Heart to Hart: Taylor Ostrom
Taylor Ostrom (née Sabo) is an Art Director, designer, lover of Jesus and all round creative genius. As a core part of the Bethel Music creative team she is helping to shift the way the Church (and the world) sees creativity.
Aptly dressed in stylish-but-comfortable sweats, a flaming Kardashian's hoodie, and pink fluffy slippers - her 2nd pair after accidentally misplacing and re-finding the original pair - Taylor is the epitome of effortless style.
Her husband Christian Ostrom who cooked us tonight's meal (a personal mid-week comfort-food favorite - Nachos) also works for Bethel Music as the Merch manager. While we're discussing design and creativity over a plate of cookies, Christian is off watching Netflix something Taylor informs me she can be found doing on most weeknights. Here, here Taylor. I feel ya.
Stephen: So Taylor, take me back to the beginning. Tell me about moment that you first knew you were creative.
Taylor: Well, okay this is funny, but the first moment that pops into my head is from when I was a little girl and I was obsessed with the Spice Girls, to me they were the height of individualism and creativity, so for fun I would conduct and orchestrate photoshoots of me and my friends as the Spice Girls. Looking back the setup was simple, but for me it was very elaborate.
I also did lots of makeovers as a kid, so there's that - even though it wasn't design, creativity was a huge part of my life - it was what I loved to do.
So specifically in terms of graphic design, when did you first get into that?
In high school, I was on the yearbook team, but I actually got a C for that haha!! So, I think when I really first did design for myself was for my high school golf team. We wanted sweatshirts with the PGA tour logo on them, but that's copyrighted, so in Microsoft Paint, I went in and created a PGA inspired logo for our team and had them embroidered on sweatshirts. I think that's the first time I ever did design.
Oh and scrapbooking. I was really into that too. I loved making dioramas too. I've just always loved art in all it's form.
Do you believe, fundamentally, that as designers we are artists or problem solvers?
I think as an artist, my contribution to society - what I'm supposed to be doing - is to produce art.
That's interesting to me though, because you just called yourself an artist, rather than a designer. So do you see yourself as an artist more than a designer?
Right. Well, I've been hired to be a designer, that's my job. I'm part of a team, so when people say you're here to solve problems through design, I get it because I'm here for someone else, helping to fulfil someone else's goal - which is amazing! This isn't my opportunity to create art though - necessarily. It's my hope that as I solve those problems that my art and style become a major part of that solution, as I think all designers/creatives would hope.
Having said that, I will say that as a designer working for a music label, our primary goal (a problem that we need to solve) is communicating visually what our music says. So if our music is focused on Jesus and He's ultimate beauty, then I do believe that a big part of my creative solutions will be bringing beauty because beauty is attractive to humanity - it's a powerful way of connecting people to God.
What's the worst piece of creative advice you've ever been given?
"Emotionally disconnect from your work".
Ha. That's a wide-spread piece of advice, I've heard that a lot. So why do you think that's wrong?
If I emotionally disconnect from my work, you'll get crap. I've seen that in most people that I've talked to. So when I don't care, when I don't have a value or see a truth to the work I'm making, then I don't give my best.
I'm not talking about being able to handle bad/critical feedback, we've all gotta grow in that area of our lives. It's important to be able to receive difficult opinions and feedback without it destroying your heart, but that's more about knowing your worth and place, than disconnecting emotionally from your work. That's just bad advice.
I never wanna create from a complacent place. I'd rather be yelling at you explaining why this design is good than being indifferent and not caring anymore.
What's the best piece of creative advice you've been given?
Take note of what I see as beautiful. Never forget that. Even if it has nothing to do with my job. Like earlier when I said that the coleslaw and pickles looked beautiful in that jar, that's part of who I am and how I stay inspired creatively. Taking a mental note of the beauty all around me is such a good practice to get into.
Culturally we have norms and oftentimes that's not how I see. Like I think garbage trucks are beautiful. Keeping myself vigilant and alert to what I find beautiful is so important because it gives me my edge, it's what helps me design the way I do.
I love that so much. If you could say one thing to the younger you, first starting out in your career, what would that be?
That's a good question.
"You're good enough." Not so much as a comparison thing with other people, other designers, but more like, don't sell yourself short. I started off in freelance and it was exhausting trying to grow myself, better myself, while also trying to grow my client base. I just needed to know that I was enough - even on my worst day, I am good enough.
Everyone YouTube's the stuff they don't know and everyone needs help at some point. No one's actually expecting perfection. It's something that I still remind myself now, even as a 28-year-old. I'm good enough for where God's placed me.
What's been your biggest failure creatively? Whether that be a project that sucked or something you wished you chased after etc.
Oh gosh. One time I was in print design and I was getting a ton of DVD covers designed and printed. I put the order in for 5000 copies, when they arrived I realized that the back cover was actually upside down. Somehow I'd laid them out wrong in the file, to my horror.
I think the worst part of that was the cost to fix it came out of my pocket. It was so stupid and I can't believe I did that. Haha.
If I think of a failure in terms of my personal growth, I'd say that I've had to learn to adjust and get over my "attitude" when it comes to design. Even though I've been designing since 2011, I still consider myself a young designer. So I've really had to learn to adjust to feedback, I've had to grow into not designing for myself too.
It's that funny tension of knowing that how I see the world is important and needs to be seen by others, but sometimes (often) that's not actually what the client or employer wants or needs - that's okay, that's called a job! When I was freelancing that was difficult. I probably lost a lot of jobs due to my unwillingness to submit to their feedback and critique.
So in all of that, what project are you most proud of thus far in your career?
This is gonna sound so silly, but I made some GIFs for Bethel's School of Creativity which they didn't end up using, but I still love those to this day. Those GIFs were my first forray into simple Photoshop animation, so while they weren't used I'm so proud of them. For me to love something, a year and a half later is a massive thing for sure.
I'll also add the cover artwork for Cory's "Reckless Love". That was a huge win for me. There were a lot of obstacles in that process and it was my first time designing an album for Bethel Music, so the weight of that was a lot to navigate too. That whole project really grew me as an Art Director not just a designer. I learned how to navigate the creative team dynamic and how to co-run a shoot for photography and video.
Who are the artists that you admire and look up to in the industry? How do you stay inspired?
Other than the Spice Girls? HAHA.
Honestly, I don't know of any designers that I follow on Instagram, which I think shows a little bit of who I am and how I work. I love design, but at my core, I don't think I'm a designer - that sounds odd I know, but my Instagram feed is mainly fashion. My spare time is filled with watching couture runway shows. So even when I need colors or fonts for a design project, I'm looking at the fashion blogs and couture Instagram feeds for inspiration and palettes. For example, the "Blackout" social media campaign is an idea that I got from a Miu Miu fashion campaign that I loved.
Actually, one account that I do follow on Instagram is @manrepeller - she's so good. I find a lot of freedom and inspiration from what she does and what she posts - she's very outside the box.
Oh and I also love random artists and quirky things. Like I follow this pottery artist and it's amazing, so different and so creative.
So, let's talk "Reckless Love". Whether or not you're aware of it, you've designed the album artwork for a historic album, one that will be seen for and remembered for a long time. How does that make you feel? Did you feel the weight of that at all whilst designing it?
I know. That's so interesting to me too, I mean I knew who Cory was as a Bethel Music worship leader and for that song, but I didn't have any idea of the global ramifications of that song and just how much this album would blow up - because remember at the time of design, Reckless Love was still growing and I don't think any of us really knew the extent to which it would go.
I went into this project feeling fine. Cory connected with the art direction really quickly, so I felt good going into the video and promo shoot. We were really inspired by a video of Kanye and North just running down this backroad. I felt like it really connected strongly with what we were wanting to achieve and communicate with this record.
The whole process of landing Cory's art direction was interesting too because it all came to me when I was in the kick-off meeting for Steff's record. Cory and I aren't really alike at all, but we worked together really well. Although the shoot required a lot from all of us as a team (incl. Cory), it was a rewarding process because we trusted each other.
Also, "Reckless Love" as an album has really connected deeply with me and Christian my husband. Often we've found ourselves saying lyrics from the album to each other, reminding ourselves of what the Lord's saying over us etc. So the album is really special to me, which I felt from the get go, but to see it go on to become something that is globally special to other people is insane.
Was that different for Steff's "Blackout" record?
Of course. I mean, it's Steff. She's this enigma with a mega fan base, so I knew that the eyes of the world would be on this one. To be honest at the beginning of her project, I didn't know if I wanted to do it. I was feeling quite overwhelmed with the task of designing an album of that magnitude, where the fans would so freely comment their opinions if they disagreed with my art direction.
How do you design an album cover? Take me inside your head, what's that creative journey like from inception to completion?
I start by taking note of what I find beautiful, going back to what I said earlier, I'll always go back to Pinterest, Tumblr, Instagram and look at the things that have inspired and caught my eye lately. From that, I'll piece together trends and start creating mood boards to try and communicate visually the story that the artist/worship leader is trying to tell.
With Steff's record, the process started out by sitting with what I felt were her key themes like femininity, and artistic worship, paired with pastels, her skin tone, and hair color. I wanted to start by taking the lights off her for a change. She's seen on stage by the world, but I wanted to really humanize her and make her as attainable as I can.
It's funny because the art direction changed a lot for Steff's record. While it started out very minimalistic and stripped back, it ended up being this wonderful light cover with the lighting being artistic and not performance driven which I love.
There were so many other ideas along the way too, like I had this concept of just giving Wonder (Steff's daughter) a piece of paper and letting her draw whatever she wanted and that being the cover.
That's genius. What. That would've been amazing!
Yeah. I know, I really loved that idea too. In the end, because of some other limitations with that particular concept, we had to keep moving on to explore other ideas, which was honestly difficult. But there's always another idea, and there's always grace for the exploration.
For both Steff and Cory's record, I've loved working alongside Lucas Sankey for photography. Both these albums have been photo heavy - which I love - and it's really stretched me in my art direction and communication. I've had to learn how to communicate clearly and concisely so that I can set Lucas up for success - capturing what I'm seeing in my head. Dialoguing honestly, is such an important skill set that I've learned through these projects.
Let's talk feedback. What you're creating is no longer just for a client who can be reasoned with, or a local church ministry that can be taught to see differently. These albums are being seen by anyone and everyone - creative or not - and thanks to social media, they can freely and harshly give their opinion. There's been a lot of controversy over Cory's "Reckless Love", so what's that been like for you personally.
When "Reckless Love" came out to such intense criticism, I think my first instinct honestly was to react - to comment back and make those people feel stupid hahaha. I get it, a lot of people whose opinion I trust and value don't like the cover either - a lot of people on our own creative team have a different view of the cover than I do.
Here's the thing, I don't have a problem with divided opinion, I actually like that because it means people are thinking and engaging with the art. When we created this artwork we were trying to portray the grit of life, love and unconditional love. Cory actually summed it up well when he said "This album isn't meant to look "holy" or "sparkly", it's meant to convey the reality of messy, real, true love - the love I have for my son."
When I first saw that photo, on a review one night on the shoot, I said to Lucas "That's the cover but they'll never let us use it." I felt like it was too edgy or dark. After we got back and were putting together the final concepts to show Cory, he fell in love with that photo and when Cory loves something, he loves it. He fights for it. Which really empowered me to fight for what I too loved and wanted.
As we narrowed the cover down, me and Cory were low-key txting each other to stay strong in the fight. Haha.
So when people took it the wrong way and de-contextualized it, turning it into something that is honestly so gross and horrible, yeah, I was a bit mad. Not in terms of my art, but the fact that other people who are looking at our social media - maybe deciding whether or not to engage with this album or song - are being given a "thought direction" that couldn't be further from the truth or intent.
Personally, I've chosen not to listen to those people, but it definitely sucks to see the potential for others to be swayed by what people are writing, saying, theorizing etc.
Then you've got the other side of the fence with Steff's record, where you're inundated with comments like "Slay me, queen". People are obsessed with that! Both covers are simple, photographic, with minimalistic type, but the world had two very different reactions to that "art".
Exactly! It was crazy to see that kind of difference. But having said that, it's two very different artists and albums with two very different potential fan-bases. So in some ways, it's difficult to analyze those stark reactions and take away anything helpful from it. I feel like it doesn't show me or tell me anything particular about "design" other than that people just really wanted to see Steff's face - or that whatever she does, people just crazy for.
Had the covers been swapped and it was a blurry photo of Steff and Wonder, or a bold side profile shot of Cory, would there have been controversy?
Have you ever wondered what could've been?
No, not really. Because both of those covers swapped would've been so expected. I think people almost expected Wonder-Grace to be on the cover of Steff's seeing as she was pregnant with her on the last cover, the same as everyone here at Bethel Music just wanted Cory's face smack on the cover.
But we changed it up, and I'll stand by that. I love that we pushed the boundaries, we burst out of our genre - out of what is commonplace for Christian music and or country music.
So you'd say it's necessary for the Church to be pushing the boundaries of creativity?
Oh totally. I think that's so important for us to stay relevant - which is actually a difficult tension to navigate to be honest. To use the "City on a Hill" analogy, we don't wanna get so far up the hill that we're irrelevant and old, but the other tension is not becoming so caught up in trends and obsessing over trying to keep up with the latest thing that we miss the opportunity and the calling of being a light to the world. It's a delicate dance for sure, but it provides us with so many great opportunities to use creativity and design as the solution to "solve the problem" of taking Jesus to those who need Him.
When you're designing do you listen to music? What are your go-to songs/albums/playlists that help get you in the zone creatively?
Ahhhhhhhhhh, this is gonna sound so Bethel hahaha, but I love Kalley Heiligenthal's worship sets - all of them. Especially one from her BSSM graduation back in the day - it's so good.
Other than that I love "Peaceful Piano" on Spotify, and whatever other random songs that I'm loving at that moment.
Timeless question, what's your favorite font?
*Long pause* I think it's Impact.
Because every letter is the same height and it makes perfect lines when used in grid design. I love to use it for schedules and merch. It just looks industrial and cool, I don't know I just love it.
Helvetica is my current obsession though. I've used it everywhere. It's really basic and clean. All the weights of the font are good, like really good.
Lastly, I wanna throw in Times New Roman. It gets such a bad rap because it's the first thing that shows up on Microsoft Word, but it's actually a really great font. It's a familiar font to everyone, so it can be used to help bring about a feeling of nostalgia - which is what I did for the "Reckless Love" booklet.
What are your parting words for the next generation of designers that are coming up underneath and alongside you? What's your advice?
Find your niche. Whatever it is, find it and do it well. Tell everyone about it and set yourself apart. Let yourself and your style evolve and don't worry about what others are thinking/saying about your work. What if your "iconic style" is the evolution of what you're doing today, in 5 years time? Keep going and keep changing, evolving, exploring.
To keep in touch with Taylor follow her on Instagram. She's ready and waiting to answer your DMs!