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Seeing The Details

Published by Chris Coyier

When a great musician hears a great song, what do they hear? I am not a great musician so I can only speculate. I would guess that they listen for the emotion behind the song. Great songs are great because of their delivery of honest emotion, in any genre. I also think they listen for the intangibles. They try and put their fingers on the elusive qualities and little details that make a great song great.

I think this is very similar to how great designers see great designs.

But let's get back to the musician for a second.

To an outsider observing this great musician analyzing a great song, they might oooh-and-ahhh at their ability to quickly dissect the key, melody, or chord changes. But to the musician, these things likely feel trivial. That is no problem for them. That is their trade. Of course they know what key it's in. What is more important is that emotion, that atmosphere, those little details that took the song to greatness.

Now what about a great designer looking at a great design? I think the designer looks for the same things the musician does. The emotion. The details. I think they try to put their finger on the sometimes elusive qualities that make a great design great. The outside observer watching this designer break down the design might oooh-and-ahhh at the designers ability to replicate it, or analyze the technology used to make it happen. But the designer likely feels those things are trivial. Of course they can replicate it. Of course they can figure out the fancy CSS tricks or Photoshop effects that made it happen. That is their trade. More importantly though, is the designers ability to understand the details that took the design to greatness.


Do you think this is true? Or is perhaps the opposite true? Great creators are great because of their ability to see their creations as an untrained layperson would.


  1. Permalink to comment#

    I agree with your point of view Chris.

    In fact I think a good design depends mainly on the atmosphere that the designer wants to convey with it.

    The technique can be mastered by nearly everyone with enough work, but the real talent is to give life, emotion and ambiance to the design… and that’s pretty hard !


    PS: Sorry for my poor English, I’m French =)

  2. Permalink to comment#

    I don’t think you have to be a great musician to feel the emotion behind the music. But only great musicians are able to realize that is why they like a certain piece of music. To the lay person, they are really liking the emotion but they don’t know that, so when you ask them, they’ll say “Oh the beat was really good,” or something to that effect. The same applies to design.

    And so that’s why designers need to know how to illicit the response of “Oh the beat was really good” AKA “Oh the effects were amazing” from a lay person, when in fact, they are actually falling in love with the perfection and time and emotion put into the design.

    So I don’t think it’s as clear cut as you have laid out the options – either one or the other, this or that. It’s more of a this THEN that scenario, if you know what I mean.

  3. Permalink to comment#

    I’ve always seen art, in essence, a catch 22.

    One thing that I noticed when I began to produce music is that I began to pick up on the very minute details of a song. I could name the instruments being played, what sort of processing was being done, the EQing and so on.

    But I ran into a hard decision.

    Would I rather make music but be forever trapped in the analytical side of things or do I just listen to music and enjoy it for what it is?

    I think design is very much like this. Too often designers will get caught up in all of these tiny little details, partly because people expect them to.

    However, it’s hard to describe, to a non designer, the pride and fulfillment you get when a design comes to a close. By the end of the build it’s not about the coding, graphics and all the other backend, it does become that emotional response that connected it all together.

    Just my two cents.

  4. Permalink to comment#

    AJ is right.

    The difference between a (well-trained) musician listening to a song (a chef tasting food, a director watching a movie, etc) and a layperson, is that they are able to understand WHY they enjoy it or not, WHAT about the work is causing their reaction.

    Additionally, it is a lot like knowing a foreign language. If you only speak English, a great poem in Chinese is just earwash. If you know a little bit of Chinese, the same poem might interest you a little, as you work decipher it. If you are fluent, the poem may move you, as you are able to focus on its content. If, however, you are a Chinese scholar, and know the full breadth of the Chinese language, and understand the cultural heritage of the Chinese people, then the full weight of the poem’s (And the poet’s) meaning will be clear to you.

    The non-scholars aren’t incapable of understanding or enjoying, but the expert will clearly “get more” out of it.

    On the other hand- one of the dangers of knowing a lot is that sometimes it’s difficult to hear or see your own work the way a novice would. This can sometimes lead to creating art/design/whatever that is not accessible to lay people. If your audience is not people with your training (sometimes it is, sometimes not) you need to be careful about this. That requires both developing fresher eyes/ears/palate, as well as inviting non-experts into your development process to provide feedback.

  5. Doug Marshall
    Permalink to comment#

    I feel it’s a mix- I think that a great designer has the ability to turn off his “design eye” and look at the work as a layman and really see the work without dissecting it.

    That’s just my opinion.

    • It probably is a mix. Both having the ability to see and mentally dissect (without it ruining your experience as Murlu suggested above) AND “turn it off” and view things viscerally.

  6. Chris
    Permalink to comment#

    Your point about knowing the key and it being trivial, really is true, (okay, maybe you could only really be 100% sure of it if you have some sort of reference note…)

    but you could play a song in any key, and yet it remains a masterpiece.

    I think it’s the combination of elements which makes something great or not. give 10 different people a canvas the same size, a single texture they have to use, a specific font or two which they must use, tell them what colors they have to use, even tell them it has to include an illustrated mug of coffee… and you will get 10 completely different designs back, all from the same ingredients, as with music, tell 10 bands to create a pop-punk song using a 4 piece drum kit, a bass guitar, one guitar, a vocal and a backing vocal, in the key of b, using an A B structure you’ll get 10 different songs (many of which will probably be awful)

    So I don’t think any one particular thing is what makes a design good, it is down to the combination

  7. You would like the book How Brands Become Icons by Holt.

  8. Koji
    Permalink to comment#

    I started out as a music student. Then picked out PHP. Now I’m trying to do more web design work. I totally feel how Chris talked about.

    With music, if I want to be analytical, I can dissect the music pretty well. If I want to copy the music, I can do it with relative ease. The same became with programming.

    But art? No. I’m not even close to that level. Any analytical part of the art is just mind boggling to me.

    When I improvise during a jam session, I don’t think about all the music theory stuff. It’s just a second nature to me. Having the foundation sure helps. And it sure is fun to be able to play like how I want to play.

    I want to get to that point with design works. I want to start at the point where I know what I want on any particular web site. With basic knowledge in design, I think some basic ideas will come with more ease.

  9. Permalink to comment#

    To a business man, if the design works, it is a good design. If it makes money for them it is a good design.

    However for my personal opinion, design can be great but where is it being applied to? In what context is it being presented? Another words, practically speaking, one great design may not be so great if it is put into another context that is not related. So that means the design also needs to serve a purpose.

    Hence design and art are not one in the same. Design is exactly what the word states “design for something”….Where art is a piece of art where it does not need to fullfill any requirements as it is totally abstract way of thought.

  10. Permalink to comment#

    As both a musician and web designer, I feel that Chris is quite close to the truth on this one, and I think Koji nailed it when he talked about his jam sessions. All the theory (music theory, art theory, design theory, etc.) takes a back seat to feeling and emotion when you’re in the moment.

    It’s more like you’re both the expert and the layman simultaneously. At the moment of creation your product (whatever it may be) becomes both your expertise and awe at the same time. You use all of your experience to create it, but at the same time you allow yourself the “child-like” experience of it for the first time.

  11. syzygy
    Permalink to comment#

    Some of the greatest songs are utterly simple and have almost nothing to analyse. There are others that are much more complex of course but it is not the complexity that makes them great – knowing about music doesn’t really help all that much. For example, John Coltrane playing Giant Steps – I understand the harmonic theory behind it but this doesn’t change the way I see it’s greatness : I thought it was great before I understood it. (Non-musicians might find it inaccessible though I will admit)

    I am not sure it is always to do with emotion either – some things are just great because they are great.

    (I say this as a musician and a programmer – there is a whole depth of design in programming that most people simply don’t get or even know exists)

  12. Palusko
    Permalink to comment#

    But web design is just a continuation of a brand and marketing. While commercialization in music more often than not destroys it, commercialization in design is more often than not, desired. A guy well versed in online marketing may design more effective web site than an artist. Not nicer one, just more effective. If you want to compare design to music, than rather than to a song, the way I see it, I would compare it to a music in the movie – it is complementary to the message, not dominant to it.

  13. Permalink to comment#

    I can agree fully with you Chris. I know I can replicate things I see, different designs and technologies. but I also know that I don’t have the creative spark to have come up with the idea in the first place. This is why I am constantly looking for inspiration and have a few people who are good designers to help me scratch out concepts. From there I can write the code to make it happen.

  14. Spacemonkey
    Permalink to comment#

    I can say that from the musician perspective, it’s become nearly impossible for me to “just sit and enjoy listening to music” – I really have to put some effort into it.

    When I’m listening to a song, not only am I taking note of the drums and bass as they lay a foundation but noting in great detail the actions of the guitarist – not only what notes, but on what strings, and how active/passive they choose to be.

    Steve Vai is a good example, as he’s apt to choose a descending riff that in itself is nothing significant; but he deliberately chooses to play each note on a different string, on the opposite end of the neck, producing this playfully clumsy, stumbling-drunk feel as he glides back and forth across the fingerboard.

    These are the things the advanced musicians hear and appreciate (or not!), and cannot ignore when listening. Sometimes I wished I could just sit and enjoy the song, but usually can’t. If the engineering is too primitive, or someone (usually the singer for me) is simply unable to nail every note at the right pitch, it turns from an art to an irritant. Especially annoying to me is popular music, as it all sounds like it has been done before with absolutely zero imagination or skill – homogenized and without nutritional value, the musical equivalent to eating styrofoam.

    I remember reading interviews of many famous musicians who simply didn’t listen to music, or only listened very infrequently. When I was performing regularly I almost never listened to music, and that spanned a period of ten years. Even now I struggle to find new music, and prefer to create my own even if it is just up in my head and only I can listen.

    In fact some musicians don’t listen to their own recordings (“oh man that late push in the second bridge is killing me!”).

    Here’s a question for you – do you see the master designers get grumpy and agitated when surrounded by others’ art, or when forced to critique their own?

  15. Mikes
    Permalink to comment#

    I completely agree Chris. When I wander the net looking for inspiration, cool css techniques and awesome photoshop effects may catch my eye but they often don’t hold my attention longer than it takes to figure out how they did it.

    Many of my favorite designs are incredibly basic layouts with no tricks or fancy graphics. A good color scheme can do wonders towards giving a site a certain feel. A well-thought out design with straightforward navigation can take it the rest of the way there.

    When I look at a site, I often realize that it doesn’t “feel” right long before I notice what is lacking. A truly great site evokes an emotion tied to the message they are trying to get across.

  16. Matt
    Permalink to comment#

    I always ooh and ahh over the thought that went into a design. You can tell when somebody has “over-done” it and those that thought “why so much when x does the job without unnecessary frills”. I always gawk over these designs that look nice without being obtrusive, which is a lost art I fear.

  17. I agree with you Chris. I think that what separates great designers from good designers is their ability to analyze and understand why they like a design, what about the design is working and as you mentioned, the small little details.

    I think we could all improve our skills if we took more time to analyze why we like a certain design. Dissecting it and understanding what we can learn. It is easy to copy elements or replicate a Javascript behavior. It is quite another thing to take from thinking behind that design and then incorporating those things in your own design work.

    I wish I took more time to analyze designs that catch my eye rather than taking a screenshot, adding it to my collection and moving on to something else. I benefit much more when I take the time to think about why I like something and what the designer is doing well.

  18. Permalink to comment#

    Great songs are great because of their delivery of honest emotion Yes, so true.
    I did play music, now do some webdesign, and to make it short i belive credibilityis where the worlds collide and therefore great musicians as great designers need to be blessed whit a great heart and even a bigger soul.

    Just my opinion.

    happy new year to all of you !

  19. Permalink to comment#

    produce something :)

  20. Permalink to comment#

    I can tell you guys, when I saw a beautiful design I got totally breathless. I must confess that the last thing that I think is: Layer style? Did he download it from the net? Where he got the inspiration? Nop, like you say Chris, in my personal-design-approach, I saw emotions there; I got driven into them like in a magical voyage.

    Second, I felt envy thinking: How in the hack I haven´t thought that first? After two hours of seen the screen like a fool I move forward.

    Then I think: Here he uses Photoshop, this is advanced CSS, oh how many classes, ¡hey inline styles! ¡oh Flash! Is this jQuery?

    But the bottom line here is one powerful word: Feelings.

    If you as designer has a clear vision of your target audience, what they want to see, how then want to find information, in our case, as web designers, how to have a nice navigation, links, quick loads, in other words: A wonderful web experience, you´ll be able to communicate with them. If you do that, then the magic came by itself. It´s no easy, but when you do that, all things happened.

    By the way, I don´t believe that you could put “nice” Photoshop assets together, make them look as a web 2.0 application and then “you got it”, like those web templates, that look awesome but don´t make feel anything.


    Happy 2010 making great designs.

  21. John
    Permalink to comment#

    The longer I live on Planet Earth, the more I realize that there is no right way. We humans love to drill down to the base-rock of understanding, encapsulate what we find there in a comfortable formula, patent it and apply it wherever we can. Unfortunately this doesn’t work.

    If we look closely at the bed-rock, we find it is constantly changing. The edge of creativity is a tumultuous, roiling place, full of risk and opportunity. It’s not like your grandmother’s house where everything is nicely dusted, vacuumed, predictable and in its place. Creativity means standing on the precipice with no goal in mind.

    Happy new year to all :)

  22. Permalink to comment#

    I personally thing the difference boils down to.

    A layman will see a great design and likes it but does not know why… It just works.

    A professional will see a great design and know why it is a great design…

    I also think this is the difference between a good design and a great design.. a good design is one where the professional can look at it and appreciate the effort and skills that it took to make whereas a great design a layman can look at and know it is great.

    Our layman may not understand all of the techniques and skills it took but in a great design that does not matter.

  23. Permalink to comment#

    This is a very interesting topic.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think there are many musicians today who will judge a song based on its quality alone, outside of other factors.

    Most people that judge music judge it based on the physical appearance, background/reputation and past successes/failures of the musician or singer performing the song. Only after (either intentionally or unintentionally) considering those things, do they actually get around to really hearing the song — by which time it’s too late, because the other things have clouded their judgement, and their opinion is no longer objective.

    I think to a large extent, the same is true in other creative fields, including graphic design. Recently, a very well-known designer (I won’t say who) unveiled a new project. I personally thought the color choice was horrible. Although the design and layout were nice, with nice typography, not one person in the comments said the color choice was bad, or even remotely questionable.

    In my opinion, this was obviously due to the fact that they’ve grown to love this designer, and could not see that the colors were bad. Of course, everyone has a different view, so maybe I’m the one with poor judgement. I just couldn’t believe that nobody had anything negative to say about the color choice. Did he delete all the negative comments? Who knows.

    When it comes to music, I can truly say that I’m able to appreciate a great song, no matter who it’s performed/written by. I like songs by Led Zeppelin, Britney Spears, and Beethoven — because I don’t care about their reputations/looks/backgrounds. Unfortunately, most people would not admit to liking songs by Britney Spears or similar artists.

    So, with respects to the point of your article: I think people can only see true beauty in design if they approach the design in a totally ignorant fashion, without any preconceived ideas or biases. Only then, will they truly be able to “see the details” and decide whether it’s beautiful or not.

  24. Permalink to comment#

    I think the difference between music and design is that a successful design combines aesthetics with a utilitarian purpose (i.e. the object designed has some sort of practical function and it’s appearance should support this), whereas good music either combines aesthetic with some sort of message, or is purely aesthetic.

    So with a design there are two sets of “details” that one might dissect – the nifty technique that solves a functional problem in a clever way, and the visual effect that tantalises the eye.

  25. Matt
    Permalink to comment#

    What I think is that the “musician” can notice WHY the song is great (great chord progression, etc) — just like a designer can tell why a design works or doesn’t . I have lots of clients telling me “I don’t know what I want, but will know when I see it.”

    we as designers know what works and what won’t and why (logo too large, colors too bright, etc).

    A good designer knows how to keep their design “in tune” so to speak.

  26. Hey Chris, I agree with you that designers are able to see the whole resulting emotion and concept of their creations, at the same time they can break them down in components.

    I believe that most users/viewers will see only the result, like we do, unless it’s too odd (for the worst or the best)

    The problem is that the clients, concerned about their money, don’t let themselves see like a normal viewer. They most probably will try to understand WHY they feel what they feel, and ignore it if they can’t understande the reasons.

  27. BarryW
    Permalink to comment#

    My take on this is that it’s the way the song can be played, not just how it’s written in it’s original or popular format.

    As I go through some of my practice sessions, I have a few songs that I will play in different genre’s. As a slow ballad, as a bright piece of old rock, as a blues, as a jazz. The basic music is there, the words are still there, but the delivery is just so much different.

    One can say the same thing about web design and coding. Take a base concept and make it sing in different flavors.

    For a great example of this, and yes I know it’s old stuff (so am I), search youtube for “Over the Rainbow” by Judy Garland and then by Ray Charles. They are both great, and each version fits the context.

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