I have always had a fascination with the cross-section of art and computers. One of my finest memories as a kid – circa the mid-1990s – was watching my dad, a computer programmer, work on an application icon for his company’s software — one pixel at a time (on a 16 point grid if I remember correctly). The attention to detail and art of it all fascinated me, and made a deeper impression on me than I realized at the time.

Prior to my career as a designer, I spent a good deal of the early 2000s as a musician – writing, recording, and touring playing music for a living. Being in a scrappy little touring band, like a little startup product team, we all had our roles. When it came time to decide on what each of our roles would be, without much thought I volunteered to design things — which at the time meant gig posters, album artwork, custom Myspace layouts, flash banners, etc. Little did I know, this would become the foundation for my love of design and product.

My time in the music world in many ways prepared me for my career as a product designer. The process of creating, sharing, and performing music is very similar to building products for users in a number of ways, and sent me into my design career with some interesting perspective.

Know Your Audience

I have found that the best artists understand their audience in deep ways. Just as the best designers do, they use their experiences as inspiration and through trial and error, communicate their vision in a way that listeners can relate to. They understand the landscape of the market, what types of sounds click with different folks in different settings, and they’re on a never-ending quest to find their voice in it all.

Creativity + Structure

Some of my favorites artists (Neil Young, Radiohead, Ryan Adams) are notoriously stubborn, but they have all been able to strike a balance between their creativity and experiences with just enough structure that their music is digestible and enjoyable to a wide range of people. In my opinion, the best products are those who have a very healthy balance of artistic vision and practicality.

Scrappiness

The best songwriters are scrappy and find creative ways to get the job done. This is no different from the best product designers. We have far more tools around us than we realize, and sometimes the best ideas come from the least expected situations. As designers, we need to be able to use the right tool that will allow us to understand our users and communicate most effectively.

Collaboration & Iteration

Collaboration is absolutely critical in both music and design. There are occasions when artists do most everything themselves, but it’s extremely rare. Without a team of focused individuals around them, chances are an artist won’t succeed. And just like in the design process, sharing music throughout the process to gather feedback and iterate until the product feels right – is crucial.

Recorded music in a sense is more like print design, where once it’s recorded and released, it’s essentially final. However, many artists (including many of my favorites) will let the song change over time as they evolve as a band. Artists do this to keep themselves sane, but also to keep things fresh for fans.

Communication

I learned early on that 90% of playing music is communication. Whether it’s with your band mates, your support team, or your fans, you need to be able to communicate effectively if you’re ever to get anything real done. In design, this is even more essential to understand from the start.

In the course of any given day as a designer, I spend more time writing and listening than I would’ve ever imagined, and this has made me infinitely better at my craft. I understand more and more every day how the world and design work and where my voice is in that madness.


Music is and will always be my one true love, and having the privilege of doing it full-time for a number of years, I was taught some important lessons that not only are relevant to design, but also life in general. While writing music is a much more personal and selfish endeavor in many ways, the process of songwriting and sharing with the world is very similar. I’ve used some of these lessons daily to become a better designer and learn about the world around me – and as we say here at Automattic, I will never stop learning.

Posted by Thomas Bishop

Product designer at Automattic working on the WordPress mobile apps. Musician. Lover of curry. Always be learning.