Jessica Severn on Ariana Grande, Scooter Braun, and the World of Design in Music & Entertainment
Interview by Mike O'Donnell / Editor
WNW Member Jessica Severn is the art director & lead designer at Scooter Braun’s diversified entertainment and media company, SB Projects. In our interview below, Jessica shares her creative evolution from drawing as a kid to shifting into graphic design to carrying those skillsets into the high-pressure environment of entertainment and music. We also talk about different approaches working on Ariana Grande’s past albums versus her latest, thank u, next, and what her primary goal is in visualizing the singular message of an artist’s music. “I need to understand their motivations and ambitions for the work, so we essentially have to go on a design-oriented first date…Once I feel like I’ve got a grip on what makes the whole thing tick, I try to experiment within the boundaries of the universe the artist and I have agreed to, and go from there.” If you’re thinking of working as a designer in music, Jessica offers a ton of advice on what it will take to succeed at SB Projects specifically, and the entertainment industry at large.
Tell me a bit about your creative background. Who is Jessica Severn and how did she get here?
I’ve been drawing ever since I was a little kid, but decided at 16 that graphic design was probably the creative field I could actually make a living in. I know what you’re thinking: I sold out pretty young. You’re right, and I couldn’t be happier. I hopped around to three different colleges looking for the best graphic design program, from CSU Long Beach, to University of San Diego, and finally UC Davis where I ultimately graduated from. Months later, slumming it in my childhood bedroom and figuring I didn’t have a future, I found the job posting for SB Projects deep in a job site search; I obligingly applied, interviewed the following day, got the job a few hours later, and moved to Los Angeles a few days after that.
Before starting at Scooter Braun’s SB Projects, did you have any experiences in advertising or tech that prepared you for your current role in entertainment?
I wish! Entertainment was entirely new to me, and music specifically is unlike any other industry I’ve encountered. Going through a design program was probably the best preparation I could have possibly had for this role: full of harsh critics, all-nighters, and a bunch of other young people who also had no idea what they were doing when they started.
Do you have certain principles or maxims that guide your process for art directing and designing album covers?
More than anything, I want my work to resonate with the artist themselves—for as long as possible, they’re the singular audience that matters. To do that, I need to understand their motivations and ambitions for the work, so we essentially have to go on a design-oriented first date (or therapy session, as I recently heard it described). Once I feel like I’ve got a grip on what makes the whole thing tick, I try to experiment within the boundaries of the universe the artist and I have agreed to, and go from there.
Do you draw inspiration from anywhere besides the artist and their music?
I think outside of those influences, I primarily draw inspiration from good storytelling! Effective design, especially when accompanying a musical body of work, should support and add to the overall narrative. I try to pay attention to people and projects doing that well in any field, whether it be music, television, film, literature, weird brand campaigns on social media—really anything.
What were some of the specific design considerations and challenges for Ariana Grande’s latest album thank u, next?
The biggest challenge was how quick the turnaround had to be! Given how quickly it came after Sweetener, there really wasn’t a moment to catch our breath before the album was due. But in that vein, it was like we were all living and breathing the project for weeks straight, which turned into some pretty special, raw work.
How was this experience different from working on Ariana’s previous albums?
This album was clearly one that was exceptionally personal to Ariana, and so the work was oriented around her own tastes and interests in a way previous albums didn’t get the chance to be. There’s always been pressure for the art to be extremely slick and commercial, but with this cycle we were all able to eschew some of that in favor of getting a bit grittier and real. Fortunately, I think there is a tide turning and consumers are beginning to prefer the more personal tone anyway, so all factors were working in our favor for it to be received well.
You also regularly handle the visual identity of tours and promotional advertising. Do you have tour visuals in mind when designing album artwork or do you let the album dictate the visual identity of everything else?
The album visuals often set the tone for the bulk of the project that follows, but occasionally there’s an opportunity to think pragmatically about what the tour might look like from the get go, and I think that can produce some of the strongest work. When you have a master plan and a bit of lead time (a rarity, especially in music), you’re able to really build out a world that fans can get sucked into and think fondly back on. That shit matters a ton to me.
What’s it like working at SB Projects? What does it take to work there?
It’s the wild west. It’s a collection of ambitious, hard-working people all pitching in to support their common goals, and I feel lucky to be a part of them. There’s really no one path to working at the company; it’s a mixed bag of friends from childhood, talent from various parts of the industry, untested online hires (me), and interns who rose through the ranks. What keeps people here is how capable, driven, and a little bit off the wall they are.
Do you bring freelance talent on for projects? What qualities do you look for in a freelance designer?
For the big acts we absolutely do! There’s no way to execute everything for a global artist without the extra help. These seem like obvious qualifications but I want people who bring a unique, well-executed perspective, commitment to communication (like answering emails), and ability to deliver in the at-times-insane timelines we’re up against. Speaking of which, to all of our freelancers, I’m so sorry.
Who are your biggest creative influences?
Lois van Baarle, Joe Perez, Bryan Rivera, and pretty much all of anime.
Which album covers are your all-time favorites and why?
Mura Masa and Beerbongs & Bentleys, for the same reason: When versions of the cover actually addresses the physical packaging it exists in and incorporates that into the design, I love it. It’s so thoughtful. More of that please.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, deluxe vinyl edition: For the user interaction, attention to fine art detail, and luxurious-feeling materials. Damn.
Awaken, My Love!: For its striking simplicity.
What’s something you’ve learned on your creative journey that other creatives should hear?
As creatives (and people), we should all be lifting each other up! It’s extremely easy to get isolated and envious of the work other people are doing and the age they’re doing it at, but to me there’s been nothing more gratifying and validating than getting to know the people I admire, and subsequently learning from, supporting, and collaborating with them.
What do you want to see more of in 2019?
Less scrolling idly through Instagram getting increasingly sadder, more making stuff and being happy.