28 Days of the Web: An interview with Dan Dickson, Creative Director at Vevo

We’re sponsors of 28 Days of the Web, a project that recognizes black designers, developers and creatives in celebration of Black History Month. In this interview we meet honoree, Dan Dickson.

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Jenn Schiffer: Hi, I’m Jenn Schiffer. I’m the Community Engineer at Glitch.com. The friendly community where you’ll build the app of your dreams. And our mission is helping creators and today we have one, Dan Dickson, Creative Director of Vevo.

Dan Dickson: Hey.

Jenn Schiffer: This is our part of sponsoring 28 Days of the Web, which showcases different black developers and designers every day of the month of February in conjunction with Black History month.

Thank you for being here.

Dan Dickson: Thank you for having me, Jenn.

Jenn Schiffer: So you’re the Creative Director of Vevo.

Dan Dickson: That’s correct.

Jenn Schiffer: What does that entail?

Dan Dickson: It’s a lot of things. It’s overall, like, I’m Creative Director of Marketing and Brand, so anything public facing from Vevo the brand. Also, working with the product team. Working with the sales team to create promos or create sales materials. We also do our own self-initiated projects in the group too. We also work with the concert team and we build and work on events. We also do our own direct photo shoots with artists. It’s kind of everything, yeah.

Jenn Schiffer: So, I see Vevo coming up a lot. Like, when I’m on YouTube and whenever I’m searching official music videos, usually Vevo comes up. What is Vevo, the brand? Like, what are they doing?

Dan Dickson: Yeah, that’s a great question. There’s a lot of ambiguity about what Vevo really is and I can clear that up for you.

Really, Vevo is a premium music video platform and so we get videos direct from the labels. And then we distribute them on our sites and on applications and everything. So, everything from iOS to tvOS to Android, it goes on there. We also have a … we also deliver things on YouTube as well.

“You kind of see behind the curtain a little bit… People are artists for a reason”

So most people know Vevo from that watermark that they see. Which is the Vevo … it’s probably like our most valuable asset, brand asset, is that watermark. So, that watermark lets you know that it’s an official video that came direct from a label, really.

Jenn Schiffer: And it’s a strong brand too because I, myself, have like jokingly added Vevo to the end of my name, like on Twitter and stuff here and there.

Dan Dickson: Sure. That’s really cute. That’s funny.

Jenn Schiffer: You know it’s official, if it has the Vevo at the end of it.

Dan Dickson: No, completely.

Jenn Schiffer: Yeah. So, what is like working in music because you worked at Nickelodeon previously, which has a music side to it, but Vevo is like purely music it seems like?

Dan Dickson: Yeah, yeah. That’s a great question, too. I think, working in music has always been a lifelong dream. In college you always were or for a designer doing like a package for an album was the thing you wanted to do. If you can design a package for an album or create that artwork for the album, that’s a really awesome project.
And so, for me to four years later, 18 years, however long I’ve been working to be able to do that now is really awesome. So working in music is kind of a really awesome thing and it’s working with artists is really cool. They’re … you get the idea that … you kind of see behind the curtain a little bit. That’s really interesting. And behind the scenes and being on set and you have a bigger appreciation for what the artist brings to the table.

So when that album comes out or that single comes out, I kind of get a good feel for what kind of goes on with that and it’s really, really interesting to kind of see how that person’s inspiration, artist’s inspiration comes to life. People are artists for a reason.

Jenn Schiffer: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Dan Dickson: And it’s kind of hard to tell with just looking at videos on YouTube or if you’re listening to something on your device, but when you’re there with them in person, you really see like why they’re special.

Jenn Schiffer: It has to be really inspiring, because doing these designer interviews I’m like, I’m going to go home and make something maybe that’s not with code and so you must absorb a lot of that energy and would have to in something that is such a fast moving and evolving industry.

Dan Dickson: Oh yeah. Completely. We try to do things with artists that are just collaborative. You know, taking things that they already bring to the table like where their inspirations are. We did something with Lorde recently, like last year, and she had an interesting process as to how she did her latest album. And it was around kind of … she was alone with herself, working with a producer for the most part, but we used that initial inspiration that she had to marry that with the graphics that we created for the content that we eventually put out there.

Jenn Schiffer: When I was looking up the stuff that you were doing, I came upon the Discover page and you have the 2018 Artists to Watch.

Dan Dickson: Oh yeah.

Jenn Schiffer: On there, and I audibly gasped because like everyone on there looks so cool.

Dan Dickson: Yeah, they were.

Jenn Schiffer: I was like, they all look so unique and diverse and I want to be friends with all of them, but I might be too old for them.

Dan Dickson: Right.

Jenn Schiffer: But, what’s it like working in a space where you’re able to showcase people that aren’t like Bjork yet.

Dan Dickson: Oh, yeah, yeah. That’s really interesting. You know, our content relations team or our music label team does a good job of curating that talent. Labels also come to us and say these people are on our list. We found people, like, we found a couple of artists just on they were kind of unsigned or like emerging.

Jenn Schiffer: Yeah.

Dan Dickson: So it’s kind of like a mish-mash of people that are artists that we wouldn’t necessarily know about, but in terms of working with them and their look and everything, they came camera ready.

Jenn Schiffer: Yeah, because it’s not just, like the page is a grid of their photos, but there’s a whole package for each one of them. And I also think there’s a live show element.

Dan Dickson: Yeah, completely. There’s a live performance aspect to it. A stripped down performance and there’s also a … we call it a co-signed video, which is maybe somebody from the industry to really kind of vouch for the artists to say why the artists are important.

And as we were developing the programme, our VP of content was saying, you know, if I was going to watch these videos, why would I watch them? And he was like, “I want to watch them because I want somebody to tell me why I should care about these others.”

So, that’s part of it. It’s really all about the artist at that point, but also when you think about, you know, that actual set up. Those were intense three day shoots and they happened in the U.K. and it happened also here in New York. And, you know, we get the artists in and each day we have three artists and we capture an interview with them. They record their music and their song and things like that, and then I work with the photographer to kind of get those still shots in place and then their normal shots in place.

So, it’s a busy day for them. Busy day for everybody, but it’s a pretty intense thing, but, you know, the great part about being on set is that you’ve got to keep your vibe chill. You can’t like be … you can’t be too anxious or too whatever because it’ll disrupt the flow-

Jenn Schiffer: I’ve learned that recently.

Dan Dickson: So, if you’re chill and you keep it chill, you keep yourself kind of like at a good even pace, like that feels good. Also, hiring great talent when you work with really great photographers to bring the best of the artist out.

For me, it’s always been about what makes an artist feel comfortable and makes them look best in the environment and so definitely working with top tier photography talent or photographers really gets that piece pound out in force.

Jenn Schiffer: You do a lot of stuff involving the wrangling of other creative people, but you also do graphic design and art yourself?

Dan Dickson: Completely, yeah.

Jenn Schiffer: Yeah, one thing I saw and are you originally from New York?

Dan Dickson: No, I’m from Atlanta, Georgia originally.

Jenn Schiffer: You’re from Atlanta. Okay, yeah. I saw you did a type series on a Brooklyn neighborhoods.

Dan Dickson: Oh, yeah.

Jenn Schiffer: Yeah, so, you obviously take inspiration from where you’re at.

Dan Dickson: The world around me.

Jenn Schiffer: The world around you, yeah. You did another thing. The Everyday Type Series. Where you rendered different words and phrases and “highly considered typographical composition.” Which is exactly what it is. Was that a side project for you?

Dan Dickson: Yes, totally a side project. When I made those, it was a thing where we just had our first kid and the only one now, and I was really not finding the time to … I was like going to work and coming home and didn’t find a lot of time to get out and do things. Be creative. And so I was kind of going crazy a little bit and so I was like, “Well, what can I do?” I kind of sneak around and write things in my journal and it was kind of like the thought comes to me or if I read something, I’ll think of a bit of a line and just kind of write it down. Something’s funny to me that I read, just kind of jot it somewhere. And so I realised I had all of these notebooks just filled with like phrases and words and I never did anything with. And I was like, “Well, what can I do with these?”

“For me, it’s always been about what makes an artist feel comfortable and makes them look best”

I love photography. I love these words. It’d be great to like make a project out of it and so … on the back end of that actual project, it was a response to what was happening with craft and design. Like a lot of calligraphers, a lot of typographers are doing these really amazing crafted words, types, fonts, and typographics, but I felt like it didn’t have a good … the extra meaning behind it. The craft was there, but I didn’t feel like the words really matched up with the aesthetic.

And so for me the challenge was how can I make these phrases and words match with the visual and be meaningful on both sides of it. The craft and then also like the visual that you take in. So that was the goal for that project, it was just to kind of like keep myself going creatively, but also do it with some meaning.

Jenn Schiffer: Yeah. Because I feel like depending on what brand you work for, you sort of have to evoke that feeling that the brand has.

Dan Dickson: Yeah.

Jenn Schiffer: Like the stuff that you are doing at Vevo, I’m sure is a lot different from the stuff you were doing at Nickelodeon.

Dan Dickson: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Absolutely. When it comes to just like diversity and creativity, you kind of have to get out of your head and do what’s right for the project and some of that’s about controlling your ego a little bit and just like what is the brand name and in this particular sense, like, you know, Nickelodeon is very expressive. Very out there. It’s for kids.

Jenn Schiffer: More slime than Vevo, I’m sure.

Dan Dickson: Yes, exactly. And Vevo is on the other pendulum. It’s like a … it’s more of a minimal brand. It’s what I call a D-Brand. You know? So, it kind of has a very minimal, but it feels premium and it’s a really interesting dub type system that helps create that framework so we can kind of put anything in there.

The other part about it was Nickelodeon I think has this kind of legendary status with kids and adults. A lot of nostalgia built around it. And so the brand is almost sometimes overpowering. Like, the talent.
And at Vevo, we realise that we want the talent or the artist to kind of be pushed forward. So, when you look at Vevo, you’ll see the logo there or the type system there, but it’s not overpowering the artist themselves. So, it really wants to be a platform for the artist, whereas Nickelodeon is more about we’re Nickelodeon and we’re somebody else and it’s all good. It’s cool. We’re all mixed in together.

Jenn Schiffer: Yeah.

Dan Dickson: Because you come here because you like Nick, but Vevo we don’t get that twisted, like the party is the artist. You know?

Jenn Schiffer: And before that you did a lot of stuff for Tribeca, here in New York.

Dan Dickson: Oh, yeah. Kind of in between Nickelodeon, Tribeca, and Vevo, yeah.

Yeah, worked on a lot of things at Tribeca. Tribeca Film Festival. It’s a really great festival that happens here in New York around April, in mid-April, but it was probably one of my best experiences like working while I learned so much there. It was everything. It was brand. It was app development.

There was early stages of this app called The Short List, which I think still exists, which was an app that kind of … you ever like go on Netflix and try to find something? And then it gets like hard to find? Because you’re like … you keep looking and taking your time, going through trailers and everything?

Jenn Schiffer: My favorite TV show is finding a Netflix thing to watch.

Dan Dickson: Yeah. So this app was kind of the answer to, we’ll curate it for you. This is what you should be watching. And I was there for those early stages of things that were going on, which was really great.

So for me, it’s really what I wanted out of my career. I wanted to be exposed to all different forms of design and communication and while I was at Nickelodeon, I was on the broadcast TV end of it and I just saw the whole world that was out there happening and I wanted to be a part of it. So trying to make an opportunity came about and it was a good mix of my past experience and things that I kind of wanted to do for the future.

So, I was there for about three and a half years. Did a lot of really excellent work with a lot of excellent people. And also got to meet DeNiro every once in a while. He was really nice. So there was definitely like a … for me, like kind of a watershed moment in my career. Like when everything kind of clicked and made sense.

Jenn Schiffer: So what got you into all this? What got you into design?

Dan Dickson: Oh, man. Great question. I would say comics. Comic books and toy packaging and cereal box packaging. Packaging was probably kind of my in to all this stuff. I love the lettering in comics. And I was always a big fan of that. I didn’t know what that was called, but it’s kind of interesting. I was … I went to school in Atlanta called Georgia State University and when I … in my first year, I had to choose a major and the two majors that I had to choose from were like Illustration, which was like my love. I love illustration and then Graphic Design.

And the moment I got there or the moment that I arrived there, the Illustration professor had just retired. So I just went into Graphic Design, but I never left that illustrative kind of sensibility. So I just brought that to the table for design.

So it actually was really interesting because I think it made me a little more like valuable to some organizations because I was like, “Oh, I love design and typography, but I also love to be expressive and sometimes I combine them.” You know, with the examples your brought up earlier. But yeah, that was how I got started and I just kind of fell in love with it. And just kept growing and doing things and did anything anybody asked me to do. If there’s an opportunity, I would just do it.

“Really listen to yourself and know what you want to be. And be honest about what you like and what you’re into”

Jenn Schiffer: Yeah.

Dan Dickson: I wouldn’t try to over think it or be like “Does this make sense for me in my career or my longevity?” I would be like “Oh, that sounds cool. I’ll do it.” Sometimes it would work out. Sometimes it wouldn’t, but I just kept trying.
You should take what you do super, super seriously and what I mean by that is not be serious while you’re doing it, but be loose and chill while you’re doing your thing, but one thing that’s always worked for me is to have like five pieces of criteria around what I want to do with my career.

And so, it evolved. It changes compared to when you’re doing something. You might be doing different things. So, when I started out working … my first probably big job was at Nickelodeon. My first big job was Cartoon Network, but the thing that made me was that I just actually really loved animation and cartoons and I happened to get a job at a place that did all those things. So, I love those things and after a while I said “Okay, I got the animation. I got the cartoons and I love it. What else do I love?”

And I just kept adding to that criteria and Nickelodeon was a part of that and Tribeca. Love film, love branding, loved their role with innovation, and I wanted to be a part of that. And then like, you know, I looked at Vevo and Vevo was this similar thing where all those things that I love, but then it was also like this digital product side and it’s artists and the entertainment side of that I hadn’t been a part of that I wanted to kind of be a part of that might be around that.
So, as long as you can craft your criteria and really listen to yourself and know what you want to be. And be honest about what you like and what you’re into, that’s a really good way to kind of make sure that you’re always interested in and what you’re always engaged and always interested in the things you’re kind of putting out there.

Jenn Schiffer: What is innovative to you right now? Especially in the world of design?

Dan Dickson: Just being yourself is actually really innovative. If you’re just kind of like chilling in yourself and you’re own standing comfortable with who you are, that goes a long way with people.

People like to be around that and I think, ultimately, when it comes to innovation, you want to marry something familiar with something that’s kind of brand new. So I look for things like that all the time, yeah.

Jenn Schiffer: Yeah, I think the Vevo artists to watch is a good testament to that because you look at all the people there and you’re like, “They’re being themselves.” Like this … none of this here is manufactured. They’re not clones of each other, other people, and that’s what people want to see because when you see that, that gives you permission. That allows you to give yourself permission to also be yourself.

Dan Dickson: No, completely. You know, I’ll like say one more thing about that. I think, actually expression is probably the most innovative thing. Like being able to express a thought or an idea or express a feeling is really, really powerful and expression for me is what everything is. If you can express yourself in a really interesting way through writing, through visuals, through the way you dress or whatever, that’s really, really cool.

Jenn Schiffer: Well, thank you so much for coming and talking to me.

Dan Dickson: Jenn, thanks for having me. I really appreciate it. So cool, yeah.