How “Kid A” Made Me a Better Designer

The virtue of creating work that makes us uncomfortable

Jeremy Cherry
Journey Group


Image by Jr Korpa

I’ve always been obsessed with music. Cliché, right? Doesn’t everyone love music? For me, from a very young age, I’ve related everything to music. Anything meaningful needed a musical metaphor for it to cement in my brain.

Now, I wish I could say this led me to being a musical prodigy or some sort of production savant. (Maybe there’s still time for me…) My love of music has instead brought me a lifetime of listening and playing that’s made me feel alive and present in an ever-changing world.

I’ve also continually seen design within the same mental model as music. Because music is what endlessly powers my creative energy, the two concerns have always been intertwined in my mind. My twin loves of music and design led me to study both design and music production in college. Together, they were just about the only things that made sense to me.

So what does this have to do with Radiohead’s 2000 album Kid A?

Great question; you’re wise to ask it.

I recently finished Steven Hyden’s book This Isn’t Happening, which centers on this landmark record and its effect on 21st-century culture. This is a book for music nerds, perhaps even just for Radiohead fans, but its premise got me thinking nonetheless. While reading it, I lovingly recalled memories from my first days as a young designer and how much this particular album impacted how I thought about and even practiced design.

A record rooted in paranoia

I assure you I won’t launch into a pro-Radiohead sermon. That’s what the book I mentioned above is for. But I do think it’s important to ponder what Kid A might have to teach us as designers.

Kid A was released in 2000, a year before the life-altering events of 9/11. It was created out of the fog of Y2K paranoia and a significant creative block for the band. Without diving too deep into the rest of the group’s history and trajectory, this album essentially divides their work into halves. Fans often think of their work in terms of pre- and post-Kid A.

The album sounds and feels anxious. It’s not exactly accessible. Fans and critics alike hated it when it was first released. Needless to say, for many, it was not love at first listen. It often took folks, like myself, dozens of listens to make much sense of it. The album’s lyrics were scattered fragments, leaving the listener to bring their own interpretation to the jigsaw puzzle of music. It pivoted from classic guitar-driven anthems to electronic instrumentation that was hard to place or identify, echoing the strangeness of emerging technologies. In retrospect, this hesitation seems almost comical because of how normal, or of its time, the album sounds to the 2022 ear.

Listening to a lot of Radiohead could make anyone a more interesting person, let alone a more interesting designer, but there’s a good reason this record was formative to my early design years. By the time I entered my first full-time design position, Kid A had been out for a decade, and yet it still spoke to me as something timely.

Why did I like listening to this album on repeat while designing in those early years? I think it was because Kid A made me uncomfortable.

Robot voices and comfort zones

Inspiration directly impacts what we create. There’s well-founded theories centered around the thought that every idea is borrowed from another. This can leave some feeling inadequate or unoriginal. For me, however, it just makes me keenly aware of what’s inspiring me because I believe I will see it reflected in my work.

What I loved about Kid A in those early years of design, and still today, was that it forced me to think differently. While it pushed my ears out of their comfort zones, it also forced my creativity out of its well-worn lanes of thought. It was nearly impossible not to respond to the listening experience.

Early on in my career, the projects I loved most were the ones that made me the most uncomfortable. Maybe I’m just a glutton for punishment, but it was in these scenarios of discomfort that I became more resourceful, more adaptive. I couldn’t just look for the easy answer. I had to look for solutions in places I wouldn’t always expect them.

This also helped me better relate to my colleagues. I was able to empathize with the discomfort of innovation. Musing on Kid A helped me learn the often emotional rollercoaster that is the design process. For clients, their initial reaction to a new design was often “What am I looking at here?” This reaction is not dissimilar to my initial listen of Radiohead’s masterpiece. Change is uncomfortable. Even those of us who thrive on change have grown to enjoy the uneasy feelings it brings about. It’s in this discomfort that we meet our clients and the humans interacting with our work.

What’s your jazz?

Here’s what I’m not saying: Everyone should stop what they’re doing, put on Kid A, and go make something interesting. That does sound like fun. What I am saying is: Pay attention to what is fueling your creative processes.

Thom Yorke’s modulated falsetto sung over haunted drum machines and robot music may not do it for you. It’s an understandable position. I do, however, wonder if something a bit more out of your typical comfort zone would create interesting, unexpected results.

Lately, for me it’s been jazz. Allow me to defend the pretense, yet again. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t get jazz. I mean, I understand it logically, just not philosophically. I’ve realized that you don’t so much listen to jazz as you experience it. I often can’t predict where songs are going. Just when I think a melody is going to resolve, it doesn’t. Jazz often ends with a question mark rather than a neat period.

Listening to jazz has helped me realize that experiencing design isn’t just about what my work says but how it feels. When I listen to Idioteque, a key track from Kid A, I feel this sensation precisely. I don’t exactly know what the lyrics mean, and I can’t always remember where it’s going, but the experience feels complete in its own mysterious way.

Perhaps some of the best design work isn’t born out of comfort or familiarity. Maybe it is created with just enough familiar thread so as to not feel foreign. And perhaps, what allows you as a practitioner to create work like this is the ability to force yourself out of your comfort zones. When I’m on auto-pilot designing familiar things, I’m often not very impressed with the end results. The familiarity makes it feel boring or lifeless.

Maybe what you’re creating doesn’t need any mystique or asymmetry, but I find that hard to believe. As a talented colleague says, “Sometimes I have to create something really pretty to mess it up and make it interesting.”

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