Seeing stars

CR Grad Guide: Simon Henwood is a creative director for Kanye, Rihanna and others, working on a variety of creative projects from music videos to musician’s logos

What’s your background, how did you come to work as creative director for musicians including Kanye West, Rihanna and Alicia Keys?

I am an artist – primarily a painter, but have always been interested in multimedia. I’ve directed music videos and made animated films for the last 20 years or so, and also worked on many publishing and design projects, including children’s books, mags, artist editions, and toy designs.

In 2007 Kanye called me about directing a music video for him. This was for the Graduation album. I remember we spent a day talking through ideas in New York, but never settled on a particular track at the time. Then a week later he asked me to design and direct his Glow in the Dark tour. I had done tour visuals before, but not stage design, costumes etc. To my knowledge creative directors were not really established at this time for music artists, but the scope of the work I was doing with him merited that title I guess.

A lot of creative directors around today are brought in for short periods of time – two-three months – to deal with specific points of a campaign, such as album packaging, TV/award shows, or tour production. I’ve been fortunate to always work through the entire process from start to finish, which is usually 18 months.

Was this job something that you’d always wanted to do?

I had never thought about it at the time as there was really nothing to compare the job to. I just had all this stuff thrown at me to solve. Because I can draw, paint, use a camera etc, it has been very rewarding applying those skill-sets to something very different. The turnaround in production can be impossibly short so it’s good to be able to physically do a lot of the work yourself sometimes.

What are the core skills that are needed to do your job?

That depends on what part of the campaign you are working on. There are a lot of creative directors now coming from styling backgrounds, or choreography, even commissioning. It works well for certain things such as award shows or staging a tour. To cover a whole campaign though, I think you need a lot more strings to your bow. You definitely need the basic ability to bring ideas to life for a client early on, before you really start spending their money. Present a concept well, with whatever it takes. Drawings, computer design skills, a clear written ‘bible’, a sense of great original reference material, awareness of what else is out there, and an understanding of the history of popular culture, art, fashion, tech and design.

What would you say is the best thing about your job?

The best days are when I’m in my studio implementing ideas. The worst are spent on endless conference calls, trying to find out who is responsible for paying for something, dealing with political shit.

I love the beginning of a campaign when everything is possible. Fitting the pieces of the puzzle together, and planning how everything will roll out over the next two years. Also the chance to work with other artists and designers you admire.

What are the most challenging aspects of your job? 

The most challenging aspect is probably staging a world tour. You’re up against so many hurdles, budget and feasibility of staging being the most frustrating. An idea for a set can look great in a CAD drawing, but can it be efficiently put up, packed away, and fit in the truck every night? Will some crazy costumes last the rigours of three months of touring?

Which particular projects or pieces of work have been most important?

There are a few victories I’ve won. For one, convincing Rihanna’s label boss that the ‘R’ logo I designed for her should stand alone without including her name next to it, then seeing it become such a recognisable mark for her over the years.

Probably the most important pieces of work though are the ones that caused me the most stress, and were ultimately considered great failures. You always have to remind yourself that the mistakes you make are just as important in the creative process.

Simon Henwood is represented by Squire, squirestudio.com

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