go above and beyond what is asked of you. As they say, be the first in and last to leave.

Occi: Internships are very, very valuable. To be able to get into a name firm some place where people immediately understand what you had designed for or the situations you had designed for would be very meaningful. Volunteer design. Go back to your high school and volunteer. There are opportunities to design locally that I would definitely take advantage of.

Conway: It’s important to understand the business side of any profession you’re looking to join. Be persistent, but respectable and don’t stalk. When I tell individuals to stay in touch don’t simply call for the sake of calling. Send samples of recent design projects and talk about your work. Show me you’re engaged in the design field and the design work doesn’t necessarily have to be in the sports design field. I’m not just looking for people with a sports design background, though it is helpful.

What are must-have qualities in a sports designer?

Conway: First and foremost, demonstrate that you are a proven practitioner of the design processes and capable of visually communicating brand strategies into meaningful creative. You must have the ability to collaborate and multitask. As an in-house group, we handle more than 600 projects a year. It is crucial to be able to multitask and pivot on a project as needed, collaborate with other designers and stakeholders and trouble shoot and problem solve on your own and in a group setting.

Occi: You need to know how to follow present trends. A mood board for me reflects precisely what I wanted to see designed versus showing 60 hit-or-miss logos. It is all about understanding those different touch points and always changing. You need to be multi-disciplined. Sports design requires a keen eye for scale. Am I looking for this on a phone or for the jumbotron? Also, you need to understand fabrication. Is this for electronic or on uniforms? You need to know how that is produced.

Arena: The ability to be innovative. In my world of branding and design, it is not just about creating logos for teams but creating an identify for a brand that considers all types of media and takes brand building into consideration.

Conway: As far as design skills, being able to sketch your ideas out on paper before touching the computer is so important. And in today’s world, exceptional familiarity with Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop and other design software is a must.

image from Getty | CSA-Archive

What should designers avoid from doing to turn you off to their portfolios?

Arena: Don’t avoid anything. Everything is worth looking at.

Conway: Quality trumps quantity. And I’m looking for meaningful, thoughtful work. If you’re showing work that was a collaboration, give credit where credit is due. Explain your role and your contribution to the project. Don’t take credit for other people’s work; it will catch up to you.

What excites you about the sports design world right now?

Occi: The speed of change. How we engage and design for fans is constantly changing with technology. Every little bit of information has to be designed. You constantly reinvent yourself as a designer and acquire knowledge of new technology.

Arena: Depth of fonts, the evolution of simplicity and the continued originality amongst common mascots. Ownability is at an all-time high.

Conway: I’m excited by technology and how it’s transforming how sports content is being consumed. Technology influences and consumes every aspect of our lives these days and we can certainly see that in the sports world. Over the last five-plus years and beyond, there’s been a big shift in how we communicate, watch and consume sports and entertainment. Watching on hand-held devices, through social apps and other outlets is the new paradigm, especially for the younger generation. As the technology evolves, so will the means by which we deliver that message. But the message still needs to be authentic and true. Sports is rooted in passion and emotion; it’s what drives the fan base. At the end of the day, regardless of technology, we’re still visual storytellers. That hasn’t changed. It comes down to how we deliver that message in a way that resonates and reaches across these new emerging platforms.

Tim Newcomb covers sports design for HOW. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.

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