Designing With Miles

Miles Davis opened up my ears and introduced me to the world of jazz and fusion. Beyond music appreciation, he changed the way I approach my professional work. While Davis, who reinvented jazz at least five times, was constantly changing his musical direction, he was also refining and redefining his sound. His choices of notes were thoughtful and his phrasings were meaningful. The notes he left out were as essentials as the notes he played.

As I listened to Davis’s albums, particularly his quintessential Kind of Blue, I began to change my design approach. For example, Davis’s improvisations in “So What,” “Freddie Freeloader” and “All Blues” were complete opposite from John Coltrane’s and Cannonball Adderley’s. Whereas Coltrane and Adderley played swift, blazing solos, Davis played only the most telling notes. In a similar way, I began to see important elements emerged in my design as I stripped away decorative ones. I came to realize that design was not only what I put in, but also what I left out.

While the process sounds easy, it took me tremendous amount of time and decision to accomplish. In many occasions, I keep turning on and off layers in Photoshop, Illustrator or even Cascading Style Sheet (CSS) to figure out whether I should leave in or take out a certain elements without over-simplifying the design. Coltrane had similar problem in his early career. He was having a hard time finding the right place to end his solos; therefore, he sought Davis for advice. Davis suggested, “Take the horn out of your mouth.”

In addition to being one of the world greatest trumpet players, Davis was also a master of communication. The recording of “Autumn Leaves” (with Adderley as the leader) is a brilliant example of Davis’s power of precision and command. After a brief intro from the quintet, which included Hank Jones on piano, Art Blakey on drums and Sam Jones on bass, Davis cut straight to the melodic core. Each note he played on his muted trumpet struck the emotional cords: brooding, melancholy and hauntingly clear. In my own work, I explore emotional design through the practice of selection and the art of reduction. Whether working with colors, types, or images, I would choose the ones that give the most emotional value to my design. I have also learned to cut out the non-essential parts and applied more detail to essence.

Using space, another design-related element, was one of the techniques Davis had acquired in his early career. With the rise of bebop in the 1950s, every jazz musician at the time wanted to play like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. They filled in as many notes as they could into their improvisation. In contrast, Davis left plenty of space in his phrasing. As a result, he let his melodic lines breathe and gave listeners a chance to absorb his music.

When I first started doing creative work, I crammed as much elements as I could into my design. My first web page was filled with at least four different typefaces, animated GIFs (Graphical Interchangeable Format) and unrelated colors. Later on, I learned the concept of using space to make the key message stronger through one of Davis’s fusion albums titled Bitches Brew. In exploring the jazz-rock territory, Davis gave his rhythm section, which was made up of four drummers, three electric keyboardists and two bassists, the freedom to work out its chaotic, organic groove. He only came in to play when he had something to say. Every time he blew his horn, however, he created the order out of the disorder. Likewise, my responsibility as a designer is to take the client contents and organize them into a logical sense. While Davis had demonstrated that space in music creates harmony and balance, white space in web design can also create harmonious layouts and free the eye from clutter. The correct use of white space not only brings out the content, but also enhances readability and legibility.

In his late career, Davis experimented with funk, rock, electric, pre-recorded orchestration and even hip-hop backbeat. The way he played opened my ears once again on the art of adaptation. Because he was such a versatile and flexible trumpeter, Davis was able to response and adapt to any musical backdrop. For instance, he was skillfully maneuvered his way around the pre-recorded arrangements in Tutu. In the hand of another musician, Tutu might sound like lightweight background music, but Davis made it into “a work of engrossingly fraught atmospheres,” as critic Kevin Le Gendre put it.

With the rise of smartphones, tablets and various digital devices, a designer must embrace the fluidity of the web. I learned to let go of the fixed design and abandon making mockups in Photoshop. I took on the challenge of designing web site where it actually lives. Designing in the browser feels much more natural once I get past the technicality. Davis once said, “The way you change and help music is by tryin’ to invent new ways to play.” I keep his words in mind whenever I need to learn and adapt to new technologies in the fast-changing paste of web design and development.

Written for Advanced Web Design class at George Mason University School of Art.