Design and music, as anyone with even a passing interest in either knows, are inextricably linked. It’s fair to say that an appreciation of one undoubtedly enhances the experience of the other; and that’s why for so many years great bands have emerged from art schools (David Bowie, Roxy Music, Blur to name just a few); and why some of the most renowned graphic designers of the past few decades cut their teeth designing for bands—Peter Saville, Jonathan Barnbrook, and Malcolm Garrett, for instance.

It’s not just that graphic designers love music, and that most people in bands dig visual culture. In numerous studies, music has been shown to pave the way for creativity; who doesn’t work better when listening to (the right) music? This ongoing, rather special romance between the works of design and music is behind AIGA’s new Design + Music focus (announced at the 2016 AIGA Design Conference), which will examine the role of design in shaping the future of the music industry. AIGA’s executive director Julie Anixter says the program will “spotlight how art and design enrich our connection to music and create more value,” and “strengthen the connection between music and design.”

The dedicated website will be completed in the next three months, according to Lawrence Azerrad, founder and creative director of LADDesign, who is heavily involved in leading the AIGA Design + Music program. The site will act as a place where designers, musicians, and the creative community can put propose their ideas on how design can help people engage with music on a deeper level, and will work alongside live workshops across the U.S. over the next year or so. “We want to bring the AIGA community in to open source these ideas and provide a breeding ground to develop the next form of cultural engagement that will blow people’s minds,” says Azerrad.

“This idea lab is a place where musicians and bands and labels can learn about how they can raise their game with the design community.”

Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot sleeve, designed by Lawrence Azerrad/LADdesign
Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot sleeve, designed by Lawrence Azerrad/LADdesign

The connection between a designer and music used to be relatively simple, but now that music has become a primarily digital-first experience, and music’s visual side has moved from record sleeves to tiny icons in our playlists, for example, where’s the role of design today for musicians? Well, it’s everywhere—that’s the really exciting part. According to the Pew Research Center, “14% of online Americans say that at one time they downloaded music files, but now they no longer do any downloading. That represents 17 million people.” This is down to our relatively newfound love of streaming: the number of music streams doubled in 2015 alone to 317 billion songs. For designers, this means that artwork and visual innovations now have to connect to audiences in a different way.

Azerrad says designers need to help engender transitional thinking: design can help the music industry, and the music industry can help designers. But for him, the crux of the matter seems to be in helping people engage with music in a way that can—without exaggeration—change lives. Something tactile may have been lost, but music today still moves us and frames the world and our cultural experiences. “The way we’re engaging with music now is very passive,” he says. “Streaming allows you to listen to any song any time, but we may be listening to it more as background music. The deeper, more life-marking changes happen in a more narrow spectrum. You still have hardcore fans, your Taylor Swift freaks or whatever, but music is now what you listen to while you’re driving or working out.

“Music has always been a key way to mark critical moments, like when you fall in love or lose a loved one. It has the ability to raise the spirit and the soul, that’s why music is a key part of religion and storytelling or ethnic heritage, wherever you’re from. It’s a critical part of defining the human experience, but it’s important we address this now because we’re seeing this atrophy of this part of our culture visually and culturally. If you think about the impact of Bowie and Aladdin Sane, it shaped ideas around queer identity: it mattered to people’s lives. When music is a more passive background experience, people are missing out. There’s less impact and a loss of that emotional resonance.”

Design for music, showing the impact of Peter Saville's designs for Joy Division
Design for music, showing the impact of Peter Saville’s designs for Joy Division

Adam Farrell of record label Loma Vista Recordings says that the role of design today is “probably more important than at any time in the business of music.” He explains that where a few decades back, billboards and print ads did the talking, today design is “your opening statement,” as “most fans enter the world of an artist via some kind of image or video they almost scroll past on a phone or a tablet. So the visuals that go along with the music have to give some sense of story and idea. They need to grab.”

Rather than this being an ominous challenge for designers, the digital revolution actually makes it an incredibly exciting time to be creating a visual world for a sonic artist. There are so many tools at our disposal, so many touchpoints to paint a picture across. “Everything is so interconnected,” says Farrell. “To break down the isolated components of a campaign—radio, press, retail, online—and then figure out how they all coordinate to create a great effect on getting the music to fans. I think that is how you have a bigger impact because everything has a common thread of digital these days.”

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Open Music Initiative workshop IDEO/ MIT Media Lab

So rather than lamenting the good old days, designers need to embrace the new. There are numerous design-led innovations that look to make music all the more alive and connectable through visual elements. A bunch of these were recently developed at MIT Media Lab’s Open Music Initiative, which saw participants work with IDEO to develop new tools that use digital data to help us interact with music on new levels.

One such tool is Mirror, a wearable device that senses “moments of inspiration and focus” to help artists better understand the creative process and reflect on it. Another is Intrstlr, a tool that aims to highlight the unsung heroes behind certain tracks, like the bass player that gets no recognition, or a particular synth riff that could, without us realizing, be the key to our love for a particular song.

Away from screens and personal technological innovations, designers should also be looking to live experiences (think: shared moments) as the sites of innovation. As Azerrad points out, “music is spiritual,” and is a medium perhaps more than any other that multiplies its impact through sharing it with other other people. “If you look at things from Gregorian chants to EDM, music is transcendental, and since the dawn of humanity we have tried through anything from yoga to alcohol to leave the daily pain of what it means to be human; our day in, day out, day in, wake up, sleep, repeat. That could happen on headphones, at Coachella or Glastonbury, or at a small club. Part of this initiative is about looking at where else these engagements can happen, like in museums, on the streets, at home, or online.”

Examples of current innovation in impact from the Design+Music Workshop
Examples of current innovation in impact from the Design+Music Workshop

A recent example of musical forays into a gallery is Bjork Digital at London’s Somerset House, an immersive virtual reality exhibition with pieces ranging from VR moments where you feel you’re almost touching many “Bjorks” that impishly circle you on an eerie beach, to vast and terrifyingly moving visuals of the artist as a shapeshifting giant formed of pattern and texture. Elsewhere, in 2014 Radiohead brought in design agency Universal Everything to create an augmented reality app for the band’s eighth studio album The King of Limbs (2011) that lets users manipulate multiple digital environments accompanying the tracks.

There is of course an argument that the people likely to seek out such intense music-based experiences are part of a cultural elite anyway, and that these innovations barely scratch the surface of a vast, music-consuming public. But more recent offers from the very popular end of the pop spectrum are beginning to suggest otherwise. Take Beyonce’s Lemonade, a 60-minute film created to herald the launch of her sixth studio album. Frank Ocean, too, recently went multimedia as part of the release of his new album Boys Don’t Cry, making a beautifully designed magazine that seemed to be saying that his visual identity was equally important to him as an artist. “It goes to show that these things don’t have to be at the Tate,” says Azerrad. “You can absolutely argue the cultural impact of Beyonce has been far greater than even the video for Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller.’”

Examples of current innovation in impact from the Design+Music Workshop
Examples of current innovation in impact from the Design+Music Workshop

Design and creativity in all its forms are integral to music and how we consume it, and the same works in reverse. Both have the power to make cultural and societal shifts, big and small, and ultimately enhance the experience of being alive. Whether on a large or small level, that’s a very exciting thought.

Designer Eric Heiman of Volume Inc. sees music as the “counter balance” to his more “uptight” side. He describes it as the “id to design’s more staid ego… That music can put us so viscerally in the moment and then also enable pauses for contemplation is its formidable kick-ass power. Aren’t these the two mental states we, as designers, need to inhabit as much as possible?”