One of the most common recommendations Cella puts forward in a Creative Operations Assessment is to implement project tiering. Tiering can be implemented in varying levels of complexity and, for most organizations, the simplest implementation is often all that is necessary.

So, What Is Tiering?

Tiering is simply labeling your projects according to a predefined set of criteria. At minimum that criteria must include creative complexity:

  • Tier 1- Strategic creative solutions, high level concepts (e.g., new creative to business, brand or company) 

  • Tier 2- Adaptive design, previously approved creative concept applied across new deliverables (e.g., digital ads based off the campaign creative / messaging) 

  • Tier 3- Pure production based on simple executional needs - templated, repurposing, versioning, or simple edits/revisions to existing creative. (e.g., change headline, swap out photos)

Some creative teams we work with include two additional levels of creative complexity:

  • Tier 0- Creative strategy development. Most in-house creative teams do not take on this work. Usually external agencies, corporate brand strategists or marketing departments own this work. That said, the greater organization would benefit from the in-house creative team's earlier participation with initiative strategy development. This early initiative planning and scoping is also more frequently leveraging Agile business cases, campaign strategy and multi-channel / omni-channel activation strategies to inform Tier 1 projects. In-house creatives may help elevate how to bring these to life creatively, by earlier engagement in the process.

  • Tier 4- Self-serve or automated work such as print-on-demand (business cards), dynamic templated designs (sales flyers, display ads) and PowerPoint presentations. Typically, this is work that the creative team does not take on but has set up processes / design assets to manage the work (e.g., creating on-brand PPT templates).

Additional criteria that may be considered in setting up a tiering matrix may include:

  • Corporate legal / regulatory compliance requirements

  • Brand building or awareness priorities

  • Project complexity (different from creative complexity; something may be highly templated but have 100 pages or versions and require a high degree of attention to detail)

  • Corporate strategic value (the annual report versus the retirement luncheon invitation)

Why is tiering important?

Tiering can help with the process, resource forecasting/planning, work prioritization, review/approvals, and department metrics reporting. 


Not every project requires a creative brief. Likewise, a Creative Director shouldn't need to review every project the department works on. By identifying projects based on creative complexity, you can set up high-level processes to identify which steps a Tier 1 project must go through vs. Tier 2 projects versus Tier 3. This ensures the right people are involved at the right stages of the project, and that the right amount of upfront work occurs for each project (whether that means a full kick-off meeting and creative brief or just an intake form).


If 80% of your work is Tier 3, but 80% of your creative staff are senior designers, you may have a retention or morale issue, as senior designers would be unfulfilled spending the bulk of their time working on executional production design assignments. In addition, you may be compensating your team higher than your work requires. 

Through tiering your work by creative complexity and cross-referencing Tier with Project Type or Category (e.g., Web, Interactive, Print Design), you can better balance your creative and executional level resources to project workload needs. Below is an illustration of a department's design work breakdown by tier and the type of creative staff they would seek to hire to meet their needs.


In this illustration it shows the senior graphic designers focus on Tier 1 and high-level Tier 2 projects. Likewise, graphic designers can focus on the Tier 2 & Tier 3 projects but have the opportunity to work on the more creative projects should they have the skillset and desire. Production designers are largely focused on Tier 3 level work and preparing work for production to high technical standards. This is a very simplistic approach that does not speak to creating stretch opportunities and other best practices; it does, however, illustrate a key benefit of tiering.


Some creative teams are only supposed to work on projects that align to the strategic priorities of the greater organization. Others work on all projects submitted. At times, the creative department may struggle to prioritize their work and resources because strategic importance is not always clearly defined. Or, even when it's evident, it's not always possible to tell the CEO that his luncheon invitation needs to be deprioritized in favor of a key marketing activation deliverable. 

Developing a prioritization framework that has business leadership buy-in, can decrease pressure on the creative team when it comes to "breaking ties" between competing projects. This can be done in conjunction with your Tiering model or outside of it.

Creating Your Tiering Matrix:

Like all initiatives, don't implement tiering without first identifying your desired outcomes. Projects differ in levels of complexity, creative strategy, timelines, and business impact. When considering what criteria to include in your tiering model, you need to determine what change or process that you are trying to impact. From there you can develop a tiering model that captures the most important characteristics for the project to successfully support the creative teams’ (and business’) specific goals. This tiering matrix should be consistently leveraged by project managers with each request intake to assign the right tier level as part of the project initiation, resourcing, and execution.

Once you determine the overall approach to tiering for your creative team, there is work to do in documenting this, along with putting processes and procedures in place to realize your goals. This work can seem daunting but is manageable as you break it into smaller pieces to accomplish over time. You don’t need to go it alone. An experienced Cella consultant can offer an independent point of view and help you define the organization and implementation plan that is practical, and best suits your needs and goals.