A Comparison: Similarities between the Creative Design Process and March Madness

The fast-paced and sometimes cutthroat world of creative design has more in common with sports than you might think. From challenging design parameters to tight deadlines there’s never a lack of competition, camaraderie and sweet victory. Concepts are whittled away over the course of a campaign or project, and eventually – a winning design is chosen.

The Big Design Dance

How exactly can one liken creative processes to a basketball tournament? Here several direct comparisons:

1. Terminology

Just as the NCAA Tournament requires a thorough breakdown of terminology, creative teams tend to speak their own language. If “first seed,” “elite eight” and “bracketology” left you puzzled, see how many terms you can decipher from the creative department vocabulary list:

AlignmentAspect RatioBleed
FontsGradientHi-Res File
InfographicJob JacketKerning
LayoutLogoLook and feel
Lorum IpsumMock-upPantone
SaturationSerif vs. San-SerifSpacing
TypographyUser ExperienceVector

For full explanations of these creative terms, check out this blog post. For a compiled list of NCAA Terminology, check out this post.

2. Selection of teams/Selection of concepts

The selection process for NCAA bracket teams takes time, careful review and objective consideration of many variables like players, game history, playing on the road vs. at home, the season as a whole and overall rankings.

To arrive at a series of client-ready concepts, creative and account teams must perform a similar focused review of their own variables such as client preferences, past campaigns, success of previous designs and branding.

  • “First Seed Teams” or “The Obvious/Shoe-In Concept” – Creative teams like to play it safe with at least one tried and true design that mirrors previous branding, simple yet effective communication and strong imagery.
  • “Cinderella Team” or “The Unlikely Concept” – Creative directors always find a way to incorporate one concept that comes straight out of left field – or rather – the bench. In the rare chance a client will go for the underdog, it can really keep the design process interesting.
  • “Bracket Buster” or “The Creative Team Favorite Concept” – At least one concept is the creative-team favorite – the one they subtly push for with the client because it truly brings their vision to life and supports both the direction of the campaign and the essence of the brand.

3. Round 1/Presenting designs to the client for first review

While it might not seem like the most intense portion of the tournament, Round 1 is often less-than-predictable. The projected winners might find an easy victory, or the first games can send top-seed teams home and leave fans and coaches mystified.

When a creative team first presents or submits their concepts to a client for review, there are also feelings of anticipation, confidence and curiosity of the initial client reaction. The client may love each concept and be challenged with which direction to move forward with. They might ask for complex changes before they can decide a direction. They also might disagree with the direction of the project and ask the team to provide entirely new concepts – talk about a shift in momentum.

4. Practice makes perfect/Client revisions and suggestions

NCAA teams practice, train, condition, watch tapes and practice again. Designers revise, review, edit and revise again. Once a client has reviewed concepts and chosen a direction, a series of revisions are completed to move the design closer to the finished product. Just as team players cooperate and bounce ideas back and forth with coaches, the creative team communicates and collaborates with clients on a daily basis. Teamwork makes the dream work.

5. The buzzer-beater/Making a tight deadline

That feeling of sitting on the edge of your seat, clenching your fists and watching the last shot soar over the court while the game clock counts down to the last seconds of the second half…designers know that feeling too. Day-to-day creative work might not exude the same level of adrenaline, but “beating the buzzer” of a print or client deadline does keep the atmosphere exciting and fast-paced.

6. Cutting down the net/Client gives approval to move forward

March Madness tournament victors cut down the nets as a symbol of their triumph, and keep the “souvenir” for trophy cases back at their home campus. Creative departments tend to display awards and recognition around agencies as well – but they also celebrate the daily successes. Whether a project was a full-scale campaign, or a small redesign, when the creative team sees or hears the word approved, it feels like a win every time. 

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