I’ve never worked in a design studio where music wasn’t played pretty much constantly. Nor can I recall visiting a studio where music wasn’t being played, or where designers weren’t wired up to headphones and bobbing rhythmically to unheard sounds. What is it with graphic designers and music? Is there a symbiotic relationship between the two? Are there studios where music is considered a hindrance? Or does music aid creative thinking and make us better designers?
When I launched my own studio in 1989 my first purchase was a CD player. With five or six people all in the same room, we had music playing all the time. I’d just come from a studio where the radio was tuned to London’s main commercial station. British commercial radio in the 1980s was dire – it hasn’t got any better, last time I checked – but somehow we learned to live with what the poet Simon Armitage has called the “tinnitus” of pop radio. Thinking back though, I can remember hearing Kraftwerk tracks amongst the wall-to-wall, synth-drum induced nausea of Billy Idol and Bananarama, so perhaps it wasn’t as bad as I remember it.
To provide a round the clock soundtrack for the new studio, we even had a CD budget. But it was rarely used because people preferred to bring in their own music, which resulted in a low-cholesterol diet of The Pixies and Brit indie shoegazers like Ride, Slowdive, My Bloody Valentine, and the Cocteau Twins. My own preference at the time was for David Sylvian (a taste I still have) but I could only play his lachrymose balladry when my business partner left the building. “Boys music,” she said, witheringly.
As the studio grew to around 10 or 12 people, it became harder to get agreement on what should be played: arguments erupted and factions fought over control of the CD player. We had a leather-jacketed artworker who was obsessed with guitar wizards like Yngwe Malmsteen. It wasn’t easy to accommodate his musical tastes, but he was a good artworker so he was given the CD remote from time to time – usually when I needed him to work all night.
We had another growth spurt in personnel in the late-1990s (to around 20 people) and that meant the end of any sort of musical consensus. Not that it mattered, because this was now the era of the personal CD player and it became normal to see nearly every designer in the studio wearing headphones.
Today, the headphone-clad designer locked into his or her own audio bubble is a familiar sight. Graphic designers it seems like music and abhor silence. But is it possible to claim that music contributes more to the creative output of a studio than, say, comfortable chairs and a good coffee machine? There is no shortage of theories about the way music influences behaviour. It began with Pythagoras and his discovery of the music of the spheres, and can be found today in such disparate musicological thinking as Brian Eno’s theories of ambient music, and in the way institutions are using classical music to reduce violent behaviour in public places. Music’s ability to act as a sedative has long been know to medical science, as are the mesmeric effects of music as a means of inducing heightened states of emotion.
For me, I need music pretty much constantly. Having given up studio life in favour of working on my own, I gravitate towards introspective, trance-like music. This can be anything from Morton Feldman to Harold Budd. From late-period Coltrane to the latest backwoods drone rock. From Nordic electronica to exotic soundtracks. My only stipulation is that it has to be music without words: lyrics distract. Other than that, anything goes.
So, let’s try a bit of blog based research here. Let’s try and find out what Design Observer readers are listening to, and build up our own blog playlist. I’m predicting a mixed bag, with not very much Yngwe Malmsteen. But I could be wrong.
I’ll set the ball rolling. I’ve currently got Eric Dolphy’s deathless Out to Lunch playing. What about you?