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Great design is heard, not just seen


Alex Mac­Don­ald

It’s the best human inven­tion ever. Music affects and stim­u­lates every­thing we do, and design is no excep­tion. Cer­tain songs can put you in a cer­tain vibe or remind us of good times. Music is so impor­tant to us at Umlaut, dri­ving our whole cre­ative process and cul­ture. Sim­ply put, it sets the tone for great design.

If you vis­it our stu­dio, you’ll see a sight rarely seen in any oth­er work­place, from your small-scale out­fits to your multi­na­tion­als. We don’t do uncom­fort­able cor­po­rate silence at Umlaut. When we’re not blast­ing a good tune out, you can find our design­ers plugged in and in the zone as if they are life-giv­ing IVs.

At Umlaut, we have a lot of shared playlists we con­tribute to and there are a lot of influ­ences on there from ear­ly hip-hop to dis­co to funk to soul to house to 90s RnB. It’s pret­ty eclec­tic, but that’s the way we like it. Those gen­res tend to be the vibe, with some Bowie thrown in of course, because, well, he’s Bowie.

It’s not just all about play­ing a wavy tune though, there’s method in it – music helps us in gen­er­at­ing ideas. It mas­sive­ly shapes our cre­ative process. We take a lot of inspi­ra­tion from music for our design aes­thet­ic, as well as just lov­ing music itself. Sounds cheesy, but it’s true – music and sound dri­ve our creativity.

A match made in heaven

Any­one with even a pass­ing inter­est in either art form will recog­nise the close rela­tion­ship between design and music. It’s fair to say that an appre­ci­a­tion of one unques­tion­ably improves the expe­ri­ence of the oth­er – for exam­ple, Peter Sav­ille, Jonathan Barn­brook, and Mal­colm Gar­rett all got their start design­ing for bands. For so many years, great bands have emerged from art schools, includ­ing David Bowie, Roxy Music, and Blur, to name just a few mas­sive names.

It’s not only that most bands enjoy visu­al cul­ture and that graph­ic design­ers enjoy music. Who does­n’t work more effec­tive­ly when lis­ten­ing to (the right) music? Music has been shown in sev­er­al stud­ies to fos­ter cre­ativ­i­ty. The inspi­ra­tion for a lot of what we do comes from this endur­ing, very unique con­nec­tion between design and music. There is no deny­ing design’s influ­ence on how the music indus­try will devel­op in the future. It’s a bond that can nev­er be broken.

For many years, musi­cians and design­ers have col­lab­o­rat­ed to pro­duce leg­endary album cov­ers and music videos. But as plat­forms and tech­nolo­gies evolve, there is an increas­ing dri­ve to devel­op amaz­ing images that com­ple­ment the music being produced.

This close con­nec­tion can lead to prod­ucts like the 368-page mag­a­zine that Frank Ocean pub­lished to go along with his 2016 album Blonde. The pub­li­ca­tion, titled Boys Don’t Cry,” com­bines pho­tos, per­son­al anec­dotes, and allu­sions to his music all in one place. This was based on a clear design strat­e­gy in which the singer went mul­ti­me­dia on us by drop­ping a beau­ti­ful­ly designed mag­a­zine that appeared to be say­ing that his visu­al iden­ti­ty was just as impor­tant to him as an artist as his music. This allowed Ocean to fur­ther con­nect and res­onate with his grow­ing audience.

Dif­fer­ent indus­tries, same mission

Despite their stark dif­fer­ences, the goals of the cre­ative pro­fes­sions of music and design are iden­ti­cal. Both musi­cians and design­ers want to have a pro­found con­nec­tion with their audi­ence as artists. Both want to pro­duce some­thing dis­tinc­tive, enlight­en­ing, and endur­ing. And both fre­quent­ly encour­age one anoth­er while per­form­ing that very task.

You fre­quent­ly visu­alise the cov­er art, graph­ics, or music video that goes along with your favourite song or artist when you think of them. The design indus­try plays a cru­cial part in help­ing musi­cians by improv­ing the way their sto­ry or mes­sage is expressed through every­thing from logos to mer­chan­dise to web­site mate­r­i­al. This fusion of music and design is not a recent innovation.

The sci­ence speaks for itself

Music is an inher­ent­ly abstract, left-brain pur­suit – but the sci­ence adds vol­umes to its val­ue too.

Design­er Eric Heiman of Vol­ume Inc. sees music as the coun­ter­bal­ance” to his more uptight” side. He express­es it as the id to design’s more staid ego… That music can put us so vis­cer­al­ly in the moment and then also enable paus­es for con­tem­pla­tion is its for­mi­da­ble kick-ass pow­er. Aren’t these the two men­tal states we, as design­ers, need to inhab­it as much as possible?”

Count­less graph­ic design­ers use music’s capac­i­ty for cre­ativ­i­ty and con­cen­tra­tion to their advan­tage. It makes sense giv­en that a 2014 study indi­cat­ed that engag­ing in enjoy­able music boosts focus and the capac­i­ty for func­tion­al brain con­nec­tions. It takes us into that cre­ative sweet spot. That flow state where every­thing just works, and you cre­ate your best designs.

The shift­ing soundscape

The con­nec­tion between a design­er and music used to be quite straight­for­ward, but now that lis­ten­ing to music is large­ly a dig­i­tal expe­ri­ence and its visu­al ele­ments have changed from record sleeves to tiny icons in our playlists, where does design fit into music today? Well, the tru­ly excit­ing aspect is that it’s everywhere.

Accord­ing to Pew Research, 14% of online users say that at one time they down­loaded music files, but now they no longer do any down­load­ing.” This is down to our rel­a­tive­ly new­found love of stream­ing – the num­ber of music streams dou­bled in 2015 alone to 317 bil­lion songs. For design­ers, this means that art­work and visu­al inno­va­tions now have to con­nect to audi­ences in a dif­fer­ent way.

Music uplifts all

It’s deep. When you fall in love or lose a loved one, for exam­ple, music has always been an impor­tant method to memo­ri­alise the event. Wher­ev­er you are from, music has a sig­nif­i­cant role in reli­gion, sto­ry­telling, and cul­tur­al her­itage because it has the pow­er to uplift the spir­it and the soul. It has a cru­cial role in char­ac­ter­is­ing the human expe­ri­ence. Con­sid­er the influ­ence of Bowie and Aladdin Sane on queer iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and how it affect­ed peo­ple’s lives.

Music is spir­i­tu­al. It’s corny af, we know, but it real­ly does speak to the soul. Since the start of civil­i­sa­tion, peo­ple have tried every­thing from yoga to booze to escape the dai­ly suf­fer­ing of what it means to be a human: our day in and day out, wake up, sleep, repeat. If you look at things like Gre­go­ri­an chants or EDM, music is tran­scen­den­tal. That might occur while wear­ing head­phones, at Glas­ton­bury or Coachel­la, or in an under­ground club.

There is of course a coun­ter­ar­gu­ment that these inno­va­tions mere­ly scratch the sur­face of a huge, music-con­sum­ing pop­u­la­tion and that those who are like­ly to seek out such intense music-based expe­ri­ences are already mem­bers of a cul­tur­al elite. How­ev­er, more recent offer­ings from the extreme­ly pop­u­lar end of the music spec­trum reveal the opposite.

Con­sid­er Bey­on­ce’s 60-minute film Lemon­ade, which was pro­duced to cel­e­brate the release of her sixth stu­dio album. It proves that these things are not only for dis­play at the Tate. You can cer­tain­ly make the case that Bey­on­ce’s influ­ence on cul­ture has been much greater than that of even Janet Jackson’s Rythm Nation music video.

A final note

Sound has such a pro­found effect on cre­ativ­i­ty that it can alter a per­son­’s per­spec­tive and increase pro­duc­tiv­i­ty by putting them into a flow state.

Music and how we con­sume it are fun­da­men­tal­ly influ­enced by design and cre­ativ­i­ty in all its forms, and the reverse is also true. Both have the abil­i­ty to affect soci­ety and cul­ture in both sig­nif­i­cant and sub­tle ways, enhanc­ing the human expe­ri­ence of just being alive in a big way. Whether on a large or small lev­el, that’s a very excit­ing thought. Ulti­mate­ly, our job is to con­nect brands with audi­ences – to spark an emo­tion­al response, just like music has done for aeons.

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