Musicians, Architects, and Systems Thinkers seem to have a similar thread woven through them. When you think about Frank Lloyd Wright, Dr. W. Edwards Deming, Peter Drucker and many others had musical composition in their background.
Next weeks, Podcast guest Jim Kalbach, is a Principal UX Designer with Citrix Online and an active speaker, writer, and instructor on business design, user experience, and information architecture. In preparation for the interview, I read his blogs at experiencinginformation.com and got lost in the multiple layers of information I found. Read an excerpt from the podcast and discover an interesting similarity and Jim’s taking on systems architecture and music composition.
Joe: I found it interesting that you have a Master’s degree in Music and Composition.
Jim: Yes, that’s what I studied initially. I have a very musical family. Both my parents are musicians, and I’ve always played instruments and been around music in more than just a passive entertainment kind of way. I was always active in making music and organizing events and concerts and things. So I studied music as an undergrad and went on to graduate school to get a degree in Music Theory and Composition, which means that I’m not a really good performer although I have a formal degree in that. I realized there’s not much of a career there so I got a second Master’s degree in Library Science, which at that time put me in contact with the web and programming – a little bit of HTML. And that was kind of my introduction into web design and digital design.
Joe: Well it seems that architectures, systems thinking goes well with music composition. Deming was a composer, Drucker and even Frank Lloyd Wright; I think their parents were music composers. What do you think that connection is?
Jim: That’s a really interesting question. I’ve always wanted to do more with that. Again it’s one of those things that’s my life experience. So those two things in my mind aren’t separate. I think if you break it down you can make comparisons. Particularly when you talk about music composition, you can talk about levels of abstraction at which you create a solution. In music composition, we talk about form. The form of music is, for people who don’t understand it, very kind of abstract and nontangible topic. But that’s where a lot of it begins. How is my piece going to begin and take shape in the middle and then come to the conclusion? Those kinds of questions, but also then how you layer up towards the surface from there, as well. You have these levels of abstraction, levels of completeness in music composition. So when coming up a digital solution whatever it might be, a product interface, or even a strategy, my experience as a composer I think does help me approach problem solving at multiple levels at the same time. So thinking about an abstract problem in terms of “what’s the form of this?” and then moving up to the surface from there. I think there are probably some other comparisons, but I’ve never really broken it down. That’s probably a talk that I need to work up for some conference at some time.
Jim: Interestingly enough I’ve made some other comparisons between music and just collaboration in general but particularly design collaboration. That is a creative type of collaboration in teams, in companies, projects that we work on and particularly around jazz. I played and listened to a lot of jazz although I studies kind of classical composition. There are actually a couple books on this topic. There’s one in 1996 I believe from a man named John Kao called “Jamming,” and another one more recently by Frank Barrett called “Yes to the Mess.” In both of those books they use jazz as a larger metaphor for an alternative way of companies, businesses, and leaders, and teams even, how to think and collaborate because when you think about it a jazz improvisation and how a group on stage can improvise and look at all those dynamics and dimensions going on, I think it’s a valuable lesson for us particularly in this day and age. We have to rethink businesses, how we work.
Jim: The hierarchical command and control type of leadership isn’t working anymore. So what do we do? Jazz improvisation can provide a metaphor for us. Jeff Gothelf, who wrote the Lean UX book is close to me here in New Jersey where I am, and he and I are going to be giving a talk where we’re actually going to play on stage – Jeff plays keyboards. We’re actually going to play with a little jazz group that we put together. We’re going to play some music and then talk about exactly what I just mentioned. That is what are the dynamics of a jazz group and how can we use that as a larger metaphor for teams to work together better. That’s at the RE:DESIGN Conference on April 28 and 29 in Brooklyn. If you search for just redesign on Google, you don’t find it but if you search in RE:DESIGN in Brooklyn, you might find that conference on Google. We’re going to be speaking on Tuesday, April 29.
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