Sports Designer, Jeremy
Nelson, On Carving A Career From Your Hobbies
Jeremy Nelson is a designer from Philadelphia, USA. Having grown up playing sports, along with a burning passion for anything creatively stimulating, Jeremy sought after a career that would blend the two in some way. Now running his own design business where he specialises in creative design for sports teams and brands, it seems he's done just that! We caught up with Jeremy to get his perspective on what it takes to be successful working in the creative side of sports, and what inspires his unparalleled craft.
So Jeremy, tell us a bit about where it all began for you and how you came to designing for brands in the sports sector?
Taking it way back to the beginning, I’d say the roots were first planted by lego, scotch tape, and little league (baseball). Perhaps like many individuals in the field, I grew up as an active kid and always had the need to be moving. Baseball, soccer, hockey, basketball, swimming, skiing - pretty much anything to get outside and move - was a part of my life at one point or another. It was pretty informal and nothing like the highly specialised youth programmes out there now, but the physical, competitive, and creative nature of sport has always been engaging and energising for me. Simultaneously, I’ve always gravitated towards the arts and creative activities. Drawing and making things was something I had a knack for when I was younger. I wasn’t necessarily great at it from the jump but my parents really encouraged it and over time I think the hours just added up. Like sports, it was also something I could do with family. My earliest ‘sports design’ memory is of drawing NHL logos, particularly the Florida Panthers crest, with my cousin who was a total hockey bum. I also wasn’t very picky about how I was creative. Lego, Knex, Hotwheels, and Paper Airplaines, all had their day. I even got a twelve-roll pack of scotch tape for Christmas once because of all the experiments I was trying!
"Whether it’s a layout, typeface, or logo, there’s a necessary period of experimentation, pushing the boundaries, and exploring potential design solutions that I really enjoy. In a way, it’s like cracking a code or solving a puzzle."
Things took a big turn on the athletics side when I found Lacrosse. From day one I was hooked, and the more I played, the more I was drawn in. Throughout high school and college, I poured almost all my attention and energy into sport and put my creative pursuits on the back-burner. It wasn’t until my last year in college when I'd accumulated a number of injuries, even to the point where I was sitting out my senior year, that I really gave the arts and a creative future much attention.
After college it took a little time to figure out what my next move would be. I actually thought that I wanted to get into sports performance training for a while, so I interned at a local strength and conditioning gym, coached, and taught lacrosse for half a year. But pretty quickly, I realised that this wasn’t the right path for me and around the same time I was lucky enough to land an apprentice position with Adidas. As a natural combination of two of my greatest passions, it seemed like a natural place to start! That’s where things began to pick up for me and where my ‘professional’ career started.
Would you say there is something in the rigour of your athletic pursuits that translates into your creative output and work ethic?
Yes, definitely. One thing that I think is particularly unique to our type, and which for me personally has been very influential, is the mentality and competitive mindset developed on the field that I think naturally carries over to creative pursuits. The commitment to excellence, putting in the work, and developing your craft is drilled into you as an athlete and, speaking for myself, has transferred seamlessly to my work off the field. I know art schools, especially at the higher level can be very competitive, but I think the demands placed on an athlete, especially the relational and interpersonal demands of team dynamics and working with coaches, captains, and a larger group, are exceptional. I think that these really lend themselves to a well-rounded result in business.
Who / what inspires your work most?
That’s a hard one to pin-point. Inspiration comes in so many different forms and in so many ways, but if I try to dial in on the core, I'd say it has to be the people, athletes, stories, and dreams with which my work is connected. From a purely energetic standpoint, those are the things that get me amped about a new project, or keep me going when the hours start to pile up.
For all the aspiring freelancers out there, what have you found is the most effective way of getting your work seen by major sports brands/clubs and securing a commissioned job?
Full transparency here, most of my work has been in-house on the agency or brand side or the equation, so I’m sill figuring out the hurdles of freelancing. But speaking from my experience so far, I think the type of work you want to pursue really determines the strategy you take when trying to approach or engage a potential client. Creating concept work and tagging a team on social may work for some types of work, but I’ve never heard of a team directly hiring a single creative to rebrand their club as a direct result of this. As frustrating as it is, I think Chris Do puts it well when he says, “Clients don’t choose the best option, they choose the least risky option.” Understanding that competitive athletics is a business just as much as it is entertainment is very important. The larger the project, the more there is at risk. With low risk projects, like a one-off post-game graphic, I think there’s more opportunity for clubs to take a chance or work with a new designer that doesn’t have the track record a major agency would.
But no matter your goal, the quality of work has to be there. As cliché as it sounds, relationships go a long way in moving the ball up the court. Be active in the community you're wanting to be a part of. It may not pay off immediately but when opportunities come up people need to know your name!
Tell us a bit about the design process behind your projects. What’s the first step in any sports project and what are some of your favourite/most challenging aspects of your creative process?
I think there are some core steps that have to be taken in order to reach a successful outcome for any project. Firstly, identifying what the goals of a project are and why those goals have been set is critical. The depth of your understanding directly influences the depth and precision of the design solutions you create. Sometimes this might mean helping a client understand their own situation a little better before moving forward, but a common understanding and alignment on the project goals are key. Second is research. This happens in so many ways (books, the Internet, in-person meetings, conversations, immersing yourself in the world of the client and their particular market, research trips), but whether it’s a single illustration or a full team re-brand... do your research! Above almost anything else, I think the narrative and meaning behind a design is what gives it real weight.
No doubt, my favourite part of the process is the ideation and concept exploration phase. Whether it’s a layout, typeface, or logo, there’s a necessary period of experimentation, pushing the boundaries, and exploring potential design solutions that I really enjoy. In a way, it’s like cracking a code or solving a puzzle.
The most challenging part can come at different points, but generally, I think the worst is when there’s a weak foundation or underdeveloped concept for design direction. Without a strong anchor to ground the project, solutions just tend to feel contrived and somewhat lifeless.
"The commitment to excellence, putting in the work, and developing your craft is drilled into you as an athlete and, speaking for myself, has transferred seamlessly to my work off the field."
Has there been a particular stand out project for you, or a pivotal moment so far that has changed your career?
No career-changing moments just yet, but there are a few projects that stand out, even though some never even saw the light of day! When I was with Adidas, the first time I had one of my concepts selected for a pitch to an NHL team was huge. Even though it didn’t land, it was enough encouragement that I began to imagine a successful future in the industry.
Another great project that I was part of at Adidas was the Adizero NHL Uniform launch campaign. A huge shout-out to my CD Frank Dipinto for throwing so much at me and giving me the opportunity to shoulder a heavier load! Like athletics, it’s not until you’re uncomfortable that you begin to truly grow. On this one, I was tested in so many different ways. New creative responsibilities, a much larger workload, and responsibility to manage much of it independently showed me what it was like to be taken out of your creative comfort zone, adapt, evolve, and still deliver. The vast majority of my growth has been a slow-burn, but those are two that really stand out.
Most of your work is centred around creating brand identities for respected American sports teams and organisations. Is there any other type of design work you’d like to explore/brand out to in the coming years?
One hundred per cent. I don’t think I’ll ever leave the sports design space, but I’d love to diversify. Working my way into the health and wellness space is on my list, and something I really want to do in the near future. The impact my work has is often the most fulfilling part of creating something and I’d love to align my work more directly with the goal of inspiring an active and healthy future. Taking that a step further, the outdoors/adventure/wilderness industry would also be one I'd like to plug into someday. I'm not a hard-core adventurer by any stretch but have always loved the outdoors and would love to connect more with that vertical. I'm also looking to do more work with non-profit organisations and philanthropically-minded businesses. Sport and athletics are a fantastic pursuit, but I also want to use my skills to contribute to solving the more serious issues in our world!
Finally, as our name suggests, here at Mantra we’re curious about what keeps our favourite creatives driven and pushing forward. What’s your personal mantra, Jeremy?
Don’t be a statistic, create the future.
Check out more of Jeremy's work here.