Character Traits: Fernando de Buen López Reflects on the Intersection of Music and Design

At Doblin, we show up as whole humans, embracing and celebrating each of our unique experiences, eccentricities and vulnerabilities. The authenticity of our people is one of our greatest assets, one which helps us connect more deeply with our community and our clients. The Character Traits series highlights the diverse backgrounds and points of view of our team.

Before studying design, I had a somewhat idyllic view of music-making. Writing music was something that came from a hazy, inspired place, where innate talent was the most important attribute of a great musician. How naïve.

In reality, music benefits from many approaches found in design, and vice versa. I have been playing and making music for most of my life, and working in design has shaped my perspective on how they overlap — on where to bring design into music, and music into design.

Teamwork, Collaboration, Respect

Building music as a band requires many different skills: drums, bass, guitar, or keyboards. Even though each band member may be a specialist in their own right, the best music is created by bringing together many different, individual ideas. In music and design, collaborating (and discussing, fighting, laughing) with others typically creates work superior to an idea developed in isolation.

I have found that in both design and music, one should understand that you don’t know everything. Everyone’s perspective is valid. Everyone’s voice has equal value. Being open to others’ ideas means leaving space in your own songwriting or design approach for options that don’t sound or look like what you originally wanted, but will push the work into new directions. Here, humility and respect go a lot further than genius and talent.

Understanding Context

Context is everything in music. It establishes the perspective necessary for a musician to create meaning, tension, release, and everything else we feel and hear in a song. A note doesn’t sound the same when played over different chords. Understanding what makes a chord change sad or happy, a melody line ethereal or industrial, a rhythmic pattern feisty or subdued, is all about understanding the context of that chord, melody, or rhythm (including all musical elements, as well as the listener’s experience). Just think of that last party that got destroyed by a bad DJ, or imagine hearing ‘Happy Birthday’ at a funeral.

Just as importantly, as designers, our context is defined through the people we interview and observe, the market trends we see in play, and the specific characteristics of our client’s needs. If we don’t understand these, we fail. To solve with purpose, we must understand the context of our chosen problem. Even more importantly, we must recognize that our own position restricts the context we are able to see. Only a change in position, like a change of chord, will make us listen to the sound of the problem differently.

I see this all of the time at Doblin. During analysis, an observation that appeared stale at first suddenly reveals itself to be an important dormant user need when juxtaposed with other findings. Understanding, and always widening, that context can help us find and understand valuable insights.

Trust Yourself

When an idea gets stuck, it can be easy to defer to the collective mind of a band to get things flowing. In contrast, when working alone I am forced to define, solve, and commit to my own choices. This might seem contrary to a collaborative approach, but it has made me much more comfortable with sharing my perspective with my colleagues.

Teams always benefit from members bringing strong points of view to the table. When I see an issue, instead of floating it to the team with a question of what to do, I try to think of potential solutions, sketch them out, and then share them with teams and clients along with the original question. This way, others can build upon my ideas rather than having to juggle whatever I may have thrown at them.

Let’s Try That Again

Prototyping helps me iterate and evolve my critical thinking. Whatever I’m working on, creating many versions and comparing them to each other allows me to learn different things from each and every iteration. Even if I start from an incomplete or even mediocre place, really good work can be achieved through reworking, rethinking, and reshaping.

My process for writing music now involves recording as many versions of a song as possible. In these versions, I add and subtract instruments, change the structure, and re-write lyrics. I think of the elements of each version that work and don’t work, so that I can incorporate what I learned in the next version.

Through this process, both music-making and design are acts of synthesis, where the final product is created through the exploration and combination of a series of ideas, options, and variations.

The artists that many consider as pioneers have almost always shattered the orthodoxies that defined the genre to which they supposedly belonged

– Fernando de Buen López

Challenge the Status Quo

As a designer, I am always looking for client or industry orthodoxies. Orthodoxies are internal assumptions and commonly held beliefs that usually lead to biased behaviors.

My work requires keeping our clients’ and our own orthodoxies in constant check. I’ve found great value in doing the same thing in music. My main instrument is the guitar, but when I’ve forced myself to remove guitars from my process, I’ve written some of my most interesting pieces of music so far. The same can be applied to time signatures, keys, genres, tempos, moods, song themes, and song structures. Each orthodoxy or bias removed opens up a door to possibilities that would have otherwise remained unexplored.

Genres in music can also be described as a series of orthodoxies put together around a type of music or group of artists. The artists that many consider as pioneers have almost always shattered the orthodoxies that defined the genre to which they supposedly belonged. Similarly, I strive to help my clients better understand where they might reinvent the rules of their industry, or reimagine how they serve their customers.

All of these strategies and approaches have helped me grow as both a musician and a designer. There are many other areas where design and music overlap, and in the case of our Doblin work, where innovation and music overlap, but that will have to be another post!