Wednesday, March 16, 2016

10 Musical Design Methods

Why is there so little music in the world of design?

Design Thinking methods often use drawing and theater, but it seems we have barely scratched the surface when it comes to music. Our toolbox is filled arts-based methods: 
  • we draw pictures of emotions to help us empathize with users
  • we sketch storyboards to prototype new experiences
  • we act out the current experience to identify new opportunities
  • we create skits to rapidly prototype the future. 

But too often our design sessions are devoid of one the most powerful forms of creative expression.

In this essay, I'm asking the question, "How might we use music to support design thinking?"

I'll lay out 10 possibilities, some of which I've tried and some that are just rough ideas. I would love it if you would comment on any of these you've used yourself, how it's going, and any advice you have for other practitioners. Even better, share new methods not on my short list here. In future blogs, I'll try spelling out each method in a little more detail.

Some of these methods require some musical skills, but most don't. We are constantly telling people they don't need to know how to draw in order to create a concept poster or storyboard or prototype. The same is true with music.

So here goes, in no particular order:

Musical Provocations

Play different musical provocations, and for each one, participants design a different experience. This is similar to the exercise, "if we were Nike, Apple, Ford, what would we do?" Imagine a group trying to design a new in-store retail experience. First play, the "Rocky" theme and ask participants to describe the in-store experience that matches the music. Then play, "Hello, Dolly" and have them describe an in-store experience that matches this. Now play the Beatles' "Michelle" and have them describe a third in-store experience.

The Sound of Our Strategy

"What does our strategy (or future product or experience) sound like?" Have participants design concept posters to show the strategy, and include on the poster the title of the theme song that conveys the spirit of the strategy. Then, when each poster is introduced, play the theme song.

Drum Circle

Everyone gets something to hit (or use clapping, snapping fingers, etc.). Divide them into parts. Then, one part at a time, build a complex group sound. You can create a pattern like a drum circle, or you can create more of a sound painting, e.g., creating the sound of a thunder storm. Use this to ease tension, help the group coalesce, and/or to explore what it means to work together as a group.

Centering Rhythm

Have everyone in the group find an object they can use as a drum--could be an actual drum, a chair, their chest, a coffee mug--anything they can hit to make a sound. When each individual has a "drum," tell the group to start hitting their drums with each person choosing their own steady beat of any tempo. This should result in a cacophony. Now tell them to listen to each other and adjust until the whole group is beating the same steady beat. Do this once, and discuss what it felt like and if there are any lessons about working as individuals in a group. Try doing the exercise 3-4 times over the course of a day-long session, and see if the group's collective beat is the same each time, or if it feels faster, slower, louder, softer. Are we learning anything about how we're working together? Try it with your eyes closed--do you coalesce more quickly? Why? Listen to see how many other "drums" you can identify. How does this change your participation?

Banjo Timer

As facilitators, we frequently have to get people to stop talking. But nobody likes to be cut off, either by the facilitator interrupting them saying, "time's up!" or with a timer buzzing at them. So simply tell them, you have 2 minutes. When your time is up, I'm going to start playing the banjo, and once I start playing, you'll have to stop, because no one will be able to hear you anymore." Do it in a light, fun way. As the speaker gets close to their time limit, slowly pick up the banjo and strap it on--by the time you have it on and ready to play, the speaker will usually have stopped. (This is a variation on the "hug" timer.)


Write a "jingle" that pitches your idea. Pick a jingle from any commercial, and re-write the words to create a jingle that synthesizes the essence of your idea into a compact pitch. Then each group sings their jingle. Use this to help the group identify the essential core of their idea.

Synthesis Composition

Think of this as the musical equivalent of graphic recording. This method does require some actual musical talent, either on the part of the facilitator or someone the facilitator has recruited or hired. Over the course of an all-day or multi-day session, take notes about key themes, "aha's," struggles, and interactions. Build all of these into an original composition. It's easiest to do this by putting new lyrics to an existing song. If you use a melody people already know and distribute the lyrics, you can have the whole group sing along. With enough lead time, you can even put together an ensemble. I once presented an enterprise web strategy, complete with guiding principles, with a barbershop quartet singing "Coney Island Baby."

Pattern Interrupt

Sometimes we need to jolt people out of their typical work patterns to get them thinking and interacting differently. One of the fastest ways to do this is to sing a song. I once started a meeting with 75 lawyers, editors, and managers by playing my banjo and singing "Tis a Gift to Be Simple." I did this before we even did introductions, and when I finished singing, I said, "This is not going to be a typical meeting." It shook up the room in a really nice way, and opened them up to try new things.

Set the Mood

I feel like I should include this just for the sake of completeness (not that this list is in any way complete). When people are gathering, when they're doing an activity, when they're coming back from an activity, use music in the background to boost the energy, to sooth, to inspire. Be thoughtful about how you want to influence the energy in the room--you don't always want to pump the energy level up. It can be especially helpful to have something soothing ready to play during a break after a very intense exercise.

Sing the Current Experience

We often use drawings to describe what the current experience feels like--people tearing their hair out, or yawning, or getting hit by a truck. Why not do that with music? When thinking about the current experience, e.g., after reviewing results of ethnography, or after reading customer comments, synthesize what you've learned about what customers are experiencing by picking a song that sums it up, e.g., "Help! I need somebody!" or "I'm fixing a hole where the rain comes in," or "The Long and Winding Road."  Each group decides on a song, and then they play the song from their phone, or sing it, and explain why this reflects the current experience. Follow this with "The Sound of Our Strategy" above.

There you have it--10 design methods, some I've tried, some still waiting to be prototyped. What do you think? Which of these have you used, and how effective are they? What other ideas have you thought of or tried?


Martin Hardee said...

Wonderful! I've often played recorded music at our design thinking sessions, and sometimes summarized the work at the end in a song, but these other ideas are more integral and worth trying out.

Blake Brandes said...

Tim, I love the variety of activities and ideas that you've included here! Thinking about how music influences physical spaces (in both the "create an in-store experience" example and the "set the mood of the meeting through music" example) is so powerful. I definitely plan to try some of these out during my next creative facilitator opportunities. Thank you!