Rock your Creative Block

cosmos of music and design

Creative block is the worst. Don’t let it suck the joy out of your work! Hack that block with music, and your stimulated brain might reward you with new ideas.

I’m a committed music nerd for life1 working as a visual designer. But if I’m going to fewer shows these days, it’s because I use music more and more as a job tool.
I’m not the only one—humans use music to suit specific needs. We curate it to regulate our moods, access our memories, keep us cranking, focus our energy or just control ourselves. And like design, music expresses meaning, relationships, texture, rhythm, and depth. Truth is, music and design are both pretty mathy.
And each uses both sides of yer brain.
So when I’m making stuff, I reach for different types of music to set me up at every stage.
My process and Spotify playlists look like this:
These people make transformative music.

Stage 1 (inspiration):

The Nugget2

First, dig for the nugget.
The nugget is the concept fueling the design that makes you stoked to fully realize the thing. In rock terms, the nugget is the hook. A song without a hook is just background noise. Likewise, a design without one is just a
pretty picture.
Any song can yield your nugget. Sometimes I even name my comps after my nugget song.
Weval: Dutch DJs

Stage 2 (improvisation):

The Zone3

Next, play the field.
Science says straight up: music triggers a dopamine release in yer brain.4 It can also relax yer brain and take you to the zone, the groove where your mind improvises, free-associates, plays, and tries random ideas that might lead to a solution.
Here, I go for repetitive, robotic, non-distracting, passive listening. Spotify knows. I hit up their ambient playlists Electronic Concentration and Deep Focus to keep me in the soup longer.
Frank Ocean + the art from Stereolab's Dots and Loops

Stage 3 (implementation):

The Build5

Relax. It’s time to build.
When I’m done playing and my design problems are solved, my playlist is wide open.
At this point, it’s unlikely that anything I’m listening to will leak into my finished comp. Whatever you listen to that brings your design to completion is your business—otherwise, almost everything I designed in 2013 would be stained with Lana Del Rey. This is your chance to Just Have Fun With It™.

Stage X (interstitial):

The Theme

One trick borrowed from experiential design helps me define mood and direction: sometime between Stages 1-3, as my concept takes shape, I might choose interstitial music. Does my design have a theme song? When the comp is cooked, if I can still hear that song playing, I win!6

A thought on presenting

A few times, I’ve chosen music to accompany internal design presentations. However, songs tap such a subjective well of memories, emotions, and associations that they can trigger a minefield of misinterpretation, so I never share my musical inspirations with the client. What if [big client name here] has super-negative associations with, say, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass’ “Spanish Flea” or Outkast’s “So Fresh, So Clean”?7 It’s safer to keep your musical inspirations to yourself. They’re your secret score. Never share the secret score.

Change your mind

Music and creativity go together like peanut butter and everything else. If you’re low on creative ideas and sick of clicking through the standbys—Pinterest, Behance, Creative Boom, Designspiration, FFFFound!, Cool Hunting—switch to another of your senses and see what kind of ideas shake down from the shuffle.

Good luck. Now Go Rock the Block! 8

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