Anyone formulating a methodology for design practice must somehow reconcile two things: the need to address the objective practical requirements of design problems, and the desire to create solutions that are original, aesthetically pleasurable, and somehow expressive of the designer's unique point of view. Through the ages, some of our most revered aphorists have attempted to sum it up, from "utilatas, firmitas et venustas," to "form follows function," to "graphic design which evokes the symmetria of Vitruvius, the dynamic symmetry of Hambidge, the asymmetry of Mondrian; which is a good gestalt, generated by intuition or by computer, by invention or by a system of coordinates is not good design if it does not communicate." All good attempts, but too Latin, too overused, too long. Also: they do not rhyme.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Mister Wilson Pickett.
When Wilson Pickett, The Wicked One, The Midnight Mover, was interviewed in Gerri Hirshey's wonderful 1984 book Nowhere to Run: The Story of Soul Music, he was 43, a good decade-plus beyond the years when he dominated the pop charts. Born in Prattville, Alabama, he moved in his early teens to Detroit and was plunged into a tumultuous milieu: Jackie Wilson, Little Willie Brown, Joe Stubbs, Eddie Floyd, dozens of singers and groups all looking for the next big hit. "Style, for soul music, would become paramount," wrote Hirshey. "In a music distinguished by the power and peculiarities of individual voices, the weight would rest on the singer, more than the song, much as it does in gospel." Where does style come from? What was Pickett's secret?
"You harmonize; then you customize."
There it is. You harmonize — you satisfy the basic requirements of the genre, some of which, in music, are as inarguable as mathematics — and then you customize. You fit it to the place you're coming from, to your own particular skills, to the moment you're in. "What kid doesn't want to own the latest model?" Pickett asked Hirshey. "You got no cash for music lessons, arrangers, uniforms, backup bands, guitars. No nothin'. So you look around for a good, solid used chassis. This is your twelve-bar blues. Then you look around for what else you got. And if you come up like most of us, that would be gospel." Pickett said it took "a lot of messin' around and singin' in Detroit alleys" to make it all come together. "Sure, you mixed it up. Customize, like I say."
Harmonize, then customize. I find this as good a model for making great design work as anything else I've ever heard. Design — graphic design at least — is mostly ephemeral. Graphic design artifacts could do worse than aspire to the condition of pop music, which, as Hirshey observes, is "born of infatuations, wave after wave of them, each so true to its era that a two-minute thirty-second song can be a perfectly wrought miniature of a place, a climate, a time."
Wilson Pickett, the man responsible for hits like "Mustang Sally," "Land of 1,000 Dances," and "In the Midnight Hour," and who, with artists and producers like Aretha Franklin, Steve Cropper, Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun, helped create the legendary "Muscle Shoals sound" that ruled the airwaves throughout the 1960s, died last Thursday in Ashburn, Virginia. He was 64.