2006 Student Design Review Best of Category

Best of Category

Trans-sensing—Seeing Music

It wasn’t until the end of a long day of judging that the panel finally agreed on Wen-Hua Hu’s Trans-sensing: Seeing Music for Best of Category. Williams had argued for Hu’s book all along, declaring that the project was so thought-provoking “it almost transcends the award.”

In Trans-sensing, Hu outlines her process of developing a complex graphics system that explores what it might be like to visualize music—at first strictly, by converting each note’s pitch into a corresponding pictogram’s color, its rhythm into shape, and its beat into size; and then more loosely, through free-form drawing. Based on the idea of synesthesia, the rare neurological condition in which the senses cross wires—leading the affected to, for example, taste shapes or hear colors—the project was originally intended to allow those with a perceptual deficiency to experience a missing sense through an intact one. But the jurors, none of whose senses were impaired, immediately felt the impact of her drawings, which were able to com-municate sound intuitively enough to function on a universal level. “As a design principle, it’s fascinating how you can stimulate one sense with another,” said Williams. “Design is moving away from the purely visual, where you want to communicate a brand through color, material, shape, and sound, translating the intangible into something tangible. That’s what this project is doing, fundamentally.” Lazor spoke for all three jurors when he mused that Trans-sensing had the potential to “catapult us to another place.”

Name: Wen-Hua Hu
School: California College of the Arts
City: San Francisco

Q+A with Wen-Hua Hu

You don’t have synesthesia yourself. What prompted your interest in the condition?
The impetus was actually a quote from a Chinese magazine article about a Japanese architect whose name I can’t recall. In the interview, when asked about his definition of what excellent architecture should be, he said: “The most incredible level of man-made structure should achieve the atmosphere where the person situated in the structure would feel as if light can be heard, wind can be smelled, sounds can be seen.”
That was the first time I had read about synesthesia, but I had always been interested in the five senses. In fact, my father was a professor of Chinese literature, and similar concepts suffuse Chinese philosophy and writing. The highest level a work of art can attain is to induce within the viewer the ultimate feeling of satisfying all of the senses. Having been born and raised in Taiwan, that resonated with me.

Your book proposes several solutions for mapping sound into graphics. How did you arrive at each?
I started with an empirical method of translating the 88 notes of a piano into 88 graphic symbols, with the length of each graphic’s line correlating to pitch and the symbol on top of the line relating to sharpness or softness. But one of my thesis instructors happens to be a designer/programmer/musician, and he maintained that it was impossible for me to be strictly empirical because the nature of music itself is too emotional. Music theory is based on frequency and pitch, and that’s the empirical part of it, the scientific theory. But you have to put your emotions into it to make truly great music. So I next adopted a more group-based mapping that relied on whole octaves instead of individual notes. The lower octaves sounded denser, wider, and more compressed, while the higher ones sounded brighter, elongated, and piercing. I felt that for higher octaves the colors should be more pastel; when the notes were lower I added black and made them more saturated. In the end I embraced an expressive or emotional approach. I played a note and made a sketch, without even modifying the shape I created. Eventually I’d like to animate the mappings and be able to test whether others understand those connections.

Do you think even non-musicians will get it?
People won’t get it by exact note, but in terms of range, they should be able to feel which is lower and which is higher. I played the piano when I was a kid for three years, but that was 20 years ago! My instructor questioned whether I could pull this thesis off without being a musician, but I thought it was actually more refreshing to interpret music from a graphic designer’s point of view. We don’t always have to practice something in order to understand it—Ang Lee didn’t have to be gay to direct Brokeback Mountain successfully, and as graphic designers we’re constantly doing websites for concepts we don’t understand until we research them. In the end I proved my instructor wrong, and he thanked me for it.

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