Adding Music to Your Design Toolbox

Owen Shifflett, Art Director

Article Category: #Design & Content

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music helps design

I think it's safe to say that a decent number of designers out there listen to music while they are working. I know that I'm not alone in my habits of putting the good ol' headphones on, blocking out the world and zoning in on a design comp. Music helps me focus on the task at hand, keeps me from getting distracted, and generally get me revved up. You could basically say that music is my taskmaster as well as my design co-pilot.

I've always used music in this way, whether it be for design work or getting my yearly taxes in order (White Stripes can ease the number crunching pain).  However a few years ago I saw a video of an artist that permanently changed the way I approach my music listening while designing.

Enter Denny Dent. In the video Denny paints a portrait of Jimi Hendrix. Each stroke, flick, and jab of his brush are in response to the rise and fall of Jimi's recorded live performance at Monterey. The ferocity and passion of Denny inspired the hell out of me. Here was a guy that not only understood inspiration but also allowed that inspiration to fill him up and explode onto the canvas with no reservation. Check out the video. Even a handful of years later I still sit in awe when watching Denny work his magic. 

Using Music to Guide Your Creativity

The lesson I took away from Denny was that, when applied correctly, music could heighten an artists senses, allowing them to get in tune (pun intended) with any given subject matter. Choosing the right kind of music for a project can not only help you focus, but can lend creative weight to your work. When starting a project, think about what music (artist, genre) exemplifies and embodies the client or direction you are taking on the project. Try to find music that will get you in the mindset/groove of your subject matter. Don't get hung up on a perfect match, this is an exercise to loosen you up.

How I Apply Music to My Process

I've compiled a few project examples that I've worked on recently where I used this technique to help me wrap my head around creative concepts.

Run-D.M.C. & Feedstitch

run dmc and feedstitch

When Kevin and I first started throwing around ideas for the visual design of Feedstitch, we both agreed that the idea of a jumbled mess of ribbons that un-jumbled themselves would be a fun imagery to work with. We eventually rested on the idea that these ribbons would be shoelaces and we would take an organic, canvas shoe, approach to the visuals. I thank Run-DMC for this. When roughing together a moodboard I turned to "It's Tricky" and "My Adidas" as well as the rest of the "Raising Hell" album for inspiration.

Bob Dylan & Ficly

bob dylan and ficly

While working on Ficly, I listened to a great deal of Bob Dylan. Dylan is known for his crafted lyrics and heartfelt honesty and I hoped to tuck a little bit of that into the design of Ficly. A lot of Dylan's work also has a familiar, energetic feel that I was able to latch onto while working on the project. I listened to a lot of "Blood on the Tracks" and "Blonde on Blonde" while concepting and designing Ficly.

Miles Davis & MadMen

miles davis and madmen

To get in tune with the era/vibe where MadMen exists, I listened to a handful of jazz musicians, focusing most of my listening time around Miles Davis. The smoky, wood-walled, creatively-charged environment of the show likened itself to the bouncing, freeform movement of Jazz music. It not only fit the era, but helped me wrap my head around the concept and characters that we were playing with in the comp. I listened mostly to "The Complete Birth of Cool", a Miles Davis Anthology while working on this design.

Letting Inspiration In

So those are just a few examples of how I've invited music into my design process. Give it a go and let me know how you use music as part of your process! In closing, I leave you with a compilation video of Denny Dent doing his thing. The biggest hurdle sometimes is letting go and letting yourself get swept up in the moment. Denny has this down pat.


Owen Shifflett

Owen is a ferociously passionate collaborator and independent thinker for clients such as PUMA, Cisco, and Dick's Sporting Goods. He is an art director at Viget's HQ in Falls Church, VA.

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