What You Hear when You Turn Off the Sound

Day and Night by M.C. Escher. 1938. An illusion challenging our perspective.

“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first fifty-five minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” Albert Einstein

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review asks, Are You Solving the Right Problems? It explains that what’s important isn’t just about solving the assumed problem, it’s about finding the problem that needs solving — that the obvious problem isn’t necessarily where you’ll find the best solution, but reframing and looking at situations from a fresh perspective is often what leads to the most successful results.

To put it more simply, Tina Seelig, author of Insight Out: Get Ideas Out of Your Head And Into the World, and a professor at Stanford University School of Engineering asks, “What is the sum of 5 plus 5?” There is only one answer. Followed by, “What two numbers add up to 10?” To which there are many answers.

As designers, it’s our job to solve problems. We just have to make sure we’re solving the right ones. That’s simple enough as long as you remember to take a step back and look at things from different angles.

American composer John Cage shocked audiences when he performed his piece 4’33. He composed the piece to be played by any number and combination of instruments, but the score instructs the musicians to stay silent and not to play a single note for the entire three scores. His experimental movement forced audience members to listen to the sounds of their environment, completely reframing their idea of music and sound. While sitting in “silence”, you’re able to hear the sounds around you — the breeze in the trees, a dog barking aimlessly somewhere in the distance, cars driving through puddles, the sound of bodies shifting their weight in their seats, the sound of collective breathing…

Cage wrote a lot of music, most of it not considered music at all. He tried to change the preconception of what others thought music should be by attempting to bring randomness to the predictable. He reframed the way we think about and listen to music and thanks to that, inspired other composers to do the same. For example, after hearing Cage’s interpretation of sound, Brian Eno composed ambient music to compliment the sounds of an environment rather than compete with them. Hiphop producers use street noise in their compositions, and DJs often layer vinyl surface scratch sounds to communicate something vintage and nostalgic. Cage’s perception of what music could be encouraged others to experiment with sound, creating a whole new genre of music.

No matter what industry you’re in, reframing the problem in front of you and asking the right questions leads to interesting, better, more clever ideas that push the obvious out of the way, making room for solutions that work.