The Bird Way: Steal the process that made Kanye West, Rihanna, U2, and Elton John’s artwork

Amber Horsburgh
6 min readMar 6, 2018

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Meet Tom Bird, Creative Director of your favorite musicians. He’s made album covers for everyone from Kanye West to Spandau Ballet, directed TV commercials for Rihanna, done music videos for The Killers (with Tim Burton and Winona Ryder), U2 in VR, and even got Marilyn Monroe’s estate agree to let Elton John use her image to depict ‘Candle in the Wind’ for TV. I have had the pleasure of working with Tom on a number of projects plus he made my stellar ‘Deep Cuts’ logo.

A sample of Tom Bird’s album covers

He makes music look a certain way so we feel feels when listening. Over time he’s perfected a process that makes stunning visuals, from a concept to a fully realized art campaign.

Tom Bird’s end-to-end creative process takes artist through idea to production.


“Trust, openness, and honesty are the key factors to a relationship between artist & creative director”

Before any ideas are discussed, a kick-off meeting happens between artist, label and/or management, and Bird to answer the who, what, where, when, and why of what will be created, i.e.: a music video, a soup-to-nuts art campaign, photoshoot etc.

This meeting has one purpose — relationship management. There are hundreds of decisions that need to be made on the creative journey so the artist needs to trust that Bird is the right person to deliver their vision. His agenda is to break down timidness, establish trust with the team, set a shared creative language, and leave with a clear direction. “Trust, openness, and honesty are the key factors to a relationship between artist and creative director.”

He does this by discussing likes and dislikes with existing references. “Our response to imagery is emotional, so I ask the artist to bring images they are instinctively drawn to” and with that the artist is asked to bring a bunch of visual references like music videos, photos, paintings, or mixed-media and Bird does the same with his own images.

Between the two image sets, the artist chooses what they like and don’t like as well as discussing atmosphere — what “surreal” means to one person might be entirely different to another so discussing in their terminology sets the creative language that all parties will understand along the way.

The most challenging projects have resistant artists, when this happens his game plan is to “reassure, move carefully, be diplomatic yet confident and nurture interest. Never be afraid or seem nervous — the artist can sense it”

So, what makes a good partner?

  1. Honesty. When giving feedback don’t be too polite (he’s a straight-shooter himself). Agreeing out of politeness only to later put the kibosh on an idea that has hours in production is a problem.
  2. Be open to ideas. The thing that kills any creative meeting is naysayers. The kick-off meeting is the time to think pie-in-the-sky — “what we do with a gajllion dollars?” It’ll be brought down to an executable level later on.
  3. Leave the meeting with a clear direction and commit.

Big Book

The Big Book process is where creative idea is cracked. This is done collaboratively with the creative director inputting ideas and reviewing with artist. The result is a guiding document that keeps the creative idea on track in production and is unique to the artist.

The big book is key to the creative process. Bird takes everything from the kick-off meeting and refines his big book of initial imagery.

What goes into the Big Book?

1. Ideas

The initial references from the kick-off forms the basis of a “big book” that grows with new ideas. To ensure the ideas are fresh he looks outside of music for references, “opera and ballet are exceptional sources for set design, make-up and hair references”, “I read fiction and listen to audiobooks to make up images in my head”, “landscapes, cityscapes, fashion, classic art, and film/TV are incredible visual sources”

The Academic ‘Tales of the Backseat’ album artwork (2017) visual stimulus. This page was taken from Tom Bird’s Big Book, which was shown to the band as 1/6 different concepts they worked through to get to the final idea.

If it’s a band, is there a frontman or are all members equal? What is the stage persona(s)? Do they differ from the artist’s personality? Any notable collaborators? The characters determine image hierarchy.

3. Artist feedback

Tom regularly checks in with the team refining the book until he and the artist are aligned. This can take several revision rounds.

What comes out of the Big Book?

1. A unique and ownable visual identity

The book needs to represent the artist in a way that is true to what people understand their brand to be, but also push it so it’s new and exciting for consumers.

2. Guiding document for all staff

It sets the box they need to operate and innovate in so when he says “we need something clean” that clean is understood in the context of the project.

I thought this process was quite brilliant. It’s basically a creative brief method but what makes it so unique is how rudimentary it is, in a genius way. In advertising and branding, a creative brief is formed in collaboration with the client, account manager and planner, all of which have degrees in business and speak in branding terms ALL DAY LONG. But in music, that structure just does not exist — the client is often 19 year old boys who play guitar and have never had professional picture taken. The Big Book is a back-to-basics way that gets people out of their shell who are otherwise timid when talking about visuals and what they want. There’s no fluffy language, just an efficient way of building a compelling visual language to bring the music to life.

Approve budget

This is where those pie-in-the-sky ideas are brought down to a level that is executable. The budget aligns the artist, label, and creative director on what will be made and for how much. Be a good partner by being honest to what you’re comfortable spending and realistic. Also, pay on time.

Staff up

Your mates aren’t always the best qualified for the job despite most artist’s taking that route. Tom’s role is to offer up suggestions on the best specialists to execute the vision including photographers, video directors, the glam squad, animators, designers, and technologists.

Guide the ship

No team is created equally. Photography projects are small and nimble but videos have bigger teams that require more negotiation with more opinions. On the majority of his projects, Bird not only acts as creative director but also executive producer to ensure the production value is high and the budget is managed. He cultivates a sense that the team is working together toward a common goal, “as a creative director, there is great sense of achievement in taking a concept from an initial idea to a completed art campaign, or the words of a video treatment into a fully realized video viewed by millions”.

What makes Tom Bird’s process so genius is the way it seamlessly works for musicians — a wildly creative segment of artists who don’t always think in visual terms. You should view the process in two stages, the brief formation where the idea is conceived and production where the idea is executed. With his process, your visual campaigns should be stronger, unique and will ultimately make the music more vivid for the end listener.

Bird’s last piece of advice: Always be on time.

“Never be late — sweat running down your face and into your eyes while explaining your own powerful vision to an artist, manager, and label is never a look which instills confidence as a Creative Director!”

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Amber Horsburgh

Music marketing consultant. Downtown Records & Big Spaceship alumni. Writes about music, strategy and feels at Deep Cuts