UX Design and Architecture are the Same Damn Thing

I’ve recently been spending a lot of time studying the creative process, and how to best inspire creativity in myself and others. This endeavor has led me into reading about things like psychology, design leadership, and interior space design.

A few days ago, I picked up the book 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School, thinking it would further educate me in space design and help inform the way I structure my working spaces. I didn’t realize how much more it would give me.

One of the biggest things I had struggled with as a UX designer learning about the field was simply explaining what user experience was to other people. Is it the animations we use in an interface? The flow of one screen to another screen? Maybe it’s seeing our app in context with a user’s life?

Is UX even definable?

This architecture “cheat sheet” gave me the simplest and best way to explain UX design I’ve ever come across. Here it is:

User experience design = architecture.

We all know what architects do. They design buildings.

A building is a very tangible thing that’s easy for all of us to understand. We work, play, and live in them every day. We admire the ones with flashy exteriors. We go to specially designed buildings for events like concerts, movies, and conventions.

Two poorly drawn buildings, for reference.

Architects do so much more than just putting a few meeting rooms and a lobby on a blue piece of paper. They create an idea that the building will embody before drawing their first line. They consider the building’s interaction with the environment, the views it will have, the angle of the sun, and the flow of traffic through common areas. They think of the moments people will share within the building’s walls, and how the space will play its part in these moments’ creation.

The architect’s role in the creation of a building is the same as a user experience designer’s role in the creation of a piece of software. They orchestrate all the competing factors in a project so the final product truly makes peoples’ lives better. They provide the creative direction, and they work with the “construction team” to make sure the project is completed within those constraints.

Here are a few concrete examples of the parallels between these two roles:

Managing constraints

During the creation of a blueprint, the architect has to consider many factors they might not be an expert on: structural supports, landscaping, and building codes, to name a few. As they refine their designs, they work with the teams that are implementing these parts of the project, and must know enough about each field’s interests to be able to negotiate and respond to limitations — all while keeping the building true to its vision.

A good architect must stay informed of their constraints, especially before committing to a design.

User experience designers must do the same thing. They must keep all kinds of different constraints in mind: technical limitations, the user’s environment, ergonomics, and even cultural biases. Without some knowledge of all of these, the designer won’t be able to see potential problems on the horizon, and may not be able to adapt their designs to fit within the realities of the project.

Job to Be Done

When architects design a building, that building has a job to do. It could be a theater hall, a recording studio, or a restaurant, but the end goal of the building permeates every design decision that gets made.

User experience designers must make sure to stay true to the job their customers need done by their software. As a project progresses, it’s tempting to include way more than users need, and end with a bloated application that does a lot of things poorly. It’s the UX designer’s responsibility to ensure the core “job to be done” is accomplished as pleasantly and seamlessly as possible, and to not let anything else distract from it.

This is what the UX designer prevents from happening.

The Creative Process

An architect’s process for designing a building takes many stages. It starts out with rough sketches to get an idea for the high-level structure of the building. This progresses into more fine-grained drawings, including sections and floor plans, to plan out the flow through the building and create the “mood” of it. Then, the architect will start building models to see how the building physically plays out. This is all done before any of the specialists (construction workers, technicians, landscapers, etc.) are asked to build anything on-site, as these projects are huge endeavors.

While software tends to move faster than construction, the creative process has a surprising amount of parallels. While the architect develops increasingly detailed prototypes of the building, the user experience designer does the same. They may first storyboard the user’s experience using the application, then move to flow diagrams, and then start to imagine some of the UI elements on the screen. These stages of the creative process rely heavily on prior research and getting the opinions of users and specialists alike, much like the process of the architect.

Building up great software

The role of a UX designer is more like that of an architect than I ever realized. Yes, they’re making the product look and feel nice, but they’re also overseeing the creative direction of the project and mediating vastly different needs and constraints.

I’ll even go so far as to say “UX Designer” shouldn’t be a job title. If you’re a UX designer, no one is really sure what they can and can’t go to you for. Maybe we should start using “creative director,” or even “experience architect” to indicate a bit more broadness than a typical design position. (Not to be confused with “software architects,” who are responsible for defining the code structure of an application.)

If you’re interested in learning more parallels between architecture and user experience design, I highly recommend picking up 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School. Some of the points are tailored very exclusively to architects, but UX designers can learn a lot from the vast majority of the book.

TEDxRaleigh 2016: Why Technology Has Become My Art

This is a transcribed version of the talk I gave at TEDxRaleigh in March of 2016. The full video of the talk can be found at https://youtu.be/IGEwhzKudgY

December 25th, 2002. It was Christmas Day and like any other ten-year-old kid, I was excited to rush down the stairs as soon as daybreak hit and see what was left under the tree. I got down, I was greeted by the lights, I saw the vibrantly colored boxes underneath - but one thing in particular caught my eye. Down under the left side of the tree where my gifts normally were, I saw this dark green, very impressive-looking three ring binder.

And I was a young kid, I'm very confused. I'm like, this is a book, this for school! This isn’t a Christmas present! What? So I open it up, and what I found inside the left-hand cover was a CD case; and the binder itself was a manual for this game development software that I had just been given.

That's how I got my start as a software developer. I've been doing that for the past 13 years; over half of my life. Since then, I've taken up other creative pursuits: drawing, writing music, building musical instruments, and doing the “artsy” side of software development, user experience design.

I learned something valuable through these creative endeavors. I learned that the thing I was most proud of at the end of the day wasn't the thing I created; and it wasn't even the process or the things I learned during the journey of creating it. It was when I took that thing I made and gave it to someone for the first time, and they had this moment, and they connected with it. They were filled with wonder, they were filled with discovery; they learned from it, and tried to figure out what it meant to them, and if it could reframe what they expected from everything else that came after.

When we make something we're not just cutting wood, we're not just writing code. We’re curating a moment in time. Sharing an experience as the most powerful thing we can give anyone. These are the moments that make up our lives, the things that define us. As a creator of anything we owe it to the people whose lives we touch to create these moments.

And we don't do that as engineers. We don't do that as craftsmen. We do that as artists, and by thinking of what we do as an art.

I want to explain to you today how I came to the realization the technology, in itself, could be an art, by illustrating some prominent examples in the tech industry - the industry I work in - that exemplify this idea. But first, I want to stress the fact that cool technology, in itself, doesn't necessarily make a great experience.

This is Google Glass. This is the first real attempt at smart glasses that we had. What it was is this headset you wear like a normal pair of glasses, you have a camera and a prism on your face and a projection screen that only you can see about a foot and a half in front of you. Basically, a hands-free way to use your phone. Any notification that comes through, you’ll see it on the screen. If you're driving, you'll see the directions and the next turn you have to make.

But the more I use this, and the more I developed for it in classes and in personal projects, I discovered the experience just - it just wasn't there. For the person wearing it, you're staring into this prism and it's distracting, the screen keeps popping up and tearing you out of the moments that make up our everyday lives. And for the people around you, it's even weirder! You talk to someone, they don't know if you're paying attention to them, and then people walk by you in the mall or on the street and they just see this camera, they're like, “is he recording me? Is he taking pictures?” It makes people a little bit uneasy.

So they've actually taken this back in to be redesigned for a version 2. And while I was working on some of these projects with friends, we tried to do the same thing. We tried to make it a little bit friendlier so didn't make people quite as uneasy. Due to our limited time and resources, the best we were able to come up with was Googley Glass. That was our attempt.

But great technology can be art, and can create these great moments that help us expect better.

How many of you recognize this shape? This is the Apple iPod, and this is a company that's built its name offering these great experiences time and time again, chaining together these heavily curated moments. From the minute you open the box, you’re guided into discovering what this is. You take it out, it's fully charged; plug it into your computer or sign in to your account, everything just works. Because of these seamless experiences, I’m willing to bet that most of you who own an Apple product? You still have the original box it came in. That’s how good they are at this.

This is the Tesla Model S. I got the experience to test drive one of these, or the opportunity to test drive one of these, back when I graduated in December of 2014. It wasn't because any of special occasion, I decided to call up the Tesla showroom in North Raleigh, and I leveled with the guy. I said, “Hey, I just graduated, and I want to do something to celebrate. As a fresh college graduate, I have no money. I will not be buying one of these anytime soon, but I'm really interested and I want to try this out.” So he said, “Yeah, come on down.”

I want to stress this, this may be the most important point of the talk. Everybody should do this. It was so much fun.

I think the best way to describe this experience is to tell you about one moment that really showed me the true power of the car - and actually, it’s after I had finished driving. I brought my dad along for the trip, and he had taken over the driver's seat at that point. I was texting a friend, I was telling them how awesome it was, how fast the car could go. And unbeknownst to me, the car had stopped on a random back road in Raleigh. There was no one around, and my dad and the sales guy were talking about this whole 0-60 in 3.2 seconds? Decided to try that out without telling me.


It's not something you want to be surprised by. I was thrown back, neck snapped back, phone flew out of my hand - actually got a minor case of whiplash for a day or two. (I blame you for that, dad.)

But it showed me the power of the car, showed me the feat of engineering for this instant acceleration, that instant power. And the cool meaning of that is that it's actually not the cool part about the car. The cool part is what some people might consider bells and whistles. When you drive on a gravel road for the first time, and you have to raise the suspension of the car yourself to protect the underside of it, it remembers that and the next time you go to it will do that automatically without you doing anything. If you pass by a speed limit sign that says 65 miles an hour, it reads that with a camera, puts it on the speedometer, and lets you know if you're going too fast. Which if you're driving a Tesla, let's be real: you're going too fast! It's these refinements to the driving experience that elevate this from machine into an art.

And this focus on experiences and how they're so important isn't just something I came up with myself. It's not just an opinion I have, it’s been researched by economists, and proven and written about.

When I was taking arts entrepreneurship classes at North Carolina State University, we read a book called The Experience Economy by the economists Gilmore and Pine. They started out by saying business typically works on three levels of increasing value:

  • Commodities: the raw materials everything else is made out of,
  • Goods: the products we buy off the shelf, and
  • Services: the things people do for us.

As they become more valuable we're going to pay more for them. But they argue there is a fourth level above all of that, and that fourth level is where we create brand loyalty, it’s where we keep people coming back, and where people spread our vision on their own accord. That's when we offer an experience.

Think about Disney World or Starbucks. When you enter their theme parks, or you enter their stores, they curate that entire moment in time for you. Everything you see, smell, touch, interact with; that's all taken care of.

That leaves us with a very important question: How do I actually make one of these experiences? And that comes back to the way we think about art.

Now, when most people think about art, they might think of a song, or painting on canvas, or a dance. When I think of art, I also think of being in the front seat of that car, when all the distractions melted away, and I could just become one with the road (in the times when I was driving!). When I think of art, I think of when I'm writing code, and one change that I make makes the entire system explode into life.When I think of art, I think of slipping on a virtual reality headset and being instantly transported into an entire another existence.

The technology of the future is going to need this kind of art. Because we’re about to enter an era when people have devices all over their bodies: glasses, headsets, watches, shoes that monitor your health. Some of them apparently won't even need to run on batteries, so they’ll be with us all the time! We have these people with these virtual reality headsets on, in complete alternate existences; no concept at all of where they are in the world.

So if we don't think about the moments that define this technology, and how it fits in with people's lives for the users and for the people they interact with… we might have some issues. And these issues might actually hurt the reputation of this technology, and thwart its potential to make the change that it can and do good in the world.

Some of the greatest engineering challenges of this day need artists to figure out the experience behind them. Think about artificial intelligence. This is when computers take in huge amounts of data and use complex reasoning algorithms to figure out things and make decisions. And right now, sure, it can try to guess which word you’re going to type in a text message. It can try to figure out which app you're going to open. But someday, this artificial intelligence will surpass our human intelligence. People are scared of this.

But what if we think of this artificial intelligence as a medium? What if we think about it as a way that it can help people? What if we can use it to learn what people in different cultures expect, and translate our experiences; translate our ideas; bridge the gap and make our world more connected than ever before? What if we can create a virtual assistant that takes care of the things we need to do before we know we need to do them, and let us live our lives to the fullest?


Think about drones. I started working with a drone company recently, and it’s shown me the power of these devices. You can fly over a field, and it will analyze the crops and tell farmers what they need to do to maximize their yield and feed more people than ever before. You can fly over an oil pipeline, analyze the structure, and prevent a natural disaster from happening before it's even a threat.

When a lot of people see these, they’re threatened by them. They see surveillance, they see invasion of property, or invasion of privacy. But if you actually have these moments of holding one in your hand and throwing it like a paper plane into the sky, seeing it take off; pressing a button on the controller and being in control of this thing. You have this great power, and that experience reframes how you think of that device. It shows you what's possible, it gives you a new expectation from that technology.

Stepping outside of technology, some of the greatest experiences we have are just shared between two people, and something all of us can relate to. Think about an educator you had when you were in school that reframed math, reframed science in one moment that clarified everything else that came before it. Showed you the possibilities that lay before you. Remember the last time you heard an impassioned story, the last time you heard a song that really touched you on an emotional level.

These people are giving you experiences from their lives, they are curating a moment. This is what I want all of us to do. We can think of the person in the driver's seat of that car. We can think of the person on the other side of the glasses. We can think of the person sitting in front of us, or standing in front of us that we’re having a conversation with.

We have the power to curate these moments, to share these experiences that will change our lives, give us new ideas, show us what can be possible, and teach us to expect better things and to do better things. And this elevates us from being engineers, from being craftsmen, or being educators. This elevates us to becoming artists.

So let's become artists together. Let's stop just making things. Let's start curating moments, let's start sharing experiences. Thank you.

“If you think about it, the left brain is really kind of a pretentious jerk by the end of college.” - Right brain, probably

Creating a Creative Education

As of this Wednesday, I’ve finally earned my Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science. As I’ve progressed through this curriculum, I’ve observed that all of the core classes are geared towards preparing students to enter the tech industry in some capacity - most prevalently as software engineers. With this in mind, all of these classes are designed to teach either a software development process or how to use a new programming language/tool. Something like this is the norm for every engineering discipline I’ve observed, as entering any engineering field requires a tremendous amount of training before anyone can be considered capable.

The part of this structure that’s jarring is that there seems to be little to no focus on creative thinking in these degree programs. The curriculum designated by these programs does an excellent job of training students to function at a working level in these industries, but arguably at the cost of removing emphasis from the role of the “right brain” in designing true solutions. There are a myriad of articles out there detailing how colleges are killing creativity by focusing too heavily on purely analytical educations, and there don’t seem to be any clear solutions to the issue.

Sure, colleges are preparing students for the job market, but don’t companies seek out creative problem-solvers for the majority of their positions? Wouldn’t a creative education make the student a massively valuable asset to any corporation?

“If you think about it, the left brain is really kind of a pretentious jerk by the end of college.” - Right brain, probably
The left brain likes to embrace a clear delineation between the two hemispheres of the brain. The right brain likes to see it all in terms of wibbly-wobbly mindstuff.

Look at any large university, and the infrastructure is already in place for a change like this. Most major universities have arts classes, independent research programs, and initiatives/clubs to pursue outside interests. But if students want to get involved in any of these initiatives, they have to do so at the expense of their coursework; if not, many of the opportunities that are available are heavily restricted as to who can participate in them. College course loads are demanding, and many students who could flourish with exposure to the arts and outside creative learning can’t seize these opportunities because they simply don’t have the time.

For a solution, let’s look to some of the most successful companies in the world. Companies like Google, Atlassian, LinkedIn and Box promote initiatives within their companies for employees to develop their own ideas, with a clear bent towards betterment of the company’s offerings. Some of these companies do this in the form of “20% time” (an initiative where employees can devote 20% of their working hours toward personally-backed side projects), while others hold hackathon-like events where employees can work on their own or in teams to produce a project they come up with. Many of these companies take the best projects from these efforts and allocate more resources to ensure their success after the hackathon ends. These initiatives promote creativity amongst employees, allow them to take time off from their typical work, and often result in innovative ideas for the company to pursue.

What if colleges did a similar thing? The job of a student is ultimately to learn, and learning isn’t all about memorizing formulas and following processes. If students were encouraged to integrate more creativity and/or art into their curriculums, it could make them exponentially more valuable as prospects for employers. Any time I go to the library, I observe a vast sea of students overburdened with massive amounts of work that inhibit their ability to think outside the box, rather forcing them to fight just to keep their heads above the figurative water. Having been through that experience myself, I can attest to the fact that the initiatives I took part in outside of the standard curriculum (e.g. a course devoted entirely to visual thinking, and most notably my minor in Arts Entrepreneurship) have been an invaluable complement to my “regular” education, though time management seemed nearly impossible at times. If students were encouraged/enabled to set time aside for right-brained thinking, like art or independent research, they would theoretically come out on the other side with a broader wealth of knowledge and a greater retention of their general sanity.

And over here, we observe the arts student in its natural habitat, painting… something. We’re not sure what it is. It must be avant-garde.
Here, we observe the engineering student in its natural habitat. Be careful: it startles easily, and sustains itself primarily on coffee and counting down to graduation.

Sure, the college experience would likely take longer this way, but the payoff on the other side could be worth it. Companies like to look for creative individuals, and creative people often tend to end up in leadership roles faster due to producing innovative solutions for problems the company encounters. The job market is also shifting more towards smaller companies and shorter stints per job (in technology, at least), meaning that people generally have a shorter time to make an impact, or have to jump a higher bar to make the cut for a smaller company where resources may be scarce. With this changing corporate landscape, a creative education may become a requirement rather than a convenience before we know it.


Either that, or Comcast will build a “slow lane” of the Internet where we have to pass by several artist streams before getting where we actually want to go. It could be the “downtown” of the Internet.

A Case for the "Artist Economy"

Technology has put much of the art world in an interesting place. Technological vectors continually promise consumers easier access to art, but instead of removing a barrier for artists to be discovered, a myriad more complications have emerged in light of these advancements. The digital revolution has made aesthetic consumption more convenient than ever, leaving consumers with an expectation of instant gratification rather than an aspiration for the greatest possible aesthetic quality. Online art galleries, streaming services and video hubs like YouTube have made it possible to acquire practically every work of art ever produced with only a few simple keystrokes.

"That’s enough Internet for today."
...Or, you might accidentally stumble upon literally anything else. Tread carefully.

While this widespread availability of art is great for the consumer, this has resulted in a mass commoditization of some forms of art, including music. (I’ve actually talked about this before - as a musician, the state of the music industry is quite interesting to keep track of.) This phenomenon is exemplified by the current feud between Spotify and Taylor Swift, the latter of whom claims that streaming services like Spotify devalue the music itself, and make it harder for artists to earn the money that their work warrants. In addition, some companies have started adapting to the idea of changing the way streaming services work, with Bandcamp appearing at the forefront.

Bandcamp’s new model for streaming is particularly interesting, as it’s no longer using musical tracks or even albums as their unit of commerce, instead letting the user subscribe to an artist. For a price that the artist defines, users can get instant access to everything the band posts, even possibly receiving exclusive content through the Bandcamp app. This signifies a huge shift in how the music economy works, with the artist themselves being the product up for sale. If streaming models like this catch on, the artist could have significantly more power in the way their music is sold.

Either that, or Comcast will build a "slow lane" of the Internet where we have to pass by several artist streams before getting where we actually want to go. It could be the "downtown" of the Internet.
Alright, maybe a lot of artists have been a product for a while. But this way, maybe they can actually get paid well.

It would be particularly interesting to see if this new “artist economy” ripples into other forms of art as well. Music is already a fairly “tribal” economy, in that consumers tend to follow an artist almost religiously in hopes that they will produce more art of a style similar to what they have previously released, and leave if that artist strays from their perceived authenticity. Other forms of art generally don’t have quite the same concept of a following, and are judged more on purely aesthetic qualities (e.g. picture how an interior designer shops for visual art, judging it on how well it fits in the room). What if people started selling a connection/relationship with artists in other media, much in the same way Bandcamp has started to do for musicians?

Given the current state of the music industry, one thing is certain: the traditional methods of selling music aren’t viable anymore. This industry has always worked on selling consumers improving levels of convenience, from vinyl up to digital audio files, but the industry has shifted to a point where convenience is expected, not simply desired. The technology is already in place to gain access to any song we want to listen to instantly, so some form of infrastructure will have to be built on top of that service, whether that be a relationship with the artist or some other benefit no one has even dreamed of yet. There are exciting times ahead for art, and technology will be integral in moving the industry forward.

And apparently iOS 7 doesn't make it waterproof, either. Everything is a lie.

What Can The Technology Industry Learn From Art?

Over the past few years, I’ve studied a field known as arts entrepreneurship. What this means is that I’ve been studying how people perceive and value art, and learned how to start and maintain an effective business in the arts sphere. These practices result in a different business mentality than what I’ve been used to working in technology, and learning how the arts economy works has been incredibly valuable. Over time, I’ve been thinking about how these practices can be applied to the tech industry to let innovative products succeed where traditional business practices would fail.

(A quick side note: When I mention to others that I want to merge the technology and art industries, many people think I’m just referring to industrial design. What I’m talking about isn’t the idea of just bringing more aesthetic value into how products look - it’s about the way you market the product, the way people use it, and the way the value of an item is perceived. It’s more about creative direction and properly manifesting a vision/idea than it is about just creating an item.)

And apparently iOS 7 doesn't make it waterproof, either. Everything is a lie.
Caution: Merging technology and art in too literal of a sense can lead to broken dreams and voided warranties.


One of the lessons I’ve learned about these two economic spheres is how a product’s value is perceived by the mass market. In both industries, there are two broad categories of target markets: creators and consumers. In art, the creators are the artists themselves, and the consumers are the people who purchase works of art. In technology, software developers largely fill the role of creators, and everybody else who utilizes technology as an end user is a consumer. The arts market generally produces entirely separate products for creators and consumers, while in technology, facets of the same product are presented to the two groups in different ways.

If we look at the creators in both categories, we can see how products are presented differently in each sphere. Products marketed to artists are always presented as a vector through which they can create their art, rather than simply something to play with and try out. This mentality is most obvious in visual art, as the packaging and advertising for products visual artists use are always populated by other pieces of visual art, with less of a focus on the tool itself. In some other arts, the distinction is less apparent (particularly with music, as the end result of a product can be harder to convey without audio), but if you look carefully you can still see these practices taking place in most artistic products.

In technology, the specs of a product are most always presented front and center, and there’s a much clearer mentality of purchasing something to “tinker with” rather than having a clear end goal in mind. Rather than viewing the product as something which serves a clear purpose, tech gadgets are often presented as a collection of cool features with an open platform for development, asking the community of creators to help define an explicit use case for the product rather than portraying a use case front and center.

...Or Batman. I'm universe impartial.
...which doesn't stop these products from being COMPLETELY AWESOME, however. Using a Leap Motion with my coding setup makes me feel like Iron Man.

Now, let's look at the end consumers for both economies. In the arts, the end product isn't often a utilitarian item: in other words, people normally don't go out looking for a painting with a very specific size, color balance, or brush technique (interior designers aside, of course). Instead, sales normally happen when a work's aesthetic value resonates with someone in the right way, and they decide that they want it. There are exceptions to this rule, of course, but there is a very defined contrast in buying patterns when it comes to pieces of art against technology products.

In the tech world, every end product is bought to fill a need. Cell phones are looking to be the fastest and have the longest battery, laptops need to be compact and powerful work stations, and even watches now battle to provide the most relevant information for the best price and form factor. It's very rare for someone to see a product in passing that they don't need, and instantly purchase it because it struck them in just the right way. That may be because technology often exists at a higher price point than (popular) art, but it still stands that technological purchases are almost always heavily premeditated and need-based consumer decisions predicated on a heavy weighting of competing options.

”The Innovator’s Dilemma” covers the most recent disruptions that occurred in printing technology in a fair amount of detail. That book was published in 1997. ...Screw printers.
...Unless we're talking about printers, in which case we just buy the cheapest one we can and hope its archaic technology and boundless malevolence only impact our lives on occasion.

Why does this distinction matter? Two words: disruptive technologies.

When innovative products emerge, there often isn't a predefined use case for them, however revolutionary they may be. Historically, incremental disruptions have taken hold because their manufacturers found a niche use case for them through which they could continue to grow and develop the product until it could meet the needs of a mass market. However, in consumer markets, it's very difficult to find these niche users and adequately meet their needs when they are set in using their older, more proven technologies that may share much of the same functionality. For this reason, companies with these technologies can greatly benefit from leveraging an artistic/aesthetic method of marketing and positioning their products. Though I hate to fall back on Apple as an example, they have successfully leveraged this thinking multiple times, introducing disruptive products such as the iPod, iPhone, iPad, or pretty much anything that begins with a lowercase "i."

This is just one of the many ways that technology can learn from art. The economies associated with each product class are starkly different, and there are many more lessons that technology could learn from the art world, particularly when it comes to introducing new and innovative products. By merging these two mentalities, we can help to create a world where emerging technologies can let people accomplish consistently greater feats.

Drawing guitars is surprisingly hard on a tablet.

Has Music Been Commoditized?

The digital revolution has done a number of great things for the music industry. In recent years, music has become increasingly accessible, both in the way we purchase and consume the art. The first incarnation of the iPod/iTunes ecosystem was a major breakthrough on both these fronts, with services like Napster, Rhapsody, and Grooveshark changing the game for music ownership and discovery. SoundCloud has provided a simple and straightforward way for people to share and discover independent artists, and Shazam has paved the way for music discovery/identification in the real world.

Still, for all the advances that have been made, the music industry is in a tough spot - for musicians, at least. A documentary called “The Distortion of Sound” highlights some of the troubles regarding how an artist’s work is received by their audiences. Though it misrepresents some of the technical details of the process (which is understandable, as it aims to show differences in sound quality using YouTube as a vector) it does portray the way art is filtered to adapt to the new models of consumption: valuing storage space and pure volume over sound quality and dynamics. Many of the subtler nuances artists instill in their works are never heard by most audiences, whether that be due to subpar listening equipment or albums distributed in compressed and adulterated form.

Drawing guitars is surprisingly hard on a tablet.
We put so much importance on having access to as much music as possible, yet we never truly hear most of it.

Even beyond sound quality, much of the experience built around an artist’s work has been lost to convenience. Consumers used to go to the record store and pick up a CD, reading the album notes and establishing a connection with the artist themselves. We also used to listen to complete albums more than only selecting specific tracks, if only due to the fact that changing albums was a hassle.

The many factors working against experiencing recorded music in its purest form bring about an inconvenient truth: recorded music has become a commodity. Even the newest music is abundantly available through a wide range of channels, including YouTube, Spotify, and Pandora. The concept of being able to own music (though that talk has always been bogged down in licensing technicalities) has increasingly lost relevance, and there is no longer any value in having access to a specific song over any others. The economic value does not exist in the tracks themselves, but in the services provided on top of them - most notably, streaming.

If the music industry is going to evolve again, there will have to be some other value built on top of recorded music. Whether that value is as simple as added insight into the production process or something more experiential, something else needs to be introduced to move the industry forward. Ideally, whatever this is could bring some value back to the artists as well, since the industry is currently not fair to those producing the art by any means.