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Spotify Design and Design Driven Ask What Sound Should Look Like

October 2019


Article credits
Spotify Design Team

This September, Spotify played host to Design Driven, the long-running design forum that brings together designers from across industries and disciplines. The evening’s theme, “Designing for Audio,” challenged creatives to consider how their work influences the way people hear everything from the news to their favorite song.

“Audio is the most honest medium.” That was the message Spotify’s senior art director Tina Snow Le had for the audience at this month’s Design Driven gathering. The monthly meetup has built a dedicated community of designers over the last few years, and this was the first time Spotify hosted the event. Spotify’s director of product design, Jennifer Cullem, kicked off the gathering by welcoming the packed house and introducing the evening’s theme. Naturally, the focus of this evening’s event was how sound and design interact and play off of one another whether you’re listening to your favorite track or trying to listen to the day’s news.

"Audio is the most honest medium"
Jennifer Cullem kicking off the evening.

Le’s talk centered on the formative role of music in creating connective tissues across people and culture. Her family immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam before she was born; her first musical memory was dancing to M.C. Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” in front of a makeshift green screen at a mall in Portland, where she grew up. “MC Hammer was the entry point of culture for me as a kid,” she said. “It ignited my curiosity about culture.”

That curious spirit has served Le well in her role at Spotify, where she’s part of the team that sets the platform’s art direction for markets all over the world. Localizing each playlist from a musical perspective is important, but Le also emphasized the need to dive into local aesthetic and graphic traditions to give something like a playlist a truly genuine impact. “One [playlist] cover doesn’t fit all,” Le said. “A question we constantly have to ask ourselves is how we take a brand like Spotify and translate it to other cultures. Our goal isn’t to make something that’s 100% Spotify all the time. We’re trying to bridge the gap between the brand and the listeners.”

She pointed to the work her team had done in Brazil during the development of the “Funk Hits” playlist. Before launching the playlist, Shahin Haghjou, a senior art director on the editorial design team, spent time on the ground taking in the graphic history of Brazil as well as the street art of the country’s favelas. The study provided the aesthetic counterpart to the work of local music experts who had created a playlist that reflected the funkier rhythms of Brazil’s music scene. “Funk Hits” now close to 3M subscribers, and mirrors the vibrant sights and sounds of Brazil.

Tina Snow Le took the stage to talk about people and culture.

Engagement was also on the mind of Nicola Korzenko, the general manager of PodFund. Korzenko is charged with finding and cultivating the next generation of podcast talent, and she discussed how the booming podcast market can be a minefield for talent looking to find an audience. “Only 1% of podcasts make more than $100k per year,” Korzenko said, doing some quick financial calculus onstage. And even with the rise of alternative funding models like memberships, tipping, licensing, and live events, many podcasters aren’t able to make ends meet just by creating content.

Korzenko’s advice to those trying to make waves in podcasting? “Create your own brand and make deeper relationships with your community of listeners,” she said. “You have to build lasting value and loyalty.” The old model of “build it, and they will listen” doesn’t cut it in a crowded podcast market anymore. You need to find your audience, engage with them, and craft moments that make people come back for more.

Audio platforms aren’t just about music though. And Design Driven also welcomed NPR’s VP of design Liz Danzico to the stage to discuss how something as vital as the news needs a distinctive visual identity. Danzico separated her work at NPR into two separate categories: Finding Problems (rather than solving problems) and Designing for the Public. Those two remits are something of a unified theory of design at NPR, where Danzico is constantly thinking about how to make the platform more informative, accessible, and dynamic.

Design Driven welcomes Liz Danzico.

We want to bring the public into the conversation.

Liz Danzico

“Relying on audio-only experiences can make it difficult to get people the stories they want which is why people need to be part of the design conversation from process to execution,” Danzico told the audience.

NPR has the unique challenge of designing solutions across a federated system of brands and member stations. Each station—from KPCC in Los Angeles to WNYC in New York to KUT in Austin—has a different look and feel, and it’s up to Danzico’s team to ensure that user experience doesn’t get lost in the shuffle. She’s also keenly aware of NPR’s mission statement to “create a more informed public” and considers that ethos whenever her team makes a design decision. Danzico wants to make sure they “give everyone a voice” when it comes to designing for public radio.

NPR’s VP of design Liz Danzico.

Design has become such a central component of how NPR builds its product that Danzico’s team has taken over the space adjacent to one of the organization’s most recognizable programs: the Tiny Desk Concert series. “Musicians like Questlove have gone around and commented on all the Post-Its we have taped up,” Danzico said. “And now the official NPR tour goes through the design corridor and talks about how this is how design is done at NPR.” Design drives everything that NPR does now, and it’ll continue to influence how the American public gets their news.

This iteration of Design Driven saw industries from across the world of audio, but the message was clear: What your platform looks like is just as important as what your platform sounds like. “Sight and sound is how we connect with each other when we can’t find the words,” Spotify’s Le said at the close of her presentation. “We want to bridge the gap between the voices we love and the platforms we use.”

For more information on future Design Driven events, check out their community events page here.


Spotify Design Team

We're a cross-disciplinary team of people who love to create great experiences and make meaningful connections between listeners and creators.

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