• Music as an intangible creative influence

    Design studios often go to great lengths to promote a creative environment. That effort takes shape in a variety of ways, the most visible being interior design, furniture and studio layout. The details count, too, as Leah outlines in her article, “The Creative Office“. There are, however, intangible elements to a studio that create an environment of creativity and thought. The most influential intangible for me is music.

    Music in the workplace has been the focus of many studies and discussion. The Workplace Doctors has a great article on such research, speaking to the kinds of music that have been shown to be successful in various environments. As many of us know by now, classical music promotes a calmness and enables people to focus leading to improved productivity. Similarly, light jazz has an affect on shoppers that encourages them to buy more. Certainly, when I hear Kenny G, I want to take out my credit card. Though, usually it’s to try and cut my ears off.

    But, it’s not about “productivity”, is it? For design studios, it’s less about cranking out work and more about finding a groove, or setting up and environment for focus. Personally, I find it difficult to work without music. For me, a rhythm or a steady beat propels me forward. When I slow down, a drum beat breaks my creative “stuck”. My favorite source of design music is Pandora‘s “TripHop” station. It’s just ambient enough to stay out of the way during conversations or writing times, but just upbeat enough to affect my mood and provide some design swagger. Not everyone in the studio likes my tastes, though. And, when we trade off, we end up with an eclectic mix of 80’s, Classic Rock, Lady Gaga and even Mariachi (often accompanied by beer).

    But, not all music works for everyone. And, more importantly, not everyone works with music. There is an implicit understanding that if someone asks for the music to be turned down or off, it’s for a valid reason and a fair request.

    I’ve experimented a little with this for meetings I conduct at Adaptive Path. Often, attendees will come in to find ambient music playing. I’ve noticed this sets a calming mood and says to people what goes on in this meeting is different from where you just came. Focus and be “here”. I also use certain songs to build up to the beginning of a workshop or presentation. Elevating heart rates and stimulating minds can bring people up to a level I want them to be when I take to the stage.

    But, the logistics of music in the office can be challenging, too. Design studios are a sound engineer’s nightmare – they are often large, open spaces with hard surfaces everywhere. This poses problems for distributing sound evenly and at a comfortable volume. Ideally, there are zones with individual volume controls allowing for environmental adjustment. Sometimes you have to divide up the music. Your lobby experience may not benefit from AC/DC as much as your visual designers do. Additionally there’s the challenge of controlling the music selections. It’s not always feasible to have people plug their iPods into the system when they want to hear a song.

    How do you use music to set a creative environment where you work? Or, do you? Do you find background music to be stimulating or distracting? Have you noticed an impact on your staff and clients? And, what does your musical choice say about your workplace?

    For more information on the pros and cons of music in the workplace, try these articles:

    Workplace Doctors




    CNN – Music Do’s and Don’ts


    Photo: Mallix

    Licensed under Creative Commons

    There are 5 thoughts on this idea

    1. Andrew Crow

      Headphones are an interesting thing. On one hand, they allow the designer to choose what they want to listen to depending on their creative mood. On the other hand, like you said, they make for a sea of quiet people. Sometimes it’s near-impossible to get people to agree on what kind of music, and you end up with a bunch of headphones.

      Personally, I dislike headphones in the office. They create an atmosphere of seclusion. It’s difficult to approach people with headphones for fear of interrupting them. You can’t just yell across the room and get a response. I prefer a situation where people can talk, share and interact. Nothing says “collaboration” like spontaneous Lady Gaga dancing.

    2. Philip Luedtke

      I totally agree … and spontaneous Lada Gaga dancing sounds awesome.

      Wearing headphones pretty much says “leave me alone.” There isn’t much more awkward than getting someones attention when they are intentionally tuning out the world. I would much rather have a collaborative environment where I can interact ad hoc with my coworkers — even if I’m not a fan of the occasional angry death metal hissing from their speakers.

    3. C.Crowe

      Fortunately I work alone as I do not like to listen to music while I work. I prefer to work in silence, or to listen to books. It depends on the task at hand – if it is mindless – I want to listen to a book – but if it is involved – I want silence. TO me music is something to give your whole attention to – not something in the background. I don’t know if that is because I also am a musician (singer)

    4. Philip Luedtke

      I’m fortunate enough to have an enclosed office so my musical tastes don’t really effect those around me unless I have a compelling reason to let them. Our creative department on the other hand is a sea of cubicles and artists wearing headphones. We have a pretty wide age variance which I’m sure results in a lot of varying musical tastes … though it is a little depressing walking through a silent sea of creatives.

      What I find even more fascinating is reviewing my listening trends. I’ve been scrobbling (with Last.fm) every song I’ve listened to since 2008. Seasonally my listening tends to vary, for instance during the winter and fall I listen to fewer artists than I do during the summer months. I can also look at a given day and pretty acurately guess my mood (or in some cases what type of project I was working on) based on my history.

    5. Michael

      Thanks for a thoughtful and measured article. It’s a hot-button topic, which is odd in an era when everyone has access to headphones and can listen to whatever they want without imposing that upon others.

      Music taste is very individual, so one man’s chill is another man’s kill.

      As a writer, as I write I ‘hear’ words and their rhythm in a way not unlike music, so having to filter-out someone’s loud music (especially if it has lyrics) makes my job about 500% harder. I liken it to somebody wearing overpowering perfume or scent in the workplace – yes it’s their choice – but not to impose it on colleagues. So with music, it comes down to social maturity and consideration of others.

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