Hailing from Brooklyn, NY by way of Washington D.C., Automattic Theme Imagineer Allan Cole crafts code, layouts, illustrations, and beats. We asked how his creative pursuits play off one another. 

Q. Which came first in your creative development? Design, music, illustration, or something else?

Drawing has been a part of my life since before I can  remember. I must’ve been  three  or four  years old when I  started, and even at that young age, I was completely obsessed with it. I’ve always been an introvert, and so drawing and making art was my   way to express myself. As I grew up, my parents and  teachers helped me  hone my creative ability, which led me to various arts programs in middle and high school, where I met other kids with similar interests. From there, I was  exposed to the idea of making my own music, which also became an obsession very quickly. I had always enjoyed good music, but it wasn’t until I discovered J Dilla and Madlib that I knew it was something that I wanted to do seriously. Later in college, I learned about design, typography, and code, which I also obsessed over. There’s something about the challenge of learning a new thing, being bad at it for a while, and then getting good at it that I just simply can’t resist. 

Q. How does making music influence your design thinking, and vice-versa?

When I make music, I’m primarily thinking about my own current state, what moment or feeling I’m having, and how to best capture it. It’s a very intrapersonal thing for me and while I ultimately intend to share my music with others, I never know if the feeling I’m capturing will resonate with anyone until it’s out in the world. Design thinking requires me to be  much more aware of how others will experience an idea or concept I have. In that way, it’s much more interpersonal, where I have to really consider the audience’s expectations.. It’s such a differing dynamic that I can’t really say how music  influences design thinking  the way you might expect. It’s counterintuitive, but I almost never art direct the artwork for my own music — it just feels awkward — but I find making artwork for someone else’s music is  fun. 

There is a unifying factor in all of this. With music, design, and really any creative endeavor I take on, the idea of making “something out of nothing” drives me. The “nothing” here is the often unpredictable process of capturing small, abstract ideas and finding subtle and unexpected inspiration in them. Sometimes it looks like an oddly drawn font ligature, other times it can be the fashion in a vintage photograph, or it can sound like a badly recorded but mysteriously familiar high-hat. I never know when it will happen or why this kind of inspiration moves me, but when it does, capturing it is where the magic happens — and that stays consistent regardless of what I’m working on or the medium.

Q. Tell us about your recording setup.

My recording setup is pretty basic (to me at least). I’ve been using Reason since 2001 and it’s my primary DAW for everything I record. I have an OP-1 which is great for getting out quick ideas on the go and at home — it’s kind of like my beat-making sketchbook and I take it with me anytime I travel. I have an SP-404 SX for resampling, FX processing, and live performances. I have three midi controllers: a 49-key controller, an 8×8 launchpad for drums, and an MPK Mini for controlling keys, drums, and knobs. I also have a few vintage drum machines and a toy keyboard, which are great for escaping  creative blocks. Lastly, I have a four-track mixer and a couple of KRK studio monitors. I have a few other smaller gadgets and gizmos but that’s the gist of it. 

I’ve got a decent size collection of vinyl, which I mostly use for inspiration and sampling. I’m not a trained musician but a couple of years ago I discovered an isomorphic keyboard app for iPad, that has been a game changer for me. I struggle with playing real piano keys confidently but the app’s Tetris-like chord shapes make it much easier for me to express the sounds I hear in my head. 

Album cover, The Stuyvesants, “Brooklyn’s Finest.” The square image of a Brooklyn cityscape has been digitally treated to resemble a beat-up vinyl album cover.
Brooklyn’s Finest – Dilla-like beats from The Stuyvesants

Q. Where can folks listen to your music?

Allmos: https://freshselects.bandcamp.com/album/sound-affects-vol-1

Also on Allmos, I’ve got a new album coming later this year which will be available on all streaming services.., I recently released an ambient “visual meditation” piece for viewing and listening here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MIoe8xYQMyE

I have an artistic collaboration with Darien Victor Birks. You can check out The Stuyvesants: https://www.thestuyvesants.com, available on all streaming services and recently released on vinyl here: https://qrates.com/projects/20815

Q. What else should folks know about you?

I’m obsessed with both playing and watching tennis. I’ve been really missing it lately and in another life, I wouldn’t do any of the stuff mentioned above and would solely travel the world playing tennis for eight or nine months of the year. 


Posted by apartness

“King of Web Standards”—Bloomberg Businessweek. Designer at Automattic, Inc. Co-Founder, An Event Apart. Publisher, A List Apart & A Book Apart. Author. Father. He/him.

One Comment

  1. intrapersonal vs. interpersonal is such a meaningful distinction 👍🏻

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