Cyrus Coleman looking to the right, smiling, beard, short hair, bolo tie

Cyrus Coleman

2016, B.F.A., Communication Design: Graphic Design
Senior Product Graphic Designer — NBA uniforms, Nike, Beaverton, Ore.

Instagram: Calm Cool Creative
LinkedIn: Cyrus Coleman
Video: MLK Design

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

My name is Cyrus Clark Coleman. My father is Tony “TC” Coleman, drummer, formerly 30 years playing with BB King. My grandfather was “King” Coleman, a National Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame musician and DJ of the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, New York City. Another claim to fame of his is inventing the Mashed Potato Dance with James Brown. My great uncle was Willard Brown, Negro League and Major League Hall of Fame baseball player who was the first black baseball player to hit a home run in the American League. Every BB King concert I went to, I was personally introduced to the crowd with the band by the legend himself.

Art and athletics have always been the focal point of my life and interests. I was born and raised in Austin, Texas, so football was my sport of choice. These ingredients are what led me to UNT.

I decided to go to the University of North Texas primarily because I heard that UNT was an esteemed art school with a Division 1-level athletics program. At that time, my primary dream was playing football for a D1 school and going pro. I did not get a lot of looks as an undersized defensive end out of high school, even though I was pretty good — I was team captain and defensive MVP of my team — so I figured I could go to UNT and do both arts and football like I had my entire life.

Since the UNT football program was trash, I figured walking on and doing art simultaneously like I had my whole life prior would be easy. While going through the process to walk on, I learned the Communication Design program was a top 10 program in the nation that would require far more attention than I anticipated. I was forced to pick a lane when the football team required a clear schedule until noon, and the Comm Design classes were only offered in the morning. I decided right there to hedge my bets and relinquish dreams of the NFL. It wasn’t an easy path, which I’ll unpack in some of the other questions, but I have no regrets. I’ve worked at Nike for seven years since I was fresh out of college in 2016, and have been blessed to be a part of the Nike basketball apparel design team creating fire uniforms for the NBA, WNBA, and NCAA.

Tell us about a defining moment in your professional career or a particular moment in your career that meaningfully altered your trajectory.

Basketball player wearing an MLK commemorative uniform shirtMonday, Oct. 10, 2016. Day one of my new job as a Graphic Designer I for Nike Basketball Apparel T-shirts.

I was being walked through my new design team’s different areas and being shown work on boards, much like in our design reviews in Comm Design. For context, Nike had just signed the NBA account and was taking over the uniform outfitting responsibilities from Adidas, so there was a lot of energy in the new chassis design and new editions being dreamt up. One program, in particular, was City Edition, a team’s fourth colorway that wasn’t confined to a team’s normal colors to allow for deeper storytelling around the stories iconic to the city, culture, and the franchise.

I was being shown work for the Los Angeles Lakers during a show-and-tell. They explained to me that Kobe Bryant would be in the building next Monday and asked if I would want to throw down on some uniform design options inspired by the man, the myth, the legend himself!? It was all hands on deck, so I was allowed to test my chops even though I knew literally nothing about uniform design and was technically hired to draw pictures for t-shirts. Obviously, I jumped at the chance and had some ideas mocked up for the deck by the end of the week.

So, the next Monday rolled around, and I walked to my desk, and low and behold, there to my left was Kobe Bryant, sitting patiently, waiting to enter the room, where he’ll be pitched on his shoes, signature apparel line, and uniform. On the inside, I AM ABSOLUTELY FREAKING THE F*** OUT. On the outside, I acted like this was a normal occurrence at Nike, which it is, and I continued walking to my desk without saying a word.

So, the morning goes by, and that afternoon I’m at my desk jamming on some other uniform design ideas and the creative director for the NBA uniform design team swings by to tell me how the pitch went. He tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Yo! Kobe picked your option. F*** tees. You’re working on uniforms now!”

Basketball player wearing a black and purple uniformAnd that’s the story of how the first thing I ever designed for Nike was the Black Mamba City Edition uniform inspired by Kobe Bryant for the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers… Rest In Peace.

This was the first of many amazing products and moments I’ve gotten to have a hand in creating and experiencing during my time at Nike. Others include but aren’t limited to the Prince City Edition for the Minnesota Timberwolves and the MLK City Edition for the Atlanta Hawks, just to name a few. If we ever have the chance to meet, I’d love to tell you those crazy stories as well.

There’s no dream too big. Believe in yourself. Put in the work. Make it happen.

Can you share the story of when you’ve had to pivot in your creative journey?

Let’s be honest. The UNT design program is a mother******, and you, I and the lovely faculty know it! You hear the rumors of the innate insanity of a ringer with which they put the students through, and they even tell you upfront, “This is going to be the hardest thing you ever do. It will require your full attention and rule your college life. But if you put in the work, make it through the portfolio gauntlet every year and graduate, it will pay off for you big time. The real world will be a cakewalk compared to this.”

They were right. I didn’t want to believe it could be that hard… but I learned the hard way. I didn’t make it into the program my freshman year because, at the time, they had an illustrator proficiency test which learned about the week prior and failed.

“S***, now I’ll be here another year and graduate late.”

I have always been "the talented art kid," so it was the first time I had been challenged to be better. I was even voted “Most likely to paint the next Mona Lisa” in my high school, as corny as that sounds. However, I always had other interests and prioritized my sports life and the activities that surround that over my art life. So even after I made it into the program my sophomore year and had some early success in the program, I was admittedly coasting.

For example, I did a type poster that Karen Dorff briefed in Type I class, and I was assigned the song “Rubber Band Man.” Those words were drawn like rubber bands, and the lyrics were set super small in some of the letter’s counters. Eric Ligon walked in, and Karen was kind of showing it off, so he asked me, “What point size are the lyrics set to?”

To which I replied, “I don’t know, just really small.”

He ripped me hard for not knowing, and my tail wag went limp between my legs. It was seven points! You happy, Ligon, d***!?

I digress.

My coast didn’t stop, though. I was in my junior year and still trying to do the party and bull-s*** college lifestyle, but to compensate, I really f***** up my sleep schedule. I was pulling all-nighters every other day, which caught up to me during finals week of the fall semester. I had a car accident on my way home for Thanksgiving and was mentally destroyed for about a year and a half.

“Shit, now I’m gonna be three years behind.”

During that time, I dropped out to focus on my health but still planned to finish what I started at UNT. I came back stronger than ever. I earned an internship at Tractorbeam — and won third place in the senior portfolio category at DSVC [Dallas Society of Visual Communications]. I was also a part of seven professional DSVC awards with Tractorbeam during my senior year. And then, a month after I graduated, I landed my dream job at Nike.

I’m super grateful for all of that experience. Especially the hard lessons learned. There is no correct way to reach the finish line. But focus, determination, and the willingness to overcome inevitable adversity, no matter how big or small, will start to pile up. Stand on that pile, reach the next tier of your goals, and keep doing that. It never stops.

Did you participate in an internship or apprenticeship while you were in college? What lessons did you learn there that have proven helpful in your career?

Getting an internship as a student designer is competitive. Many talented young designers are in the DFW area, most of whom are your classmates. I managed to land an interview with Tractorbeam (Tractorbeam was the best agency at the time, in my humble opinion) in an unorthodox way. The time of my interview was the same day as our Package Design project due date and class time. I was at a crossroads. Turn in my imaginary project and risk a good first impression at where I hoped to work, OR go to my interview and ask for forgiveness. I went to the interview and communicated my dilemma accordingly. I even brought the project to my interview and explained what I had done, and I think the initiative impressed the team at Tractorbeam because they hired me the next week. As an ironic turn of events, I received the only A in the class on that project despite being the only one to turn it in late.

Sometimes, despite Comm Design's best efforts to prepare you for the real world, certain assignments and dates don’t align with your goals.

It’s important to speak up and work with your professors and professionals in your network to help you get to where you’re trying to go.

Another example of this was in my senior year. As I’m sure you know or will know, The DSVC National Student Show is one of these events to prioritize. The exposure to professionals and other talented student’s work is invaluable. This event is where I was first introduced to Tractorbeam in my junior year. However, as a senior, the most important project is the Senior Portfolio. In my senior year, our syllabus called for an additional project and then capped the year with our portfolio project. Inconveniently, the DSVC Show fell on a date before our time to put energy into our portfolio in the Comm Des program. I was bold enough to communicate to my professor that I would prioritize working on my portfolio instead of the project because I knew this would be a valuable tool to help get me into a job after graduating. After graduating, I placed third overall and leveraged that accomplishment in my job hunt tour.

Fast forward.

Two basketball players in uniform on the court shaking hands.

In May of 2016, it was time to graduate, and Eric Ligon asked me what I planned to do for a real job. As cool as Tractorbeam was, they were small and didn’t have the capacity to hire me full-time, but they assured me I could stay on as an intern through the summer while I chase down my dream job, NIKE. After telling Ligon this, he was gracious enough to extend a list of UNT Comm Des graduates in Portland, Ore., some of whom worked at Nike.

After receiving this list, I hustled, emailing everybody on it and other local agencies in the area to cast a wide net. I got a lot of responses, but ultimately, if it wasn’t a “No, thank you” they all sounded the same.

“Let us know when you’re in town! We would love to sit down and chat!”

So I bought a ticket to Portland for Memorial Day weekend and had the following short work week to get in front of as many people as I could. I managed to land two “Meet and greets” at Nike at the end of the week. One of which was with the design director over Nike Basketball Apparel Design! Thankfully, I had a fully baked physical and digital portfolio via my website to walk him and everyone I met with through.

Although I placed third in the DSVC show, I still received feedback on potential improvements. Two comments in particular stood out.

“Your work is great. But I wish there was more process showing the trial and error of how you reached these solutions. Here at Nike, we value storytelling above everything else, and it’s important to see HOW you think and problem solve.”

Fortunately, I had my sketchbook on me and could reply to those inquiries on the spot!

“This project, I would say, is your weakest one; maybe consider removing this one.”
The project in question was Ligon’s demon-timed “Hailmary Project!” So I explained that I was assigned this client and only given a week to execute this logo and supporting collateral… This impressed the DD.

It impressed him so much that he explained he’d seen enough to consider me for the formal interview for the role they had open on the team as a Graphic Designer I for Basketball Tees. He explained that Nike would fly me back out in a week and posed a design challenge for me to walk them through in my interview! Since my student work didn’t have any sport-related projects, he challenged me to create one. Specifically, one explaining my favorite NBA story. Mother****** put the “Hail Mary” back on me!

I explained this to my Creative Director at Tractorbeam, and they were elated and even gave me free rein to work solely on this project when I came in to work. So, for a week and a half, I got paid as an intern to design an open-ended prompt on one of my biggest passions! They even gave me the keys to the office to come and go as I pleased, and I utilized that to the fullest. I stayed the night for an entire weekend before my flight out.

I went above and beyond the ask. This was my chance to shoot my shot.Black, purple and gold Los Angeles Lakers uniform close-up design by Cyrus Colemen

“Ain’t no way I’m missin'!”

I picked five different stories, highlighting five players in five different eras and styles to showcase a full range of skill sets. I also documented my entire process and created a deck to showcase everything from handwritten lists, thumbnail sketches, and ultimately, the final product — a physical book that I hand bound. It was titled, “I GOT A BASKETBALL JONES.” The players I highlighted were Pistol Pete Maravich, Michael Jordan, Dr. J, LeBron James, and Shaquille O’Neal. As a cherry on top, the day of my interview was the same as game five of the 2016 NBA Finals, when the Cavs were down 3-1 to the Golden State Warriors.

At the end of the interview, the DD and panel told me there were 4-5 more interviews they had to do and if for some reason I didn’t get this role, in particular, they assured me they would find a job for me somewhere in the company! Later that day, the design director I interviewed with offered to meet up and watch the game that night. At the bar, we watched that game, and he informed me…

“Congratulations, you got the job. Act surprised when you get the email.”


My shot went in.

Rules are merely guidelines made by people. You can bend to the rules or bend the rules to you. But if you sit in silence, you might mistake possibilities for impossibilities.

Shoot your shot! 

Photos courtesy of Cyrus Coleman.