Adopt a Musical Mindset to Tap Into Your Creativity
Michael Hendrix is an IDEO partner and global director of design, as well as a lifelong musician and associate professor at the Berklee College of Music. Over his 25-year career he’s co-founded an art school for high schoolers, a professional design curriculum for undergrads, two professional design clubs, and three small businesses, as well as helping clients across all kinds of industries find innovative solutions to tough design challenges. In this conversation, he talks about the topic of his upcoming book—what we can learn from the shared mindsets of musicians and designers.
More than 20 years ago, an inkling of a song was taking shape. They may not have planned it at the time, but Radiohead would continue tinkering and toying with the song, “True Love Waits,” for two decades until all the pieces finally fell into place. The song was released on their 2016 album, “A Moon Shaped Pool,” to critical acclaim.
But what if Radiohead hadn’t kept after it? What if when they first wrote the song in 1995 they decided it wasn’t quite right and tossed it on the trash heap?
Michael Hendrix says we’re often far too fast to discard ideas that aren’t fully formed or don’t seem to fit right away. There’s a benefit to recording your ideas, whether it’s a tune in a voice note or an idea scribbled in a journal, and saving them for later.
An IDEO partner and global director of design, Michael is also a lifelong musician and associate professor at the Berklee College of Music. He’s spent many years studying the shared mindsets of musicians and designers and is in the midst of writing a book on the subject to come out next year. He joined us on the Creative Confidence Series to share more about what the business world can learn from the musical one. To hear the songs Michael references in this conversation, give this playlist a listen.
What are musical abilities?
The ability Radiohead demonstrated to the extreme—having a mindset of experimentation—is one of the things Michael says musicians have mastered. And something we all should start practicing if we want to make the most of our ideas.
Michael has defined 10 musical abilities that, when adopted by designers and the business world, can open up our creativity and fuel innovation. There’s a parallel between these abilities and those that many designers already employ, like collaborating with others. But Michael’s point is to learn from how musicians approach these same ideas differently.
- Listening: Finding inspiration in unexpected places
- Experimenting: Creating for the sake of learning and fun
- Collaborating: Choosing partners who push you
- Demoing: Building a bare bones idea, like a demo tape, to a fully realized state via imagination
- Performing: Connecting with your audience through masterful presentation
- Improvising: Fluidly adapting to change as a result of practice and discipline
- Iterating: Continually evolving ideas over time to uncover new potential
- Sensing: Operating on intuition and connecting on a human level
- Remixing: Learning how to borrow from others to make something new
- Reinventing: Finding new ways to apply your talents
“There are no highly influential artists that are loners. They always have collaborators. Design is the same way. You need each other.”
In our chat with Michael, we dove deep on two of the musical abilities—experimenting and sensing. While experimentation might conjure images of scientists in lab coats and X and Y variables, Michael says experimentation in the musical context is not so rigid. Actually, it’s all about play.
Traditional research and development organizations, like Bell Labs and Xerox Parc, are good examples of this style of experimenting. They were inventing for the sake of inventing. Without a hypothesis or a product directive, they made discoveries—like the laser—that weren’t obviously valuable at first, but later made sense...and big business.
To embody this mindset of experimenting, Michael says we need to do four things: set aside time constraints, release early judgement of ideas, let go of the fear of failure, and learn to archive our ideas.
While R&D labs of the past often played around with an idea for years before finding the right application, today’s companies, and the pace of work in general, have sped up considerably. We’re so go, go, go that “it's rare that you see organizations giving themselves that freedom now,” Michael says.
As you’re playing with new ideas, “be willing to explore, but also be willing to not judge.” And instead of seeing an idea that isn’t quite right as a failure, realize that “the context around you might change.” Sometimes timing is the issue, not merit. “What doesn't make sense today may make sense later.” That’s why it’s so critical to capture your ideas instead of letting them float away.
Just like how Radiohead experimented with new sounds and crazy (at the time) compositions (the leaked OKNOTOK White Cassette recordings give an intimate look inside the still-in-progress makings of later musical masterpieces), Michael remembers an IDEO client who once pulled out notes on an aged and yellowed legal pad in a meeting. This man had been holding his idea for decades, and “he understood that the organization was ready to do what he had been thinking about for nearly 20 years.”
One of the more difficult abilities to talk about, maybe because it’s harder to explain, is sensing. Michael defines sensing as “using the emotional connection to the five senses in order to understand the world or to communicate something back to the world.” This is the often overlooked, but also incredibly powerful, ability to connect on a human level. It’s partly what makes you love a brand or feel an emotional connection to an inanimate object.
A field of study called embodied cognition says we understand the world through our five senses first, and then we rationalize it. “As designers,” Michael says, “we can use elements like weight or texture or temperature or warmth to communicate value or connection.” Michael’s talk on this subject for Wired goes deeper into psychological studies that illustrate this concept.
Think of a hotel lobby. The softness of the fabric of the couch or being offered a warm cup of tea sends subconscious signals that you are welcome here—all choices made intentionally by designers. Or, demonstrating the way designers keep our sometimes illogical senses in mind, how car manufacturers add tension to lightweight doors to give us the impression of higher quality and safety. It’s not technically necessary, but they understand they have to meet our emotional needs in order to make us feel safe in that car.
In the musical world, artist Kevin Shields of the band My Bloody Valentine, is one of Michael’s favorite examples to share. Looking to replicate in his music the dreamlike state between awake and sleeping, Kevin stayed up for three days straight. As sleep deprivation drove him to a hypnagogic state, he began to record. The resulting album, “Loveless,” has the feeling of being underwater, distant, or dreamlike. Michael’s students at Berklee pick up on these emotions quickly when asked to describe the feel of the music.
“Be willing to explore, but also be willing to not judge.”
Quick ways to start using a musical mindset
So what can the business world learn from musicians? Quite a lot as it turns out. But Michael warns not to sell the idea short by settling for cheap metaphors. Don’t just “get jazzy” and improvise in your next meeting. Work to embrace the mindset of musical thinking. It’ll take practice, but there are small ways you can start.
To get better at playful experimenting, try starting up a practice of journaling to record your ideas. Michael says it’s more important to journal consistently than it is for all of the ideas you jot down to be winners. Write them down now, and evaluate them later. Or follow IDEO’s example and plan a monthly imaginative hour at lunch. All of our studios save an hour for playful invention—doodling, making, or ideating for no purpose at all but having some fun.
To tap into your sensing ability, observe people and look for workarounds. What are they doing to make a situation or item meet their needs? How are they altering or personalizing it? Maybe it’s a dish towel wrapped around a hot pot handle or another homemade solution. This way, “you can start to sense the trouble,” Michael says. “And where you sense the trouble is actually where the design opportunity is.”
Michael reminds us that “there are no highly influential artists that are loners. They always have collaborators. Design is the same way. You need each other.” Rely on your team and network to help you wade through your ideas, and listen for the sounds of a promising thought. It might not be a beautiful melody yet, but give it time. You might just have a hit on your hands.
To learn tactics for experimentation and generating new ideas, check out our 5-week course From Ideas to Action.
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