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Graphic Music Design Video

I have always been fascinated by music video. This could be due to growing up as part of the MTV generation—I was 9 years old when MTV launched in 1981, and in 1986 when they launched their “alternative” music video show called 120 Minutes I was 14—the perfect age to be captivated by anything alternative. As I have grown up and MTV has transitioned into reality TV and virtually no music videos, the Internet came in to take its place. Sites like YouTube, Vimeo and others now provide a massive library of music videos old and new to see and remember. I think of music video as being very influential on how my work has developed and how I approach design. I have been fortunate in my education to both take a class in music video (at Rhode Island School of Design in 2005 as a BFA student) and teach a class in music video (at Virginia Commonwealth University in 2012 while pursuing my MFA).

I think of music video—and more broadly the medium of cinema, film and movies as a whole—as directly parallel to the medium of graphic design. They are almost identical in many ways, making extensive use of metaphor and symbolism, of narrative and storytelling, of aesthetics and tone, and of creating meaning and emotion. Graphic design and music video are not merely related, they are brothers sharing nearly identical vocabulary and methodology. My favorite things about the way music video speaks as a medium are also my favorite things about graphic design. In both, there is an opportunity to work with less literal and more expressive ideas in how to communicate a subject. A predictable, straightforward music video that clearly and obviously states its message is less successful in communicating to its audience than a video that surprises and captivates them. This does not mean that a good music video is complex and hard to understand—it means that there is a level of poetry to good music video that also happens in good graphic design. Martin Venezky uses the term the poetic gap, which is the idea that when you move visual communication from obvious relationships towards less obvious and more connotative relationships you create a poetic gap—a place where this distance becomes something magical. Music video lives squarely in the poetic gap, as does most interesting graphic design. As a designer, being poetic is one of my ultimate goals, and music video sets a nice precedent.

At their best, music videos work on a highly conceptual and symbolic level instead of a clear and simple one. Clarity and simplicity have their place, but that is not a place that has even been of particular interest to me. Music videos are interpretations of something that is already highly interpretive: the music itself. This layering of translation and interpretation inherently trends towards creating things that are created with a foundation in concept as the poetic gap widens. As Marshall McLuhan would say, the medium becomes the message—unfortunately, this also has a tendency to create videos that can be abstract and ambiguous to a fault. These kinds of music videos are so removed from understanding by anyone but director (and maybe the musician) that they become an ejaculation of sound and image that are lacking in meaning except at the most generalized level to the audience. While I think there is something to be said for a video that is primarily about tone and mood, there is a fine line when tone crosses over to bullshit and irrelevance. Music videos that are real masterpieces of the medium use the layering of translation to their advantage and become meaningful and understandable to those who did not create them.

Graphic design is often thought of as a medium of narrative—it tells a story. We often think of narrative as something that is sequential and takes place over time, but narrative happens even in something singular like a logo or a poster. The story the design is telling may be very minimal and short, but it is there and a part of the communication the design is making. As a time-based medium, it would seem like music video would use the idea of narrative more prominently than graphic design does. What I find interesting and delightful about the medium is that it is especially good as using nonlinear narrative. Instead of a “boy meet girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl” linear narrative, music video can tell that story all at once and in reverse order, mixing up the images and their meanings, yet still make sense upon reflection. A two-hour movie that tries to do that can get tedious and confusing quickly, but in the relatively short few minutes of a music video, we process it as gestalt—we understand the whole, rather than as a series of events happening separately. I find this idea of gestalt to be a particularly compelling parallel between graphic design and music video—looking at posters and logos there is a point when we just “get” it.

Music video is a playground in which to experiment with making and communicating. There is something so visceral and innate about music that pairing it with the visual creates a world where lots of things can happen. As graphic designers, we should be looking at music video to extend our understanding of graphic design, and vice-versa. Music video has changed our perception of music and other media related to graphic design like advertising—much advertising over the past few decades have taken on the more complex and tonal language of music video. McLuhan’s ideas about media are especially true with music video and by extension, graphic design, advertising, and other communications. As a medium, music video changes how we speak to our audiences and how we create messages, and because of this I think all designers should try their hand at making music videos.

© Mitch Goldstein /