Raves, Clubs, and Hustle

How DJing helped me as a designer

Spinning at the FITC San Francisco opening night party

Back in the late 90s I was into electronic music and DJing. When I wasn’t busy with design school homework, I’d be teaching myself to mix on cheap turntables, digging in crates for vinyl, or spinning records weekly at clubs where I lived in Honolulu. Occasionally I got booked to play on the mainland—rave venues like warehouses, ice rinks, or even old movie theatres.

Club / Party flyers

Making music got me hyped, so I was always pushing myself to do more. Whether it was figuring out how to 3D model for flyer design, how to use synthesizers and drum machines, or how to code an interactive website in Flash, I was constantly learning new things. Most importantly I was having a lot of fun taking the crowd on a journey; perhaps my first foray into immersive experience design.

A flyer I designed for the GlowStick Madness party in 2001.

My time spent DJing has helped me throughout my design career. I got my start in the industry through raver friends. Playing with turntables and making ‘holograms’ on Light Drive got me a job on the HoloLens team. On that team, my experience with 3D modelling and code let me jump right in to building augmented reality prototypes.

Who knew that spinning records and playing at raves would teach me some useful lessons about design!

Start simple

The most fundamental skill of DJing is beatmatching — syncing the beats of two songs so you can fade smoothly between them. When I first learned to beatmatch, I’d try to mix between two very different genres. Halfway through a mix between a thumpy four on the floor house track and a bouncy breaks record, suddenly it would sound like sneakers tumbling in the dryer as the songs went totally out of sync.

I finally learned that by sticking to one genre it made the mixing process easier — the similar drum tracks matched up better, and I was able to hear when they were drifting off. By keeping things simpler, I quickly got the hang of the basics.

If you’re starting out as a designer, or exploring a new aesthetic, sticking with a few simple stylistic elements for a while can help you make steady progress. Try using a single typeface for a while, or living with a favorite color palette. If you run out of ideas, keep pushing through it and challenge yourself to see what you can come up with within those constraints — you may just discover something original and new.

Film maker Michel Gondry is a master of taking a simple visual ideas and playing them out. For the design of “Star Guitar,” he explored the simple idea of sequencing video to match the musicality of the song, with a mind bending result that felt totally fresh and unexpected.

Practice your performance

When I was learning to DJ, I would practice every chance I got. I’d record the sets, and listen to them to figure out what was and wasn’t working. Pretty soon I gained some confidence and got to know my records. My first gigs were opening or afterhours sets, perfect for getting comfortable with the insane volume, crazy party-goers, and iffy equipment. Those newbie gigs gave me enough experience to get into a flow state, connect with the audience, and really start putting on a good show. All the hard work paid off at gigs like “Anthem,” one of my first parties outside Hawaii. As soon I got behind the turntables and started playing, my nerves went away and we all just had a ton of fun with funky breaks.

Spyhunter representing the 808 state
Upbeat crowd-pleasers to get the San Francisco crowd moving

The best designers are often also seasoned performers. They’ve put in the time before a presentation to thoroughly understand the design challenge, have crafted a compelling story, and practiced their delivery. They embrace an opportunity to speak in public, and do so with a confidence that adds an air of credibility to the work being shown. They’re adept at fielding comments from the audience, and know when to go off script if necessary.

Getting comfortable in front of a crowd takes some time, so don’t worry if your performance isn’t spot-on the first time round.

Take people on a journey

One of my favorite songs is “Finished Symphony” by Hybrid. From the echoing opening samples and glittering spacey soundscape, through the grand orchestral strings and then into the precision, punchy breakbeats, it takes me on a journey every time I hear it.

The arrangement of the track uses musical elements much like characters in film, casting the genres of classical and breakbeat as contrasting characters, introducing them individually at first, and then eventually layering them together in a sublime juxtaposition.

Inspired by tracks like “Finished Symphony,” whenever I was working on a mix I’d think about the flow of the set, and how it could take the listener on a journey. “Against All Oddswas a podcast I recorded in 2011 that told a story about overcoming adversity. The mix has three genres that build a narrative around struggle, hope, and reinvigoration.

48 minutes of dubstep, house, drum & bass

Good stories have the power to move people, and can be a useful tool to help communicate a message or make it more impactful. Next time you’ve got a presentation, think about what story you want to tell. What’s the big takeaway? Who are the people in your story? What are their motivations?

Consider the crowd. Use storytelling to take your audience on the same journey that you want your customer to experience — and help them connect with it by using relatable universal themes, or even a popular song. Like playing the latest hit song at the peak of your DJ set — they’ll smile, nod their heads, and dance til they drop.

Put yourself out there

Making promo materials was a lot of fun—designing flyers for parties, cutting out album art for mixtapes, building Flash websites. Wherever I was playing I’d bring flyers to promote my next show, or a stack of CDs to hand out.

DJ Spyhunter mixtapes, CDs and records

In the days before YouTube and Soundcloud, you scored new gigs by getting your demo into the right hands. If it looked good, they might even listen to it, so it helped to make your mixtape or CD stand out. Over the years, I sent hundreds of demos by mail, printed thousands of flyers, and drove as much traffic as possible to my website and weekly RealAudio livestream.

Making mixtapes by hand

From the self-promotion, I got a few gigs on the West Coast. Turns out one of the promoters was also a designer and we hit it off talking about design. When my wife and I moved from Honolulu to San Francisco soon after, he asked if I’d like to do some freelance work for his design team — which eventually led to the biggest gig I had ever landed — a UX design job at Adobe.

So put on a good playlist, turn it up, and dance til you drop. Happy designing!

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