Get the Groove in your Design work, Part 1

This is the first of four articles, where I explore what it means to find your soul in design, to train your musical ear and to get the groove!

As a designer and a hobby musician, I have realized that ‘being musical’ is as important in design work as it is in music. But what does it mean to be ‘musical’ in design work?

Find your Soul

Soul is a genre. It is also something we can say when a musician expresses something that touches us; He or she “got the soul”. When listening to a soulful musician, we feel something — sadness, joy, glominess, love, sorrow or hope.

We can have soul in our work as a designers too. In fact, if we are going to design anything great, we need to have it. We need to connect our hearts to the task at hand. We need to be authentic. Same goes for facilitating a workshop, giving a lecture or leading a team.

How to get the soul in design work? First, work with something that already connects to your heart, that you are passionate about. If you do something you love and believe in, and do it fully, your heart is there.

The second way to ”get the soul” is to do design research that touches us. It often means meeting real people, with real dreams and frustrations. Or it could be stories, films or even introspection.

The point is to find ways to touch some deeper layers, to sense what really matters, to get in contact with the sometimes irrational, sometimes dirty, sometimes shameful aspects of social life.

If we dare to connect, we have a great chance to get the soul.

If we know the users as numbers or clichés (aka personas), it will be difficult to get the soul. Shallow design research can support rational decisions, but it is difficult to feel anything.

The third way is to dig until we find something that touch us, even without engaging design research. It can be a certain aspect of a problem, it can be a new method, a new technology, something that is difficult enough to spark an authentic obsession to solve it. Or it can happen when you realize that your narrow task is connected to a big and broad and important challenge. Don’t stick to the general brief — dig deeper until you will find your soul.

I think we all should practice the art of being soulful. We need the soul. Without the soul we make muzac, lame workshops and boring design.

ArethaStill not sure what real soul is? Listen to the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, who has sadly left us, but whose voice will live forever (link below). Photo: Wikipedia Commons.

Train you Musical Ear

Musical ear is the ability to really hear the music, and to respond to it. A musician without a musical ear doesn’t hear if the instrument is out of tune, what the others are playing or wether his or her performance fits to the music.

In social interaction, a person without musical ear just talks or acts, with little perception of what happens around her.

In a design process or in a workshop, a musical ear is about perceiving the group and its members’ focus, level of presence, psychological state and team maturity. And to have the right timing for suggestions, exercises or feedback. Same for a sales meeting.

A very few are born with a perfect musical ear. On the other hand, very few are tone-deaf. The rest of us have to exert ourselves, practice and be humble about what it really takes. In music as well as in the work in a design team, the art of facilitating a workshop or in a sales meeting.

And remember: It is easy to overestimate our own musical ear, as we often are eager to play a beautiful solo or say something clever. A rule of thumb: Listen more. Focus more on the others than on yourself. Respond to what others do.

Get the Groove

Some music has groove: A pulse that drives everything forward. Groove makes it irresistible to join. You feel it in your body, and you often start to move. It is difficult to describe, but you know it when you feel it.

Sometimes we get the groove in a project, in a meeting or in a creative session. We feel the energy, we move forward, as a groovy machinery. We don’t want to stop. We are in the groove. When this happen, we should embrace the moment and let it continue. For different reasons, we don’t always do this. We stop, just when we start to get groovy. Unfortunately, groove is fragile. It is easy to kill. Negative feedback, tactless comments or even well-intentioned comments like ”now we need to go on to the next step” may be misplaced if a team or a workshop has got the groove.

Maybe this is the most important example of what it means to be musical in design work: the ability to listen for the groove — to start it, to nurture it, embrace it and let it continue when it happens.

JamesBrownTo get a sense of what groove can be, listen to any live session with James Brown and the groove the musicians behind him create (link below). Photo by Heinrich Klaffs, Wikipedia commons.

Related Posts

Part 2: Enjoy a jam session, Embrace good solo performances, Tune in

Part 3: Dynamics, Hook, Orchestration, Tension, Gig, Dress rehearsal (coming soon)

Part 4: No matter the guitar gear, it’s all in your fingers, Putting a band together (coming soon)


Aretha Franklin, Say A Little Prayer.

James Brown, live (he comes in at 20.30 min)

Read more