My Link Between Music and the Visual Arts

I may be a graphic artist, but I was born to two musicians who can’t seem to draw the simplest of things, yet their love of acoustic guitars and grand pianos was passed directly to me. I’ve played in many bands, written and produced many songs, and even owned a recording studio for a while last year. Eventually, however, my passion for creating music waned and I found myself again pursuing the visual arts exclusively, though I work closely with the music industry. They may seem like very different mistresses to keep, but I’ve found many similarities between them. And even before I started hauling gear and collecting music equipment, however, music and design, or visual art in general, have always gone hand in hand for me.

My very awesome superpower.

Before I explain how these two relate and affect each other to me personally, I have to let you in on a “condition” I have. I have what is known as synesthesia which is basically when one stimulation leads to an involuntary experience of another. That’s…not saying much, so I’ll spell it out: I can see sound. Like, literally. Sounds of all kinds cause explosions of shapes, colors, and textures to be manifested in my head, sometimes very ambiguously and other times unmistakable. Look it up, it’s real.

Even without going any further, I’m sure you can imagine the benefits a graphic designer gets from listening to Bjork or Radiohead. Simply put, the somewhat disconnected shapes and graphs and charts and whatever else that had been created by my brain upon auditory stimulation for years could finally be put into context with the realization that that’s a lot of what artists do.

The reason I point this out is because I’m going to be talking a bit about how different music can affect what you’re creating visually (which I believe is true of everyone), but if this variation in style seems very cut and dry to me and you find yourself lost during this article, you’ll know why. And no, you can’t develop this superpower with practice. It will have just always been there for you if you have it.

Wow, my style is varied! And so is my iTunes playlist! Hmmm…

This may all seem very obvious to you, but I know a few graphic artists who insist on listening to something very specific when creating. Always the same style or genre, regardless of the project. Blasphemy, I say. I wanted to share a few guidelines I’ve come up with for myself over the last five or so years of designing professionally. Everyone is going to be affected differently, but maybe you could use my examples to start thinking about appropriate playlist to workflow scenarios for yourself.

To nail the atmosphere or concept of a client’s business. – There are many times when I’m working with a business that has a very specific “feel” to them. A classy invitation shop, an atmospheric cafe, or a mellow, relaxing yoga studio. In these cases, I choose to listen to music that goes hand in hand with the focus of the business. It’s as if I’m the owner while I’m designing at that point, as the audio lends itself to the mindset the owner already has.

Above: I listened to classical music while designing this website.

To set the intensity of a design. – When I was working with the General Motors license to make apparel designer for their Corvette line, I was working in a pretty stuffy environment. They wouldn’t let us listen to music and I was oppressed by the seemingly thousands of fluorescent lights overhead. How could I create a feeling of speed without my beloved Bloc Party or Basement Jaxx cheering me on from my iPod?!? The key was to conceptualize at home while listening to things that gave me the sense of coolness which was lacking from the office during the day. This helped me to create designs that didn’t seem stiff and motionless, which would have mimicked the office setting sadly.

Above: High-intensity music was my vice while working on this.

To work on band designs/photography. – Obvious enough, but too few people do this. I insist before working with a band that they have some material for me to listen to while working on projects for them. Otherwise, I could accidentally give them a generic look and feel that doesn’t go along with the songs they write. Makes sense, right? Never underestimate the your ability to “get” a band by listening to their music while working on their visual elements!

Above: This is the band Oh, Rabbit. Listening to their music while editing the photos helped to connect the two.

To create unique art direction. – Alternatively, during the concept phase, I’ll listen to something completely different than the focus of a business while designing for them. I only do this when I’m told to “go wild” or something, but I’ve already combined more Western, cowboy-inspired instrumental tracks with an Irish pub’s designs. When coming up with the look for a flyer or something, this can be an invaluable tool.

Not the example I stated, but one where I combined different music for inspiration while working.

Take this information for what it’s worth, and come up with your own ideas as to how you can create an atmosphere using music while designing, whether it be in line with the focus, or a crazy juxtaposition. You might just be amazed at how versatile and competent a designer you really are!

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