Rhythm and Graphics

Bolzano | 2011

I explored graphic design from a musical point of view.

The result is an interactive book that delves into different musical genres. Musical parameters, such as rhythm and harmony are translated into design parameters, such as proportion, color and choice of typeface.

Several videos are integrated in the book by digital markers and make the substructure of the printed hearable.

Here's the full essay:

Rhythm and Graphics

A musical approach to graphic design


Some common grounds of graphic design and music are so obvious that they are easy to oversee. Over time they became part of our everyday language and reveal the close connection of these two art forms. When referring to the pitch of a tone one speaks about its height, some colours are referred to as loud colours and if one statement does not contradict another it is in accordance to it.

The starting point of the project was the wish to explore the basic elements of graphic design by approaching towards it from a musical point of view. This wish has on the one hand a very personal reason, namely being the contrast of my relative lack of knowledge on graphic design and the fact that I am familiar with music and musical theory to some degree.

On the other hand exploring the differences and commonalities between graphic design and music, of which both can be found plenty, bears many possibilities; New ways of graphical expression as well as the chance to look at music from another, fresh point of view.

By the transfer from one field to the other synergies the objective was to create synergies. At this point it has to be said that a single direction was followed throughout the whole project: The impulse always came from the music, the known, the output always was graphics.

The dimensions of sound

My intention was to explain one subject via the other so I tried at first to systematize the familiar, the music. What are the basic elements of musical theory and notation and which are the characteristics that distinguish one musical genre from the other?

Music can be described by three basic elements: harmony, rhythm and dynamics. Harmony is the organization of pitches of simultaneous sounds. Rhythm is the length of a sound and the relationship between several lengths of sounds one after another. And dynamics refers to the loudness and intonation of sound. Now what are their counterparts in graphic design?


In order to distinguish graphic design from product design the former is often referred to as two-dimensional. These two dimensions, height and width, x and y, correspond to two basic elements of music: the pitch of a tone and its duration. Like musical notation which transcribes the pitch of a note on the y-axis and its duration on the x-axis.

Inspired by this I developed several grids which are based on musical scales and used them to design each booklet because there are certain scales who are typically used in certain musical styles.


Furthermore, musical expression depends to a great deal on the medium with which it is performed as the tone of a sentence can range from polite to sharp to offensive, depending in which typeface it is set. Thus, typefaces make the perfect counterpart for instruments. In order to receive a fixed mapping of typefaces to musical instruments, I used two classification systems  — one for the instruments — one for the typefaces and confronted them with each other in form of an infographic.


Finally, both paper formats in graphic design and intervals in music can be expressed through fractions, which is the reason that all the booklets have a different format. All these commonalities provide the basis for the design of the book I made.

Nine booklets, nine musical genres

In order to cover a wide range of graphical styles and therefore many possible combinations of harmonic, rhythmic and dynamic concepts I decided to make nine booklets, each one of them dealing with a different musical genre, and therefore each one of them designed with a different combination of grid, format and typefaces. In order to spice up this so far rather theoretical approach and to speak not only to an audience which is interested in graphic design but also to those whose focus is on music, I decided to dedicate the second part of the booklets to the musical styles and their peculiarities.

In accordance to the previously stated similarities, all the booklets have different formats, which result from certain intervals that are used more often than others in certain musical genres. To allow the binding of the booklets, all of them have the same height, the only differ in their width. Since the widest booklet is at the bottom and the smallest one on the top, this has the side-effect of being a sort of side tab, much like a browser's tab. This is further enhanced by the differently coloured paper with which each of the booklets is covered.


Apart from its decorative intent, the colours also communicate the booklet's content by referring to the two prime colours assigned to each of the musical styles. These in turn refer to an assignment of the light spectrum to the tone pitches of an octave made by Luigi Veronesi.


Turning the first pages of each booklet, the format and the grid are explained, and the choice of two typefaces, one for the headlines, one for the text is explained in detail. To visualize the matchmaking of typefaces and instruments these pages contain illustrations which consist of the merging of letterforms and the silhouettes of instruments.

To further clarify the use of the grid, there are two transparent pages in each booklet that can be superimposed over the normal pages.

The rest of the booklets is filled with the presentation of two artist, followed by other special features of the genre like typical rhythms, specific song structures or the history of its formation.

Hyperactive book

On some pages there are digital markers, which trigger videos on an adjacent screen. The videos explain the format and grid of the current page and make some of the discussed rhythms audible. Some markers also trigger typical songs for each genre.

This digital extension of the book does not only broaden the traditional concept of a book but also closes the circle of the project's development by giving an immediate link to the musical substructures on which the graphic design is based on.

Bolzano, 2011

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Created at the Free University of Bolzano.