Once a year, fans catch bracket fever

NCAA chart marks the official arrival of March Madness

March 18, 2004|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,SUN STAFF

Its very appearance can cause a sweat. Or outrageous bursts of non-work-related research. It can trigger spontaneous plagiarism from the desks of office mates.

It is, of course, the NCAA tournament chart - the brackets - used to help basketball fans bet on the college games in office pools. When it shows up on printers and copiers, the symbolism is unmistakable: March Madness has arrived.

But what gives the symbol its awesome power? Does the magic lie in its art or its function?

"There are 64 teams - anything that can go from 64 to two is a marvel in how simple it is," said Cary Murnion, a partner at Honest, a New York design firm, who likened the chart to a hieroglyph for the basketball tournament.

The design is so ubiquitous, in fact, that Murnion said he can even imagine the NCAA simply using one of the chart's four quadrants as its logo.

Computer giant Hewlett-Packard incorporated the brackets into its NCAA ad campaign. One ad shows brackets with no text, only an HP logo in the middle of the chart. "It is very circuity, and it works with HP perfectly," said Murnion.

But the symbol's mystical message is not universal.

"Someone coming from Zimbabwe, I don't think they'd understand what it is at all," said Al Forestier, a New York-based Web designer. "This has grown over time and is integrated in to the minds of people who follow basketball. It has become part of the sport's lexicon."

He admired the design, though: "Conceptually, it is very simple and effective."

"It looks like a fine piece of functional design," e-mailed Dave Plunkert, owner of Baltimore-based design firm Spur. "But doesn't strike me as something that would have any greater aesthetic value than the latest phone book."

Guess there's no need to crib from his brackets.

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