Andy Cooke

Design & direction across brand identity, screen and print

Design is a Team Sport

And we win when we work together

  1. 2,165 words
  2. 10 minute read

I’ve said this a number of times in various pieces of my writing about design. It’s easy to get, as a lot of people can relate to being a sports fan of some kind. As a fan, you are essentially a customer of the institution you are supporting. Much of the modern sports game is heavily commercialised, turning customers of the game into customers of other things. But jerseys, scarves and team flags aside, the main product is the game itself—and by being an enthused follower—this qualifies you as a consumer.

As an engaged person in the game, who cares about the outcome, you expect the team to be a functioning outfit that work hard and communicate amongst each other throughout playing time. You urge them to come up with solutions to the problem of getting the ball in the goal (okay, I’ve tried to keep the analogy neutral so far, but now I’ve landed on football). You also expect them to train outside of games, to develop, to get better at working together.


In football, a good starting eleven has talent in various positions, all of whom have different skills and specialisms. These players tend to have varying levels of experience, very much on purpose. One of the key things to making this starting line-up a strong one, is to have what is called a strong ‘Spine’. An obvious reference to a pretty major anatomical feature, a strong spine consists of players with experience and talent who are regular starters that work well together. Usually starting with the goalkeeper, and running through key areas in the defence, midfield and attack, when this spine breaks down (whether players being sidelined through injury or a lack of communication on the pitch for instance), the team is at a disadvantage and in a weakened state.

But when they are all fully fit and have experience of playing together, they are more likely to lift an entire team’s performance through their traits that put them to the top of the game in the first place. Often there is a clear leader who is a central figure in the spine. This is the team’s captain. The whole team looks to the captain for guidance on the field, to be the one to cover every blade of grass as if their life depended on it. The captain is the shining example of what every player on the team should strive to emulate.

Considering a design team’s formation, a strong spine is also key.

A strong Owner, Developer, Manager and Director would ensure a solid team performance

Spines can come in many forms. The example here is just that; an example. Those in the formation, and the spine, will ultimately change depending on team size (think how this translates to 5-a-side), opponent (i.e. client) and many more parameters.

There is usually a balance between their roles that cover difference phases of a design process. In the example here, between the Product Owner, either a Front-end or Back-end Developer, a Project Manager and Art Director, there are multiple aspects of the task at hand covered—the ones driving the project and keeping it going (The PO and PM), those covering any technical aspects (either FE / BE) along with any visual considerations (the AD).


The best football teams on the planet are known for having the best youth systems, where players from the ages as early as eight are scouted and signed into their academies. The development of the next generation of players is widely celebrated, with superstar teenagers lighting up the world stage and demanding transfer fees in the hundreds of millions. Bonkers, really.

The same should go for design teams. The vast array of hungry, talented students that are released into the wild every summer need to be snapped up, put into training with a team in the industry and developed alongside seasoned professionals. When they’re ready, they might sit on the substitutes bench or if they’re really good, force their way into the first team line-up.

Sometimes, a group of extraordinary young players can come together at the right moment and alter the destiny of an entire team. This happens once in a generation, but when it does, awards flow — but with them — pressure. It’s important that even with their talents, they are surrounded with a network of experienced players that can push them in the right direction so they don’t succumb to injury. It’s the responsibility of the Creative Director, team captain and other senior members of the design team to ensure these young creatives don’t burnout, so they can go on to fulfill their full potential. Doing this will bolster the reality of good work that solves real world problems in the future, as the best young designers now will go on to be great directors later.


These are the people who are responsible for the whole team’s performance. They put in a bad game, everyone looks to the individual screaming on the sidelines (the Head Coach), their boss (say, the Director of Football) and eventually the board / owners (CEO). In design team terms, the Head Coach is usually the Creative Director. Their boss can be the Managing Director or VPs, and the owners are the Managing Directors watching from the stands.

Often, they’re not the ones playing. They’re doing the planning, monitoring progress and guiding the entire ship towards a bigger goal. Maybe that’s an award after a series of game wins, altering a wider culture or putting a product or service on the map much like a good head coach does. But ultimately, the buck stops with those who are directing the whole team.

The Creative Director knows the game, because they used to be a player. Maybe a superstar forward, maybe in the middle pulling the strings. They’re the closest to the action come game-time, and it’s their ideas and vision that direct the whole team. They’re the face and voice of the operation, the one speaking to the media (or accepting design awards) and while they take all the praise when the team wins, they also bear the brunt when it loses.


Results are gifted to the teams that put in the hard work either side of Saturday, when nobody’s watching, when it’s not at all glamorous. Away from the floodlights and big crowds, the constant practice of theory and methodology separates those who are successful and those who are not.

Training as a design team comes in many forms. The most obvious is the day-to-day of the studio, chipping away with exercises, meetings and workshops. One important aspect is the social aspect of being in a team. I put this firmly in the training circle of the team sport Venn diagram. When you’re pitching to stakeholders, having an understanding of your team-mate’s personality should be an aid in that setting. Knowing if somebody is knowledgeable about a certain technical aspect of the design is one thing, but really knowing how a person comes across in selling an idea or when up against a wall, is another thing entirely. People flourish in these scenarios when they are comfortable with each other, and we get to be comfortable by pushing through the awkward barriers in not knowing our team mates in social settings. Don’t underestimate the power of team building, bonding and barrier-breaking.

When it comes to solitary training (as let’s face it, there’s only so much socialising you can do with people you spend all day with anyway), if you’re not willing to do the extra reading, go to the creative meetups, talks and conferences, or practice the craft, you’re already putting you and your team at a disadvantage. Just like football, the design game is in a constant state of flux, where innovative techniques and new ideas are changing the way designers learn and understand the challenges that lay before them. There is no better case study of this than the internet itself. One can look back 5 years, 10 years, 15 years (and so on), and witness countless steps forward in how we design for this medium. It’s so new, that by the time something is defined as ‘best practice’, it’s already on it’s way out as just that. Without this knowledge, others will succeed instead of you by creating better, more appropriate solutions to problems. You can forget the open-bus trophy parade.

Ego is a big parameter here, and can be a factor with young designers who see themselves as qualified because they have a degree, or when they’ve won an award. They rest on their laurels and whilst they are good, they’re jeopardising how good they can be by not putting in the hours practicing what they’re good at. So — read the books. Listen to the podcasts. Read the blog posts. Do the Skillshare courses. Go in an hour, two hours early. Put the graft in and study all the time you can (while, you know, maintaining a healthy work-life balance. I did already mention burnout before).

The best designers are the ones who are always learning, who are never satisfied with what they already know. Same goes for footballers.


A central component to every team sport, effective communication can mean the difference between scoring or not, and conceding or not. Football fans will testify to seeing countless calamities in conceding goals when the Goalkeeper doesn’t give the Centre-back a shout that they’ve got the long ball covered. Likewise at the other end, a call to leave a ball running to a teammate in a better position to score can be the difference in the momentum of a game.

We practice communication through the visual medium every day in the design studio, and we all know that having strong verbal and written communication skills helps us sell in ideas to the decision-makers. We have to remember this truth when working together, and practice the art of speaking to each other regularly, with respect and with candour.

I’ve written before about the importance of listening in the research phase of a project. The same goes for here, in team settings. Everyone must be open to listening to everyone else, to push ego aside and the matters of experience over youth. Every person in the room should feel comfortable in speaking their mind and knowing that others will show the sincerity of accepting their opinions and thoughts.


Different players will naturally play better together than others. Partnerships will form and sixth senses will develop. This is completely natural, and should be nurtured. If the two forwards are constantly aware of each others’ position, synergy is central to the likelihood of the ball going into the back of the net.

Goals in this analogy equate to solving problems, and the entire game is the brief. Problems can be solved by anyone on the field at any time, depending on the type of problem at hand and the one best suited to solve it.

There are multiple ways to score. It’s not just down to the forwards, or in the case of the design studio, those putting the visuals together near the end of the process after a lot of build-up play. Sometimes, and rather crucially for a team to win consistently, players in other positions need to score, too.

But it’s not just about scoring —consider the equivalent of a Goalkeeper saving a penalty kick, or a Defender clearing the ball off the line to keep your team in the game. The best design teams have UX Researchers that discover insights early on in the build up, Design Directors that run the game in the middle of the park and Developers who put the extra hours in training to go the distance later on. This is the essence of the team game mentality.

How your design team’s tactics work depend fully on the brief, just like the opposition. Each one is different, with their own challenges to overcome. Different briefs will require different people to solve different problems compared to the ones before. What’s key is that your team have depth in tactical ability, so that there is always a creative approach you can take.


It’s all well and good having a strong spine, experienced management, training plans mapped out and tactics in place. But if the team doesn’t come together when it really matters on game day, then it’s all for nothing.

Working together, in the truest sense of the word, is the most important thing come game day. It’s imperative that there is support of the vision coming from the management, that there is belief in each others ability on the field and that each player understands what each player is there to do.

Get in formation. Understand the game plan. Play your heart out.