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Context, Culture, Creative: Designing for Super Bowl Sunday

It’s my privilege and honor to reflect on nearly a decade of working on the National Football League’s (NFL) Super Bowl Décor program. This work, which starts new each year, systematically transforms host cities for fans, players, volunteers, staff and TV viewers—from the Super Bowl stadium to the team hotels to Opening Night to VVIP hospitality spaces. 


Pulling off a program of this scale is a massive undertaking. When faced with hundreds of touchpoints, graphic consistency can be illusive. Yet the GMR Experience Design team must deliver one cohesive system across hundreds of files inside dozens of unique environments. That rigor demands a lot from our StoryMakers—extreme attention to detail, expert-level understanding of operations and fabrication, unparalleled project management, strong relationships between clients and designers, vendor partners that have the same vision for greatness and, above all, progressive taste. 


Only adding to the complexity of the task, every year all the variables completely change. It’s our job to take the NFL’s themed style guide and bring it to life—to define the how and why; determine what combination of assets tell the best story. Holistically, the Décor program is about how design impacts the fan experience—where we create a world that people want to drop into, experience something they’ll never forget, and never want to leave. Foundationally, we consider three things: context, culture, and creative.


The right looks in the right places are tremendously powerful and persuasive, which is what makes context so important. To do this, we become scientists—immersing ourselves into the habits of humans and spaces. We stay curious about what’s next, ask why and then ask again—using wonder as a springboard for inspiration, discovering never-have-we-ever solutions.


Examples make this easier:

  • What if we immerse ourselves in each venue on a normal day and observe everyone turns left when they enter? How would that impact our decision-making around coverage. 
  • What if we can develop a system that is “dimensionless” to work under unknown circumstances, across many locations? Value-engineering a kit of parts that helps future-proof the execution phase, ensuring ease of install and mitigates reprints.
  • What if there is a new material 3M is currently testing that would be perfect to refract light and appear luxurious at a minimal cost? Finding wiggle in budgets to do even more.


The best design systems keep fans hopeful—living between joy and awe, sparked by anticipation. Our job each year is to bring two cultures together: football culture and city culture. With our storied history in Super Bowl experience excellence, we deeply understand the football fan and the NFL brand. But we always ask ourselves how we can push this brand into the future. How can we evolve to engage the future fan? We lean into behavioral intelligence and data. But that’s only part of the equation. 


We start with immersion trips. The minute one Super Bowl ends we start on the next one, traveling to the new host city to explore the food, art, nature, and architecture. Then we take our learnings and weave that experience into our strategic design approach—seamlessly joining sport with culture. 


NFL continues to look to GMR as the agency that has mastered complexity without sacrificing beauty. Our work influences how millions of people (around the world) think, feel, and behave—through a uniquely crafted and applied aesthetic.


Progressive taste in system design is about pushing past a style guide, mastering the layers through time and space. Like the taco dip you eat mid-game, each ingredient matters, and you would not put hot sauce in between every layer—that would be a wild and indigestible choice. Same is true when approaching complex design ecosystems. Rules I live by: 

  • Don’t put a logo on everything. 
  • Don’t treat everything the same. 
  • Give it care, intent, and purpose. 
  • Every piece must hold its own, shining as an individual and work together – one vision customized to context. 

The beauty of art is we can depend on science and how our brains interpret information—this is called the sequence of cognition. First, we see shape—a distinguished edge, a disruptive form, a repeating pattern. Next is color—playful or dramatic, on-brand or purposefully juxtaposed. Only then if shape and color are accessible and engaging, do we process the message (e.g. a logo, headline or call to action).  


You can experience this yourself by studying our largest building hit yet, the SBLVII super graphic dominating the entire west lawn of State Farm Stadium. This year, with our trusted production partner bluemedia, we installed 50,000 square feet of material, almost larger than the football field itself. Notice how your eye processes shape, then color, then content. Part art, part magic.


One of the influential quotes that continues to drive my actions as a creative leader: “A brilliant idea without the ability to execute is just a hallucination.” Context, culture and creative are great but nothing without the ability to execute flawlessly. That is why the NFL continues to trust us year over year. While we’ve been at this almost a decade, these reps don’t mean we’ve learned it all—it means the bar continues to move. The more you know, the more hunger you have to keep pushing, finding a new threshold of what’s possible. It means you learn how to be a student at the crossroads of art and situational leadership. 


Few projects have this kind of reach and it’s all coming out of GMR’s Experience Design department. If you’re looking for a new partner and want to learn the transformative role of design – come find me. We take pride in creating client partnerships that nurture trust, value critique, and lift you to be even better.

State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, ready for Super Bowl LVII