Does Music Influence Design?

!{border:1px solid black;} (Currently listening: Yo Yo Ma Cello Suites. Amazing Stuff courtesy of .sara’s reccomendation)!

I’ve been quite interested lately in seeing if what I listen to affects my visual design output. Does the selection of music or combination of different selections during the design process effect the output though not only overall style but details such as typographical decisions and color palette choices?

I can say for certain that what I’m listening to affects my music creation. Sometimes short term, but then that builds upon itself in the long term. I’ve noticed elements of Broken Social Scene tonality and effects make its way into my music after listening to their record You Forgot It In People for two years. But that’s almost akin to looking at a lot of Web 2.0 apps and designing on in that family style. It’s a shared lexicon of design elements. What about cross pollination?

For years, when designing a band CD sleeve I’ve insisted on designing to the record. The Juniper Lane record Sirens from a Mile Back was by far the best example of this. If I had been tracking that on my profile at the time, It would probably be somewhere around 10,000 plays. This pattern of music and design shown the strongest on the Sacasa – Del Sur sleeve and the Waking State – Hold On sleeve.

Since working at InPhonic I’ve not had such specific projects, and as a manager, most of my days are meetings and paperwork anyway. Did my expense report have better kerning because I was listening to Brian Eno? Was my project plan more risky because I popped in the Metric record? Doubtful.

In recent months, I’ve been doing a lot of graphic work again after hours. Working at home with the music blaring out of the computer speakers, I noticed two things.

  1. Listening to the wrong kind of music will make my design style shift away from the intended direction.
  2. Classical music rocks for design.

So let’s discuss those:

Wrong Music = Wrong Design

The first point I noticed while working on new sketches for the Juniper Lane record and associated collateral (e.g. poster, postcard, baby bib, stuffed animal, etc.). I did a poster Fig 1 design based of a subway photo from their new photo shoot by Shaleigh Comerford (also a Meticulous client). I went for the whole crinkled-cut-out-high-school-girl-notebook look. Like she cut the photo out of TigerBeat or something. Well, TigerBeat is the wrong magazine. Let’s update to the 21st century and say… CosmoGirl. This look and feel just didn’t gel with the new material and new sound. It was more a Brooklyn Pop Punk band design than Juniper Lane. At the time I was listening to a lot of Ivy, which is more band electronica than anything else. Obviously not the right match.

The Classical Factor

I realized the impact of classical music while redesigning Meticulous. I started with playing piano at age six, and my mother was a ballet dancer, so classical music has always been around the house. Growing up there were basically four records upstairs that I remember: Meet the Beatles, a John Denver record, a Neil Diamond record, and Swan Lake_. I played (poorly) the Sonata Patetique%28Beethoven%29 in high school. I played various classical guitar pieces. I have a sick obsession with orchestral strings. I just didn’t listen to it that much until this year.

Sara Flemming (aka .sara) kept throwing various iTunes links of classical pieces over to me. This was much to my delight and much to my credit card’s dismay. Everything from Copeland to Yo Yo Ma’s cello suites. I went and dug out my 20 CD Millenium Classical collection and ripped it all into iTunes. Love it all. Well, except Chopin. Chopin puts me on edge. No idea why. I digress. We were talking about design.

The new, as yet unreleased, design Fig. 2 happened while I laid in bed sick over Christmas break. I basically put the Band of Brothers Soundtrack [iTunes link] on repeat. And had a major style departure from what I normally would do. Did I choose the Gotham family (abandoning Gill Sans in the process) because I like it or because of the music? Is the french grey/khaki/de-saturated look an influence of the visuals of the miniseries, combined with the a subconscious attachment to the music, or simply some other faction of my mind saying “that looks good, go with that”?

So I ask you: Does music influence your visual design or art or other non-musical pursuit?

  1. Daniel Miller says:

    I don't know, but great post, and I will observe and get back to you! I have to rework my site and I have the new Johnny Citizen site to work on.

  2. .sara says:

    Yay for the Cello Suites!

    I definitely work better (not necessarily faster) when I've got my "Classical" playlist running on all day.

    Non-work related: I have to be most careful when choosing music for a drive somewhere. Especially down to see the family; because Friday nights? The highway? Tends to be wide open. And I drive a six-speed, soo... I have to take it easy or I find myself hitting 95 without realizing it.

  3. Juliana says:

    Music totally plays into design aesthetic....
    and ABSOLUTELY classical music is the best for designing anything.....

    even better thanks to my obsession with movie soundtracks, classical orchestrations with a flair of the modern are even better for creativity. Craig Armstrong being the master of both... specially in the plunkett and Mclean soundtrack !

  4. John Athayde says:

    I'll have to check out Craig Armstrong, thanks Juli!

    Let me know your successes or frustrations with your experiments :)

  5. chris says:

    You can't expect me not to chime in on a post like this.

    Of course it does. Any experience informs design. I'd say classical music is good for designing some things. I doubt it would have any relevance to, or any number of post-structuralist follies, except to elicit the absurd.

    Is it relevant whether it influences your design? No. People debate the impact of memes and the visual similarity of images to Jungian archetypes the point where the debate becomes the answer.

  6. John Athayde says:

    Chris -

    What about more modern classical composers such as Bartok or some of the early "ambient" composers like Debussy? Or looking at modern musicians that are composing within stretched classical confines (e.g. Brian Eno's ambeint records)? Would the concept of running a tape backwards and recording a vocal over it not apply to some of the Quondam things?

    The relevancy is more so in a personal nature. Can I influence my design output through what I surround myself with and is that quantifiable? I'd say yes, but it's also cumulative. We are the sum of all experiences to date, right? :)

  7. Chris says:

    I agree. I'd add that it's the sum of the pervasive qualities of the music + the perception of the listener/designer - both of which are embraced/informed by our life experiences, yes.

    Earlier, it seemed to suggest that classical music is the best for [all] design. Presumably because of the orchestral layering, and constructive play of voices over time? At a point, that seems out of synch with what some design attempts to do, is all I was saying.

    Debussy, Philip Glass, Pink Floyd, hell even later Beethoven all have a sort of disorganized orchestral/classical motif that suits other design intents.

    I guess it's the grain of the statement that I felt needed exposition. The foundation is there, though - input affects output. No doubt about that.

  8. chris says:

    Will you be putting up forums anytime soon? :P

  9. Tanya says:

    I like this post - makes a world of sense - there's a ton of literature out there on cognition, emotion, and so on, how they all play together.

    If we allow that the creative process is a deeply emotional one, and that emotions are influenced by music, then of course the music we listen to as we create will effect the outcome. But what might add another layer of complexity is that music is so wrapped up in personal association, so maybe Chopin puts you on edge, but might encourage me to spin out something whimsical. Seems like it has more to do with what puts you in a better headspace.

    What about this wrinkle (this is more behavior and less creation): I remember reading once that the original creator of muzak thought of that wall of easy-listening sound to be the auditory wallpaper of a room. So would soft music make people less inclined to shoplift? Or if it's up-beat or calming, would it encourage them to buy organic? :)

  10. John Athayde says:

    Chris - Definitely not the intent to suggest that classical is best for all design. For all I know, hardcore music might be ideal for certain types of design. :) I've just noticed tht classical seems to drive me in a different direction than rock or indie bands that I tend to have playing while I work.

    Tanya - It's always the music and how it affects you. If, to use my previous example, hardcore (e.g. someone screaming in a microphone over treble-laden guitars and double kick drum patterns) soothes someone, then that's the music they should use. The comment about musak reminds me of some of the things I've read about Brian Eno's landmark Ambient record, Music for Airports Ambient was intended to be background— to be, in fact, ambient As far as organic, oh boy I've got a post coming on that one. I'll tell you about it at the Juniper show tonight.

  11. Amy says:

    (Belated but...)

    Yeah, it definitely does.

    Actually, I have a list of questions to elicit design direction from people who have no idea how to talk about design (e.g. clients). One of them is, "If your design was a song, or had a soundtrack, what would it be?"

    These people lack the vocabulary to express their vision because it's not their field. But they can often come up with a way to express it in terms of something they do know... the way music makes them feel.

    And then I listen to that song and related genre music when I work on the design, or at least before I get down to work. It's like getting in their head.

    I do it to myself, too, of course :)

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