4 design lessons we can learn from U2 concerts

If you’re a designer (or just into good design) and a music fan, I’d like to recommend the book U2 Show. The book is about how the various U2 tours were designed — from Boy all the way through Elevation. It explains the countless hours that go into stage design, lighting design, sound & speaker stack design, and a whole bunch of other areas (and it has some great photos too). I really enjoyed the window this book provides into what goes into the design of a large rock concert, and it showed me again that basic principles of good design translate to all media forms.

Here are some things I believe the design community can learn from the way U2 design their shows:

1. Don’t place limits on the design in the beginning

U2 tour manager Willie Williams on how the PopMart tour came into being:

There was also a very direct (and very rare) brief to me that this tour would be “˜design-led’, rather than being intimidated by scale or logistics. Having proved to themselves and to the world with ZooTV that, in terms of what can be toured, “˜anything is possibl’, U2 were of a mind that the only limits to be placed on the creative ambitions of this tour were to be financial ones.

This is a really good principle.  The time for realism and feasibility will come — but in the beginning, think big

2. Challenge the limits of possibility

On the impossible design requirements given to the sound engineers:

Mark Fisher’s frustration with years of stage design constrained by traditional loudspeaker stacks led him to propose that we should keep the huge video screen free from clutter by placing the entire sound system in one central ball. Most sound engineers would have resigned on the spot, but Joe O’Herlihy rose to the challenge of mixing a live show through what would essentially be a mono PA.

Even during feasibility discussions, it is important to challenge your beliefs on what is possible.  Involve the engineering team in the product discussion — and challenge them to test the limits too!

3. Let the content shine through

I like how they talk about the huge differences between the PopMart tour and the Elevation tour:

After the broad, churchy strokes of the Lovetown show and the sensory assault of Zoo TV and the garish, high-concept japery of PopMart, here are U2 playing their songs hard, straight and in your face.

If you’ve seen the Elevation tour, you know what they mean.  The show was tastefully designed, but without distractions.  Just like a web site should be.  Design’s ultimate goal is to get users to the content and functionality they need as easily and pleasantly as possible.

4. Don’t design in silos

The book goes into detail on the simplicity of the Elevation stage and lighting design:

Video is not something that can simply be added to a show, a fact that is the downfall of many otherwise potentially interesting stage productions. We are so conditioned to look at television that moving camera pictures automatically become the focus of attention.

Because of this they went with what they call “Unmediated iMag”, which means that the screens showing the band members would be static cameras, showing everything in black-and-white to avoid distraction from what is happening on stage:

This is why it’s so important for Product Managers to include all parts of the organization during design, and why holistic design is so important.  You don’t want your company’s organizational structure to shine through in your design.

Pick up this book at Amazon if you’re interested — with more than just pretty pictures it brings a great design perspective to the enormous live concert industry.