Music As Sound Design

I like music in television, provided it doesn’t get in the way.

And it occurs to me that in putting together a TV show, the producers would know that the content—the subject matter of the show itself—would be the focus of it. In “reality” TV, what we’re supposed to be shown, I would assume, is an informative presentation.

But I think that depends on the “channel” you’re watching. And of course cable television has innumerable places to catch the kind of show you want to view, especially if it is reality based. But finding what you want to see may be tricky. In the relatively formative years of cable channel lineups, it was easier to find shows based on the format of the channel. For example, TLC used to be The Learning Channel, but these days that moniker does not actually encompass what is generally offered there. Historic shows aren’t necessarily found on The History Channel—they could be on The Smithsonian Network or even Discovery. So it goes.

My wife and I have been up and down the “dial” in finding shows we like, and like most people, we stick to what we find enjoyable. But I notice that even with a show whose content I might find interesting, the accompanying music can be annoying. And so today’s column is about that: music as sound design. (I won’t add a sound design category just for this.)

If design is everything (which I believe is and which I postulated back in 2017), then everything you see and feel (and even hear) watching TV is part of the show or commercial, and therefore part of the overall presentation—and planned. The producers want you to hear that music. And if that music is weaved into the fabric of the presentation, if it truly becomes incidental, you almost don’t consciously hear it. Unless of course it becomes intrusive.

I was watching Tiny House, Big Living this morning on DIY Network, a show about building small, convertible mobile houses for people on modest budgets. They’ll build you a home that has less than 500 square feet of living space and make it livable for two people. They make the place with spaces that double as kitchen and laundry areas, living room/bedroom spaces, etc., and with nice appointments made from quality materials. Their work is actually impressive the way they can maximize space. But in watching the construction crew, the producers have you listening to guitar music that might’ve been played by the band who did the transition music from Friends. And it sounds much louder than it needs to be.

Another show we watch is Gold Rush on the Discovery Channel. This show, if you’ve never seen it, is about gold mining in Alaska. It follows three crews of miners using bulldozers, scoop loaders, and other earth moving machines along with standard gold sifters such as sluices to find gold. And they do a very good job of getting the gold, some better that others. Here, because of the continuing crews, you get attached to them and tend to root for your favorites because of the contentious yet friendly atmosphere. But once again, there’s music, for the most part when the crews suffer damages to equipment and then must rally to fix it, whereupon the producers will have you listening to heroic, almost Olympic style music so you can enjoy the comeback-from-disaster challenges along with the crew. It’s empathetic, I would guess. But the music tends to be repetitious, and it happens every week, and generally with all three crews.

Then we have another example for intrusive music with The Great British Baking Show on PBS. And here, like a lot of things British (or so it seems), the producers have you listening to what I’d call tedious music passages. The home-based bakers are all given time limits for baking anything from complicated breads and cakes to thematic monstrosities that would challenge any home cook. And during the competition, the camera crew is focusing on closeups of the process, the facial expressions of the contenders, and often the mistakes they may make, which then of course, like all other shows, is edited down to the quick cuts necessary to give maximum impact for anxious expectancy. And that anxiousness is accompanied by the tedious music, always recorded by a chamber orchestra with violins twittering their repetitious tinny notes, practically like Flight of the Bumblebee.

I will say, however, that if it weren’t for the music here on this baking show, you wouldn’t feel nearly as much in tune with the bakers’ nervousness.

So music does help you along in viewing and in empathy for the performers (or miners and carpenters) if two things don’t happen to make you tired of it: repetition of the same music, and if the music isn’t played at volume.

Design can encompass many senses: visual, tactile, and even aural. Good design uses them proportionately to achieve an end result that’s a harmonious, and pleasing experience. Bad design will use one or more of them to a disproportionate degree, with an annoying result.

 

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Color is Relative

One of the many areas we covered in design school was color. We hit the ground running with a foundation year subject called Color Concept, where we not only studied color, but we learned how to move it around a composition, how to manipulate it and use it to bring a viewer’s eye around to focal points within the frame of reference—the boundaries of the composition—how to modulate it.

This was a big step for each of us. And in learning about any color, we found that one of its attributes is that it’s relative to other colors around it, meaning that its appearance can change. And that was something you could control only by altering those other colors.

The human eye adjusts for color comparisons. Here I’m talking about color’s main attributes: color has both value (lightness or darkness) and chroma (saturation).

The human eye can see color relativity only by comparison. For example, putting a gray square on a white background, then the same on a black background, you see just how the gray tends to change. It appears dark against that white background, but much lighter against the black. Our eyes adjust for that comparison automatically.

Our eyes are exactly like cameras. We squint in bright light conditions, and our pupils contract in size, letting in a small amount of light on the retina. Conversely, our pupils open up wider in dim light and thereby allow additional light to reach the retina so we can see greater detail. That’s just how a camera’s aperture works—if you use shutter priority for the camera’s basic shooting preference.

Color also changes with environment. Say you’re in Sherwin-Williams looking for a color to paint your bedroom. You see a soft blue tone that might match your bedspread and you pick out a few chips that’ll come close. So you head home, and when you arrive and put those chips on the wall, you discover that the color has changed. Either it’s too light or too dark, or even that it’s too drab. What changed?

The environment in your home is not at all the same as in that paint store. The lighting is not the same. And light has a tremendous amount of influence over color. As photographers know, fluorescent light, incandescent light, and daylight all have different wavelengths, tricking your eyes from seeing the true color of anything.

A color’s chroma works in a different way with regard to relativity. The chroma changes by way of the color’s placement among other colors. As an exercise, we’ll compare a color above to see how it can change before your eyes.

I’m borrowing two of Hans Hofman’s paintings for today’s examples. Look at the left-hand image above and focus in on the ochre color at the top, just right of center. Now in looking at the right-hand image, see if you can find the color that is the same ochre tone. There’s only one small portion that’s the same color. I adjusted the tones to match in Photoshop before placing them in today’s examples.

A clue: that ochre color in the left-hand image looks much greener than it does in the right-hand image. And that’s because of the red around it. I suppose you could say that a color is judged by the company it keeps.

We’ll see the answer in next week’s column.

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Design & Readability

One of the things I see in contemporary design is a departure from the norm of having a pleasing layout (placement of design elements) combined with readability. I’m speaking of print design specifically.

It’s normal—I suppose—in looking at cooking instructions on an 8-ounce can of sauce, and having difficulty reading that in what appears to be 4-point condensed type. Food companies feel like they have to cram information like that onto labels to be explicit in detail. Problem for them is that government institutions and consumer protection agencies have encroached on the labels’ real estate to where only about 15% of the label is available these days for the information you really need to prepare the food in question.

But in other areas of print, we don’t have that kind of restriction. Printed magazines—if they’re perfect-bound (single pages tipped into a center binding with glue)—have the least restriction with regard to fitting ads and article copy within the confines of the publication. Unlike saddle-stitched binding, there are no multiples of signatures to adhere to, and if the need is to add an additional page to complete the run, all the better for paragraph and type spacing. Readability won’t have to suffer.

Above are two pages from Wired Magazine, a publication to which I’ve recently subscribed. The magazine is a normal size for most that you might see among those sold in newsstands or bookstores at around 8″ x 11″. One of the reasons I decided to subscribe is the kind of articles they have in the mag, most notably dealing with science and technology, computers and communications, and maybe some environmental and political concerns. Very up-to-date articles for anyone who may want to be made aware of the world in which we now live.

Sounds cool, right? And the mag excels in those areas. But it is not—I repeat not—designed well. It suffers from what I might call timid or regressive layout, almost as though the designer has put down rules by which he or she has to squeeze the copy into tiny areas left over after dicing up the space for no apparent reason. The above examples are from the current issue, but what I’ve noticed is that the type used in the articles changes in point size from issue to issue, apparently due to some kind of self-imposed space restrictions, forced by graphic elements such as the black panel at the top of these pages. And those space restrictions are not about the number of pages, but instead about the so-called grid system they use—and even that changes with each issue.

Whichever way they decide to dice up the layout, they have what appears to be an 8-point condensed text font for most of the magazine. In the example at left, the “features” page near the front of the issue (common among many magazines instead of just the contents page) exhibits the worst kind of non-readability: a thin sans-serif font at about 7- or 8-point, reversed out of a number 3 warm grey background. I couldn’t read this without a magnifying glass while wearing a pair of readers. There is no reason to design anything like this. Plus, placing the subject of the photo dead center leaves a minimal amount of space for copy—if you don’t want the type to touch the subject—but notice that the copy does so anyway and overlaps it slightly near the bottom. Notice the position of the small word “features” at the top, the way it butts up against the edge of the black. There’s no consistency, almost as if there are no rules no matter where you look.

Then in the example at right, the designer has pushed the larger shot left and puts the shots of contributing writers into circles, which is OK, but then squeezes the info about each into narrow columns, forcing the copy down to what appears to be 5-point type. Notice the white gutter running down the near middle of the page, the small title of the page (Do-It-Yourself) floundering in a relatively large space, and the ultra-condensed serif drop-cap “F”: each item living in its own space with no relation to each other.

I could show you many more pages from the previous issue that exhibit further irrational design curiosities, one spread of which has an entire full-length sidebar using 4-point type.

I like the articles, which are very informative. Good writing all around. I’m just glad I get the digital version of these articles on my iPad, where I don’t have to use a magnifying glass to read them. And I’m also glad that whoever they’ve hired to design the digital articles is not the same idiot who does the print version of the magazine.

 

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Design & Readability

One of the things I see in contemporary design is a departure from the norm of having a pleasing layout (placement of design elements) combined with readability. I’m speaking of print design specifically.

It’s normal—I suppose—in looking at cooking instructions on an 8-ounce can of sauce, and having difficulty reading that in what appears to be 4-point condensed type. Food companies feel like they have to cram information like that onto labels to be explicit in detail. Problem for them is that government institutions and consumer protection agencies have encroached on the labels’ real estate to where only about 15% of the label is available these days for the information you really need to prepare the food in question.

But in other areas of print, we don’t have that kind of restriction. Printed magazines—if they’re perfect-bound (single pages tipped into a center binding with glue)—have the least restriction with regard to fitting ads and article copy within the confines of the publication. Unlike saddle-stitched binding, there are no multiples of signatures to adhere to, and if the need is to add an additional page to complete the run, all the better for paragraph and type spacing. Readability won’t have to suffer.

Above are two pages from Wired Magazine, a publication to which I’ve recently subscribed. The magazine is a normal size for most that you might see among those sold in newsstands or bookstores at around 8″ x 11″. One of the reasons I decided to subscribe is the kind of articles they have in the mag, most notably dealing with science and technology, computers and communications, and timely issues such as environmental and political concerns. Very up-to-date articles for anyone who may want to be made aware of the world in which we now live.

Sounds cool, right? And the mag excels in those areas. But it is not—I repeat not—designed well. It suffers from what I might call timid or regressive layout, almost as though the designer has put down rules by which he or she has to squeeze the copy into tiny areas left over after dicing up the space for no apparent reason. The above examples are from the current issue, but what I’ve noticed is that the type used in the articles changes in point size from issue to issue, apparently due to some kind of self-imposed space restrictions, forced by graphic elements such as the black panel at the top of these pages. And those space restrictions are not about the number of pages, but instead about the so-called grid system they use—and even that changes with each issue.

Whatever which way they decide to dice up the layout, they have what appears to be an 8-point condensed text font for most of the magazine. In the example at left, the “features” page near the front of the issue (common among many magazines instead of just the contents page) exhibits the worst kind of non-readability: a thin sans-serif font at about 7- or 8-point, reversed out of a number 3 warm grey background. I couldn’t read this without a magnifying glass while wearing a pair of readers. There is no reason to design anything like this. Placing the subject of the photo dead center leaves a minimal amount of space for copy—if you don’t want the type to touch the subject, but notice that the copy does so anyway and overlaps it slightly near the bottom. Notice the position of the small word “features” at the top, the way it butts up against the edge of the black. There’s no consistency, almost as if there are no rules no matter where you look.

Then in the example at right, the designer has pushed the larger shot left and put the insets of contributing writers into circles, which is OK, but then squeezes the copy about each into narrow columns, forcing the copy down to what appears to be 5-point type. Notice the white gutter running down the near middle of the page, the small title of the page (Do-It-Yourself) floundering in a relatively large space, and the ultra-condensed serif drop-cap “F”: each item living in its own space with no relation to each other.

I could show you many more pages from the previous issue that exhibit further irrational design curiosities, one spread of which has an entire full-length sidebar using 4-point type.

I like the articles, which are very informative. Good writing all around. I’m just glad I get the digital version of these articles on my iPad, where I don’t have to use a magnifying glass to read them. And I’m also glad that whoever they’ve hired to design the digital articles is not the same idiot who does the print version of the magazine.

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Tenets of Good Design, Part 1

  

Note: Dan Blanchette is taking the week off. The following is a reprint.

Design is organization. And without organization, we have no plan. We have noise, a cacophony. Let’s cite some examples.

Let’s pick music, for one. When you listen to a tune you like, it’s pleasant to your ears. The blending of instruments and the sounds they make produce something you find easy to listen to. Ever think of music as design? Well, it is. It’s organization of the notes on the sheet of music and the instruments to play that music—musicians call it “orchestration”. But it’s still design.

How about automobiles? There are cars people think of as great looking, others not so much. Why is that? A Chevrolet Corvette is a car most people would agree is a pretty sharp piece of work. A Pontiac Aztec, not so much. This is not comparing apples and oranges here: it’s merely an example of good v. bad design. One is pleasing to the eye, the other not.

How about this one: Let’s say we have a neighbor named Doris who has a bunch of framed pictures on her living room wall that have no purposeful arrangement. There are various gaps among the items, and upon asking Doris how she arranged them on the wall, she might’ve said,”Oh I just put them up in no apparent way. I just hung them wherever.” This is not design. Now we have our neighbor Gina, who has a similar arrangement in her living room. But this arrangement has maybe a close-quarter arrangement or grid pattern to it that makes it a much more pleasing thing to look at. She has a design.

One of the first things you learn in design school is how to compose an arrangement. There are terms like “dominant” and “subordinate” pertaining to shapes in that arrangement; but for the purposes of this article, let’s say you have a bedroom in which to arrange the furniture. You naturally place the bed first (because it’s the largest piece), then the dressers and nightstands follow. That’s pretty much how you design any arrangement. The placement of the most dominant first: that theme that flows throughout the music, the curving contours of that car, etc.

These are examples of cohesion. Good design has cohesion. Cohesive design is something you see, something you hear, even something you feel.

Most people (non-designers) can sense where and when they experience good design. But most people don’t know why they know it. But they feel it.

My cousin is a home builder. He has a good design sense, but he can’t define it. He just knows what “feels” right. And he’ll explain that in his homes that one thing “flows” from another or that the proximity—nearness—of one room or item to the next makes things easier for the prospective owner. To him, this feels like an organized plan. And he’s right. He’s a planner, an organizer.

Design is intentional.

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Tenets of Good Design—a Primer, Part 3

    

Design is impact.

Impact is getting noticed. Anything that sets a design apart from the rest of the pack is impact. Even bad design has a certain impact, but impact of a negative kind is what any good designer has to avoid.

For a product to get noticed, it first has to be promoted. That promotion could be in several places all at the same time: TV advertising, magazine/newspaper ads, and the internet.

Once we see the product, we can see just how much impact it has. Any new product in the marketplace should look different than any that’s come previously in that category. If it does not look sufficiently unique, its impact will be diminished and the product will lose traction—sales—very soon afterward.

Unless something—possibly its performance—is shown to outstrip its otherwise bland appearance. Say, a new laundry detergent: it may have a rather ordinary bottle shape and label design, but it may also contain an ingredient (or an amalgam of ingredients) that removes stains far better and faster than any others available. That kind of differentiation would move this product faster than grocers could stock it.

Visual impact shows up in two primary areas: shape and color. Either could be branded. The shape of a Porsche automobile is distinctive; likewise, the orange color of a Tide bottle makes it very noticeable in the laundry aisle. Each has brand equity this way. Having that kind of equity for many years works toward recognizability and sales that the items practically promote themselves without advertising.

But companies can undermine their equity by making something that has little or no impact.

I’ve removed the branding—logos—from the above images to illustrate my point. The two cars shown are from the same manufacturer. In fact, they’re the same model. Can you tell me what brand of car this is? Toyota? Nissan? Honda?

It’s hard to tell. This car is among many, mostly from the Japanese market, that has lost its branding, and therefore, its impact. The market has become flooded with automobiles that look so much alike in size, features and materials. Even performance. Standard. Unintelligible. Things here have become blurred among brands, even models within those brands.

I can remember in 1976, Honda brought out its first edition of the Accord. It was a great seller. It was different in its shape and function from anything else. It had great impact.

Now look at it.

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Tenets of Good Design, a Primer—Part 2

From time to time, I’ll post entries for understanding the aims and foundations of this blog. Because design encompasses many things, I’ll break down this discussion into four parts. This entry will serve as the second in a series that explains what design is and what it isn’t.

____

Design is function. Function is a word that has some different connotations, but as applies to a designer, the term refers more to ease of usage.

Industrial design sounds like a term people might first associate with heavy machinery. But the term applies to anything we commonly use in everyday living, be it in a factory, your home or in a car, even a toy or cell phone. A television remote is an example: it has buttons that when pushed send signals to your TV set. And that’s a basic case of human usage of a relatively simple device.

Industrial designers look to make items that perform a function. Beyond that, they make those things happen more easily with each new model of the same item, ergonomically. If you use an item in your kitchen such as a food processor, you’re using something that took careful planning on the part of that designer.

He had to regard things as simple as the size and shape of shredded food items before looking at how he might design the blades; how they rotate and how fast they move; the size of the chamber for how much it will hold; the shape of the chute for pouring in liquid; what materials it would be made of for durability; and, perhaps any additional things like safety measures. Then he had to encompass all that into an attractive outer case that looks appealing and will sell.

Sound complicated? It is. But these are all considerations for the designer/design team.

Some things have the same function but are designed differently. Take the Norelco shaver, the first to use rotary blades instead of unidirectional ones. Or that Dyson vacuum cleaner, with its cyclonic action. Engineers designed these to perform the same functions as their predecessors, but doing them better or faster.

Automotive designers make cars and trucks, and here the stage is more familiar (and glamorous) to us as consumers because we tend to appreciate these things design-wise more than that vacuum cleaner. Maybe it’s because we regard an automobile as a work of art, something to behold merely sitting in our driveway rather than a means of transport. Of course, that new car has things on it that go outside the sphere of people moving.

Which brings us to this: that car has a system on it (Bluetooth) that allows it to communicate with your cell phone, an extension of your computer. And that brings the consumer to the interconnectivity of your daily living with the Internet of Things (such as your doorbell, your security camera(s), your heater and air conditioner, your door locks), items you use together because they literally talk to each other over the Internet.

And through all that, we have things that are designed to work together. They operate and communicate for safety and convenience. Function, expanded.

Which leads us then to harmony, but that’s another discussion.

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Tenets of Good Design, a Primer—Part 1

Design by definition is—according to Merriam-Webster—“the way something has been made [or] the way the parts of something are formed and arranged for a particular use, effect, etc.” And that’s fine for dictionary purposes. But design is much more than that. It’s bigger and more important, it’s larger. By that I mean it’s everything.

From time to time, I’ll post entries for understanding the aims and foundations of this blog. This entry will serve as the first in a series that explains what design is and what is not design. Because design encompasses many things, I’ll break down this discussion into four parts.

____

Let me first explain that, in math, we have a symbol representing no items in a certain category. That symbol is “0”, a zero. The fact that we have the zero is an example of an organizational factor that came about centuries ago when it was discovered that there had to be a difference between “no items in a category” and “nothing”. A good example of organizational thinking.

  

Design is organization. And without organization, we have no plan. We have noise, a cacophony. Let’s cite some examples.

Let’s pick music, for one. When you listen to a tune you like, it’s pleasant to your ears. The blending of instruments and the sounds they make produce something you find easy to listen to. Ever think of music as design? Well, it is. It’s organization of the notes on the sheet of music and the instruments to play that music—musicians call it “orchestration”. But it’s still design.

How about automobiles? There are cars people think of as great looking, others not so much. Why is that? A Chevrolet Corvette is a car most people would agree is a pretty sharp piece of work. A Pontiac Aztec, not so much. This is not comparing apples and oranges here: it’s merely an example of good v. bad design. One is pleasing to the eye, the other not.

How about this one: Let’s say we have a neighbor named Doris who has a bunch of framed pictures on her living room wall that have no purposeful arrangement. There are various gaps among the items, and upon asking Doris how she arranged them on the wall, she might’ve said,”Oh I just put them up in no apparent way. I just hung them wherever.” This is not design. Now we have our neighbor Gina, who has a similar arrangement in her living room. But this arrangement has maybe a close-quarter arrangement or grid pattern to it that makes it a much more pleasing thing to look at. She has a design.

One of the first things you learn in design school is how to compose an arrangement. There are terms like “dominant” and “subordinate” pertaining to shapes in that arrangement; but for the purposes of this article, let’s say you have a bedroom in which to arrange the furniture. You naturally place the bed first (because it’s the largest piece), then the dressers and nightstands follow. That’s pretty much how you design any arrangement. The placement of the most dominant first: that theme that flows throughout the music, the curving contours of that car, etc.

These are examples of cohesion. Good design has cohesion. Cohesive design is something you see, something you hear, even something you feel.

Most people (non-designers) can sense where and when they experience good design. But most people don’t know why they know it. But they feel it.

My cousin is a home builder. He has a good design sense, but he can’t define it. He just knows what “feels” right. And he’ll explain that in his homes that one thing “flows” from another or that the proximity—nearness—of one room or item to the next makes things easier for the prospective owner. To him, this feels like an organized plan. And he’s right. He’s a planner, an organizer.

Design is intentional.

In the coming weeks, I’ll discuss design in many areas—practically everything. In magazines, in cars—even in television commercials.

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