Designers Tell How Music Influences Creativity

Heads might roll if Claudio Lu’s Vera hears the Pixies on the CD player one more time this week.

"I get irritable after hours of that stuff," says Vera, who operates Boston-based Black Bean Studios with his partner and wife, Alisha Hadyn Vera. "Granted, I’m 36, and my staff is around 27; I’m like the old man around here.

And when they put on the Pixies, I become an evil, cranky bastard. It must be metabolic; once your body starts to age you get really annoyed with certain kinds of music—you know, ‘those damn kids and their crazy music.’"

But like the principals of many design firms, Vera believes in the power of music to unlock creativity, so he lets his staff collectively control what plays on the centrally located five-disc CD stereo. As a result, music plays 24-7 at Black Bean—all kinds of music, from the Pixies to Duran Duran to The Chemical Brothers to Frank Sinatra.

"Music is great for creativity," Vera says. "And it can be a great substitute for caffeine, too. If you’re up until 3 a.m. working an a project, some good dance music can keep you going far longer than caffeine will."

Classical musician Don Campbell would call this application of music "sonic caffeine." Campbell has produced 12 albums and written eight books on the influence of music, including The Mozart Effect: Tapping the Power of Music to Heal the Body, Strengthen the Mind and Unlock the Creative Spirit. He founded the Mozart Effect Resource Center in Boulder, CO, to teach people how to use music to enhance their well-being.

Campbell says the use of music as a creativity endorphin is only one of the many benefits of its presence in a work environment. So we asked him and a handful of musically inclined design firms: Why let those damn kids play their crazy music in the workplace?

More Than Just Ear Candy
"Music can be used to activate, stimulate and relax the mind and body," Campbell says. "More and more businesses are recognizing the importance of music in a work environment."

One such work environment is Gil Shuler Design in downtown Charleston, SC, where staffers listen to everything from The Beatles, Miles Davis and The Isley Brothers to Zappa, The Beastie Boys and Filter. A central stereo system feeds speakers in several rooms, each with individual volume controls.

"I’d hate this place without music," says principal Gil Shuler. "The music creates a comfortable, relaxed atmosphere. It puts you at ease and makes this more of a fun environment—not a stale, dry one."

Likewise at The Elephant Factory Design Co., a four-person design firm in Garden City, MI, near Detroit, where a single stereo unit belts out Ella Fitzgerald or The Rentals, depending on whose turn it is to play deejay. "I think music totally influences creativity—more so with the emotion of a particular design than with what Pantone I’m going to use," says Mark Penxa, owner and chief designer. "Some of our designs mimic the music we might’ve listened to that day; listening to ‘angry’ music might inspire an ‘angry’ piece."

Other firms agree that music can directly influence design. "Sometimes you get into such a subconscious groove with the music that it comes out in your projects," Vera says. "I used to do a lot of illustrations, and to get into that fantasy-world feeling, I’d put on Windham Hill music. Obviously, music influences us on deep subconscious levels."

John Besmer, principal of Planet Design Co. in Madison, WI, says the connection between music and creativity is undeniable. "If you’re working on a project that’s elegant and beautiful, you might listen to something like jazz, something that puts you in that mood," he says. "But if you’re designing an in-your-face project, you want music that gets you there. After all, you wouldn’t go to the gym and want to work out to a lullaby, right? Music shapes the message."

Most artists have been around the proverbial block often enough to realize that music is one of the most attainable dichotomies of spiritual and creative well-being and mental health. It’s both a stimulant and a relaxant, and we pop it as often as we can.

"The key is finding the right kind of music to stimulate creativity," says Gerald Haman, a creativity trainer with SolutionPeople, a creative brainstorming group in Chicago. "I recommend a variety, because every time the music shifts from one style to another, your brain shifts wave patterns, making you think in a slightly different way. I advise my clients to make their own recordings, in short segments, kind of like a ‘brain barrage,’ or like a channel scan on TV, except it’s all musical." The Elephant Factory’s Penxa says the firm’s favorite music is always the homemade mixed tapes staffers swap.

The goal for creative souls, Campbell says, is to "learn to regulate our minds and bodies using music, that phenomenal catalyst, to help us inwardly vision what we’re trying to accomplish."

Maximizing the Power of Music
So, how, exactly, do we do that? Obviously, music has the power to drive us completely batty, too.

"Just putting music on is not making optimal use of it," Campbell says. "Optimal use of music is learning to employ it when you need it for your creative process. Some working environments are so noisy that our bodies never relax."

That doesn’t mean that if your firm plays music all day long, you’re going to go postal. But you might need to re-evaluate your workplace’s auditory environment; constant music might be overstimulating your design team.

"Part of our problem as American workers is that we’re hyper-hyper-hyper Type A," Campbell says. "We think that being that stimulated results in creativity, but we know from research that a lot of creativity also comes through deep breathing, closing the eyes and spending several minutes just exhaling, to kind of start fresh again.

"Always, always allow some downtime, when no music is playing," Campbell advises. "Ideally, you don’t want to play music more than half the time you’re working, unless you’re working in a loud environment and the music masks the other noise."

Campbell doesn’t turn on music in his office until 10 a.m. Around that time, music adds the extra boost we all need mid-morning. "And after lunch is when music is most vital in the workplace," he says. "Music can help you through that 2:00 slump, which sometimes goes on until 5:00 unless you devise some kind of re-energizer."

The staff at Gil Shuler Design, for example, employs the voice of Howard Stern to calm the mental waters (yes, imagine that) in the morning and then starts throwing CDs on the disc player around 10 or 11 a.m. Creatives at other firms admit they, too, crave downtime during a chaotic workday.

With 17 employees in an open work area, Cahan & Associates in San Francisco recognizes the value of an occasional noise-free break. "Sometimes the designers are the ones who want something more sedate, as it can get pretty crazy in here," says Rachel Shircliff, office manager. "The chaos factor can really start to play into the mix, and so we often play classical music—especially in the mornings."

"It’s all about balance," Campbell says, footnoting the fact that office stretch breaks, regular exercise and a nutritional diet are equally important to building sound body and mind. "I think the real creative people out there are seeking a variety of ways to use music, and are using it as a choice—not just having it on all the time. The challenge is to learn to use music wisely to jump-start your creativity."

Musical Anti-Management
While intermittent use of music as a creativity boost might be the ideal approach, the reality is that many design firms have two or 10 or 22 designers all working in a general commune, with a single music source for the lot of them to share. Most firms slap a few CDs in the stereo, punch the random-play button and keep that puppy switching gears like a downhill trucker. Disagreements are bound to crop up, but don’t despair: There’s no need to call in a sergeant at arms to keep the peace.

Most firms say the occasional music-war outbreaks are easily manageable. "Planet operates like a musical democracy," Besmer says. "Everybody’s got a good vibe for knowing what works and what won’t." This means Planetoids might hear G Love and Special Sauce, The Chemical Brothers and Old 97’s within a four-hour period.

"Everybody likes different stuff, of course," Besmer continues. "We recently had a meeting in which we discussed how we’re going to rearrange our workspace, and music—decisions about who wants to hear it all the time and who doesn’t—had a lot to do with that. Account execs and principals who are on the phone a lot prefer quieter areas, but our creative area likes to jam all day long. So we’re going to rearrange the office to let people choose their areas based, among other things, on where the music is."

Although Cahan & Associates isn’t going so far as to rearrange the office based on music preferences, the firm does spend a chunk of cash on the official Cahan CD collection—complete with Elvis Costello, Talking Heads, Dead Can Dance and Johnny Cash. "Sometimes the creative juices flow different ways, and there have been a few tiffs over what to play, but for the most part, it all goes smoothly," Shircliff says.

And while principals occasionally have to play referee between, say, John Denver fanatics and Metallica buffs, these disruptions are few and far between. "Sure, I have people bitching at me every now and then about the music, so I just fire them," Shuler jokes. "Nah—kidding. But everybody likes different music, and I want to keep it open to everyone’s tastes. Everybody gets their chance to play what they want."

No Need to Put on Airs
And here’s the best news of all: When clients come a-knockin’, these firms keep a-rockin’.

"We don’t turn off the music when clients come; on the contrary, we want them to see how it really is out here," Besmer says, adding that Planet has separate boardrooms that remain melody-free for client meetings. "They expect this behavior in a creative environment, after all. Music is an indispensable part of the creative vibe at Planet."

"Clients love the music; some really eat it up," Vera says. "A lot of our clients are geeks, hi-tech business startups, business-to-business accounts. I think they’re amused by our unusual work environment.

"And secretly," Vera says, looking around to make sure no one hears his confession, "I kinda enjoy cranking up the Pixies when the suits come calling. Now that’s fun."

HOW February 2000

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