Tyson Beck has worked for every major sports league and athletic brand you can think of, and he’s done it all from an unassuming office in Adelaide. Nima Sobhani speaks to the Australian designer about his work ethic, his connection to Kobe, and the secret to succeeding on your own terms.
By now, the rise of Adelaide-born and raised graphic designer Tyson Beck has been well-documented. Told to not return for the final year of his Advanced Diploma in Graphic Design — by his lecturer, of all people — because ‘there’s no point’ as ‘no one gets jobs’ in the field in his hometown. Working 5 nights a week at a department store, often past midnight, then coming home and working on his design projects until 6 in the morning before heading right back out again for school. And getting one of his first paid gigs at the age of 17, designing for his favourite NBA team, the Los Angeles Lakers.
Beck’s journey is the ultimate testament to the advice he offers all those aspiring designers who ask: work hard and stay patient. On the cusp of his 30th birthday this year, and having just entered fatherhood, it all seems to be paying off. An industry leader in the world of sports design, Beck counts major American leagues such as the NBA, MLB, NFL, NHL clients of his, alongside global brands such as Nike, Adidas, and Under Armour. Last year, the emergent Australian apparel brand First Ever, sole outfitter for all 9 NBL teams, asked Beck to design jerseys for 3 teams during the 2019-2020, including his hometown Adelaide 36’ers.
We caught up with Beck for a chat, reflecting on his journey over the past decade, pondering what the future might hold, and getting a glimpse into the psyche of this Australian design superstar. Below is an interview with him, edited and condensed for clarity.
In terms of your design work, you’ve kept your options open by working across different sporting leagues and competing brands such as Nike, Adidas, and Under Armour. What’s been your thinking and motivation behind that?
As a creative, I feel most at ease and fulfilled when I’m able to provide my services to a wide range of people, rather than being closed in a box. You know, where I’d have to work with one specific brand, a team or a particular league’s style guide — their fonts, logos, and colours. For me, to wake up everyday and jump on a project, when I’m working between different clients and brands, I feel so much more fulfilled. That’s the one working rule I have when these companies and brands approach me. I can’t work for them if they want a ‘non-compete’; I have unfortunately lost some big projects because of that. I’m not full-time (with these brands), it’s usually one specific project, so why would I limit myself to what I can do outside of that? It’s kind of like signing yourself away. So if I have any of that in my contract, I usually hit them up and ask whether we can remove the ‘non-compete’. 9 times out of 10, the companies will remove it, and they’re more than happy to go forward with it.
For me, it’s also about pushing my brand out. I feel that these brands and companies are coming to me not because they want a design project filled, but because they want ‘Tyson Beck’ to do it. I think that’s the leverage I have, because if they’re coming to me, and they want me specifically, I can say ‘I can work with you, but I’m also going to work with your competitor at the same time’.
What kind of opportunity would make you consider settling down with just one brand or organization for a period of time? Is there a ‘Godfather’ type offer out there for you?
It’s only right that I go to my bucket list — I made myself a bucket list when I was in high school, when I started playing around with Photoshop, doing stuff for fun as a kid. I’ve ticked off basically every single thing off my bucket list: to work for the NBA; design a trading card; to work for the Lakers. The only thing I haven’t done on that bucket list — there were about 10 other things on there — was to design a shoe for Michael Jordan. I mean I’m not even in that space, I’m not a footwear designer, but I used to be huge on the sneaker culture. So if Jordan hit me up and said ‘let’s make a shoe together,’ I’d have to do it. Then at least when I look back at my career, I could say I was able to tick off every single thing off my bucket list. It’s good to have ambitious goals.
Speaking of ambition: anyone who follows you knows that Kobe is your all-time favourite player. You had the chance to meet him in 2009 at a Lakers home game, and then met him for the second time a decade later in 2019, down in Melbourne. Did he remember you? How did it feel, considering how far you’ve come in those 10 years?
[Editor’s note: This interview was conducted in December 2019, a few weeks before the tragic passing of Kobe Bryant]
Yeah, it was very surreal. I walked in there thinking he wouldn’t remember me, even though we follow each other on Twitter. When I did my ACL, he reached out to me on Twitter, DM’d me, giving me some advice on my recovery. It was a nice message, which was pretty cool. So when I met him 10 years later, they were just shuffling people through. I went up to him and said ‘Hey Kobe, I’ve done some work with you before, and with Panini’ — who handle his memorabilia artwork. As soon as I said that, he goes ‘I know you, you’re Tyson Beck!’ It was nuts, him knowing my name.
We had a short conversation. He was interested in what I’m doing, because he’s now involved in the creative world as well. He’s into storytelling, runs his own creative studio, so he just asked me how I was working with these brands, how I’m getting my name out there, how I’ve been able to secure these kinds of things. I simply said how I’m trying to build my brand—I’m not doing design work by request, I’m trying to have people come to me to get design work done by me, as opposed to by an agency or something like that. He responded with ‘I absolutely f***ing love your work’, asked his manager to pull me aside and grab my details, then said he’d love to collab in the future — maybe that future collab will happen someday.
Kobe’s my guy. I feel as though I wouldn’t be where I am today if I didn’t follow Kobe’s career. He was the best NBA player at that moment, but he was still the hardest worker. He would have been the best player on his team for almost all those 20 seasons in his career. But he would have been the hardest worker for every single season. So I took that approach myself. Maybe that’s why I was only getting 3-4 hours of sleep a night; I was just trying to perfect my craft. And that was Kobe’s mindset. Just get better at your craft every day.
You recently spent 3 weeks in the US (in November 2019). What were some of the highlights of your trip?
I went to a bunch of NBA games, 10 of them. Definitely one of the highlights was the Mavs vs Knicks game, Porzingis’ first game back at MSG. The atmosphere, the electricity, it was New York — they were all over him, it was full on. It was great to be a part of that atmosphere. I was also fortunate enough to check out the offices of Barstool Sports, Overtime, MLB, NBA, MLS. I was able to speak to some of their creative teams. The two that stood out were MLB and Overtime. I sat there in front of a whole team of people, and they asked me a bunch of questions. It was just crazy — I come from Adelaide, Australia and here I am in New York. Doesn’t matter if I have X amount of followers online, I just view myself as someone who works at home, in my studio, and the fact that I’m going to New York, and visiting these multi-billion dollar companies and leagues, and they have their whole creative teams listening to me and asking questions, that’s just wild to me. The fact that people actually value my voice and my experience in the creative sports field, is a bit mind-blowing and very humbling. It was an unreal experience.
You tweeted something about Popeye’s Chicken Sandwich not meeting anywhere near the hype. Care to expand?
[Laughs] I eat a lot of junk food — if anyone knows me, I eat a lot of junk food – which is a bad thing. But the fact that I go over there, and these social media trends that pick up, ‘Oh, Popeyes, Popeyes!’ and everyone runs out to get them. But you eat it, and it’s just kinda like… ‘this is stale?’ They’re not even that good. The KFC Zinger burger that has been around for like 20 years is better than that [laughs].
Social media has changed the game for you, in terms of getting your work out to the masses, as well as directly to the athletes. Do you have any cool stories of a player reaching out to share their appreciation of your work?
Probably the thing that connected with the most NBA players was a series I did for fun, a haircut series. It was something like ‘fresh cuts, old faces’ and then I did the reverse, ‘fresh faces, old cuts’; I was putting old haircuts on new players, and then new haircuts on old players. And that just kind of blew up, that piece went the most viral out of any piece. There were something like 29 million impressions in the first 3 days on social, which is just nuts. The amount of NBA players that hit me up because of that was just crazy. Giannis messaged asking whether he should get cornrows; Dirk sent me a few emojis; Ben Simmons did the crying face, and the coolest thing was that D-Wade ended up getting the same haircut I gave him. I know he would have seen the post, because he also interacted with it.
I actually did another series similar to that one, but never ended up releasing it. I didn’t want to be known as the guy who would only create these photoshops, but it was the same concept: old players with new fashion, and new players with old fashion. I had LeBron James walking in with the big fur coat that Magic Johnson used to wear, or Michael Jordan walking in with the wild Westbrook style clothes. But I didn’t release it—I didn’t want to just become this meme creator. Thought it’d be best to give it some space so I could focus on more creative, bigger-picture type work than that. Who knows though, maybe one day I’ll share it.
What are your thoughts on the resurgence of the NBL over the past five years?
The resurgence of the NBL and Australian basketball is just magnificent. Our greatest basketballer ever, Andrew Gaze, I remember he went on record just before Larry Kestelman took over, and said the NBL needs to fold; it needs to shut down for a year before it can move on. At that point, such a statement was true. It was in bad shape, growth kept declining. But what it’s become now, it’s insane. I think basketball might be the #1 registered and played sport in the country? And because of those numbers, it shouldn’t be hard for basketball to succeed, because everyone loves basketball here, it’s such a big thing.
I think it just came down to having a guy [Larry Kestelman] come in, he knew what to do. He knew how to promote the league, about making it an entertainment package. It’s not just basketball, it’s bigger than that now. You go to games and it’s also about the music playing, you can meet players after the game, there’s fire going off after somebody hits a 3, it’s now more similar to the NBA. They’ve done an incredible job.
By the way, congrats on becoming a father! How has having your first child changed your life, your approach to work, and your overall outlook?
It’s changed so much. It’s all about time management now. Before, I could be a bit more selfish, and focus on myself. Since having a child with my wife Alana, I’ve definitely had to prioritise my work and my family. It’s all about balancing things. Our daughter is only 18 months old so I’m far from an expert, but I do feel like I am getting better at managing things. I work when I can, sleep when I can. It’s all pretty crazy, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
You’ve mentioned in the past about getting only 4 hours of sleep a night due to the sheer volume of your work. Has that changed with your daughter’s arrival?
It’s certainly changed. I get much more sleep now — and that’s actually due to health reasons. I unfortunately suffered two seizures about 18 months ago, and that was triggered by a lack of sleep. There would be weeks where I’d pull all-nighters, getting 2-3 hours sleep in the lead-up to a project being completed. My body just couldn’t handle it. As soon as that happened, we kind of circled it back and realised ‘oh, both times the seizures happened it was in periods where I wasn’t getting enough sleep’. So that’s completely changed my outlook; sleep is so important, but because I was younger, I felt like I could grind through everything. But what’s the point of working your entire life if you’re not able to live life later on?
I was literally running on 4 hours of sleep a night for a solid 5 years. When it went to doing all-nighters, and 2 hours sleep, that’s when everything came crashing down. I do feel really good now. Getting more sun, getting more fresh air, living my life a little more outside of work.
Lastly, can you tell us about any up-and-coming designers that reflect the increasing globalisation and diversity of the game? Any that particularly excite and inspire you?
On a recent trip to the States, I noticed that the community of art and design is becoming increasingly diverse. At the 76ers showcase, artists from 11 different countries were involved. And at Warriors and Raptors exhibitions in previous years, there would have been at least 20+ countries represented. And even though we’re talking about an American league, to have artists and designers from 20 countries is pretty amazing to me. In terms of someone who’s coming up, there’s one dude that’s absolutely killing it. He goes by ‘boblian1206’ (on Instagram). He does the most incredible illustrations. A lot of the teams and leagues around the world are hitting him up for work. The thing that sets him apart from others is that he’s able to tell a story in his artwork. He has such a distinctive, cartoon-caricature type style. It’s the way he puts these athletes into these weird, wacky, and wonderful stories. If you haven’t seen him, he is incredible. He’s someone who represents this new wave of basketball creatives, and also shows how social media has changed everything. He came out of nowhere, started a couple years ago, had no followers, and now he’s got around 165,000 followers on Instagram through posting basketball art and these cool cartoons.