Pair DJ-ing

Like many people who practice formal Pair Design, Cooperista Shahrzad has paired before, though in a different domain: Being a DJ. Suzy and I sat down to talk about this experience with her and what it means to Pair DJ.

Shahrzad (in the glasses) back in the day. 🙂

Tell us about your pairing experience as a club DJ.

Shahrzad: Back in Pittsburgh, a group of friends and I got together on the second Saturday night of every month at a dive bar called Remedy to DJ an event we called The Cure for Restless Legs. Before the event, each DJ would load up their iDevices with a bunch of songs they wanted to work with, kind of like their working palette. We would each take about an hour set cumulatively across the evening, between 10pm and closing. During a set, there was a lead DJ and one other DJ in the booth with them. We’d hook up our devices to the mixer and go from there. Sometimes we had formal pairings where we decided who would work together beforehand, but more often, we had informal pairings where you worked with whomever wanted to be there with you in the moment. Your partner would know what you had just played, consider the queue of what was coming up, and gauge where the crowd was to work with you on what was going to happen next. They might encourage you to rearrange some songs, fade out of a song that was falling flat, or even suggest a new direction. At the end of “your” set, you knew that you’d just made something awesome together, to be built on by the next DJs. We ran our night for six years, and we had a bit of a revolving cast of DJs, but for those of us who stayed the pairing experience only got better with time.

All images in this post are courtesy of Shahrzad Samadzadeh.

So what is it that you are designing as a pair DJ?

Really you’re working with the energy of the crowd, trying to make sure everyone has a great time. Ideally, it’s their best night ever.

At the beginning of the night, you and your pair are just trying some things out. Asking yourselves, “OK. We did that. Where is this going? Where can we take this?” At a certain point in the evening, you have to stop experimenting and commit to a direction, so the crowd understands where you’re going and what you’re doing. From there you just keep managing the energy, picking songs, transitions, genres and tempos that build and excite, but that aren’t too predictable. Every choice you make has an effect on the energy of the crowd and how good of a time they’re having, and that’s why a pair was so awesome. You had an extra pair of eyes on the crowd, understanding what was happening and helping you decide where to go next.

You’re asking yourselves, ‘Where is this going? Where can we take this?”

Is the crowd like having an additional synth?

Not really. Pair design as I’ve done it here at Cooper is more continuous co-design, and though your audience can provide…um…feedback, they’re more like users. 

If the crowd is having a good time, you can see it. You can feel it. It’s when they’re having a bad time that it becomes more direct. Responses could range from people looking annoyed and leaving the dance floor, all the way to people coming up to the booth to make pointed requests like “Hey, can you play something fun?” You had to be careful about requests, because that one song that one person wanted to hear often didn’t mesh at all with what we were doing. You had to see through their request to what was underneath it, and try to address that. We do that all the time with users in research, so, yeah, I guess they really were like users.

No, it’s really me and the other DJ that are the pair.

Now that you have worked in a formal gen-synth pair, how would you go back and pair DJ now?

I’d really like to try it again with some deliberateness, some clarity about the roles. It’s OK that the synth DJ is asking questions, making suggestions, and even challenging the set, because that’s their job. It’s ok for the gen DJ to try things out and push boundaries. Together, the pair creates a safe space to experiment and take risks, because the synth DJ is looking out for things going off the rails. Their synthing isn’t personal, but just part of an agreement to make the best night possible. After a set, I’d like to review not just how the night went for the crowd, but also how things went with our pairing. What was awesome? What would we do differently next time?

After pairing for a while, you get really used to having that other person. Being alone in the DJ booth felt terrible. It’s really too bad, but the DJ scene is stuck more in a “great man” mode right now. With only a few exceptions, fans are used to seeing and knowing a single person’s name. It seems like an uphill climb to be taken seriously as a pair.


Being in the DJ booth alone felt terrible.



Would you be interested in throwing a pair DJ event sometime?

Yes. With enough interest I’d love to pull together some new playlists and pair DJ again! It would be even better with what I know from pair design now.

Thanks to Shahrzad for sharing these awesome stories! It reminds us that Pair Design is a technique that can be applied to lots of domains, not just interaction design. (Or coding, or songwriting, or…) And we’re excited about the thought of a designerly pair DJ event. If you’re interested in that sort of event, let us know in the comments, because that would totally cure our restless legs.

Chris Noessel

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