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Exploring the techniques and methodologies of the craft of visual communication.

What Visual Designers Can Learn From Biggie Smalls

 Biggie Smalls

When I first introduced this rather unorthodox topic to my co-workers in the Milan studio, one of the frog technologists with a life long passion for hip-hop asked, smiling, whether I was referring to “Mo‘ money mo‘ problems”, the classic Biggie tune from 1997. I responded that, while indeed visual designers across the world are likely to go from “ashy to classy”, swim in Cristal and spend their time populating Swiss bank accounts, our problems tend to be focused around problems like flawed baseline grids and poor web typography, as opposed to vindictive groupies or greedy promotors. This post isn’t about the tribulations caused by disproportionate, newly found wealth, but instead about Biggie’s writing process - his creative approach. What only a few people know is that Biggie Smalls used a very specific technique to write his lyrics and that he consistently managed to avoid creative block by applying it to his writing. In fact, he never stopped writing, telling stories, until he was shot dead at age 24, in 1997.

Biggie, or Christopher Wallace as he was called in real life, started writing rhymes during his childhood and refined his skill while venturing into street sales of illegal drugs during his teenage years in Brooklyn, New York. He always used the same technique and developed this method to perfection over the following years. His notepad was full of one-liners; lyrical climaxes and punchlines, he collected them and rehearsed them until he could deliver them flawlessly. Studio time was expensive and he knew he had to find a way to be effective in his song writing to make the most out of every minute. His friends who produced music would record cassettes for him where each side of the tape contained one or two beats, where each one looped on repeat for twenty, twenty-five minutes. He played each beat over and over while repeating the same exact line to it, adjusting it to perfection.

One line, one beat - over and over again.

Biggie let his lyrics grow organically. At some point he would feel happy with the first line and move on, having established the delivery, the mood and the fictional, sometimes non-fictional “world” around the story. The lyrics grew backward and forward. He took the one line he had rehearsed, added one line before it and another one after it. Making sure that the new lines matched, delivered and supported the mood and story of the song, he maintained the same technique forging the new material into the verse. One beat, three lines, over and over again, until perfection. He would never move ahead until these lines were flawlessly synchronized and perfected, until they blended without effort and were completely unified. Three lines became five lines, five lines became seven lines, nine lines, a verse, and ultimately - a song. Each story crafted to completion; each story a house of cards where one removed phrase, word or syllable even, would make the house collapse. Perfection.

I often think of Biggie’s process when we discuss the visual design process in the studio and within the company. What can we as designers learn from it? To me, there are a few strong themes we can embrace from it when facing difficulties in our daily work or when we assess our working methods, regardless of what discipline we work in or the context of our everyday projects.

A Central Theme 
A design project, like any other story, has a central theme. The central theme can be pretty much anything; a question, a statement, a mood, an emotion, an idea or as in Biggie’s case - a key passage, a rhyme. Work out which the central theme of your project is and use it to define your starting point, repeat it over and over again like a mantra and let it be the foundation and shape all the work you do.

A World of Context 
When starting to work on a project you define a mood and develop an aesthetic for its’ visual language. You assign emotional attributes and evaluate definitions and objectives. Rules and restrictions are matched and confronted with possibilities and opportunities. For Biggie, context was a beat - a musical composition, a rhyme and a vision. He crafted a song from this context or starting point - using it as a framework for his storytelling. Define your own framework and run with it, explore it in all it’s glory.

Rehearsal and Repetition 
When designing (something, anything) a large portion of the work is dedicated to learning and understanding a subject which still hasn’t been properly defined or articulated - you consolidate thoughts and ideas as you go along and use these as the foundation for what will eventually become “a system”.  Until you’ve reached that point you make observations in the dark. Biggie didn’t add new elements to the mix before he “knew” or felt satisfied with what he already had. He didn’t leave any doors open. As you progress with your design explorations you can use the same method by developing element by element, making sure they “belong” to your story and that they make the story stronger. Successful explorations are kept and repeated while flawed explorations are archived.

The Non-linear and Organic Process
Creative block, whether you talk about writing lyrics, brainstorming with colleagues or designing a piece of visual communication, can be caused by a number of things. Biggie continuously avoided this type of block by starting each  “project” with one strong asset from where he built each story, he never began by typing the title or by choosing the typeface to write with. Put this in context to your work. A grid is certainly crucial when designing for print or web but is it something you should begin with - or is it something which should grow organically and fall into place as you go along? A web designer will most certainly need to design a page navigation for a web project, but should this really be the starting point and should it be used to set the tone of the design? Biggie wrote backward, forward, from side to side and all his lyrics grew organically - you’d be surprised how much you could benefit from this approach in your own work. Stir things up a little and see what happens.

 The House of Cards
A house of cards is commonly used as a metaphor to describe something fragile, something which is ready to collapse. Talking about Biggie Smalls, the house of cards represent an intricate system where all decisions matter, where every syllable has a fixed place and where each component, each card - is vital to make the house stand tall. Think about design systems where typography, pictograms, images, tone-of-voice, text arrangements and colours are crafted to perfection, where, if you remove the logo or the title from a page, it is still “branded” or water marked by its’ graphical components, its’ layouts, its’ look and feel. All the decisions you make matter, all the elements you design help telling a bigger story and every last detail counts. A design system is a house of cards, it’s up to you to make it stable.

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During a promotional tour in Los Angeles in 1997 Biggie Smalls took 4 bullets to the chest during a drive-by shooting and he was pronounced dead at 01:15 am on March the 9th. He was only 24 years old. Leaving two monumental albums (and 5 post-humous albums) behind him, he will always be remembered for countless rap classics, appearances and freestyle sessions. I personally remember him by listening to his back catalog fast forwarding each song to the middle of the first verse, stopping and playing it at around 0:45 seconds in. The famous and enigmatic line number 1. It was there, somewhere in the middle between what can be referred to as point A and point B, the creativity of a legendary artist was born. 

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