Michael Bierut | Essays

Wilson Pickett, Design Theorist, 1942 - 2006

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.

Posted in: Music , Obituaries, Theory + Criticism

Comments [6]

Great tribute to the Mighty Soul Screamer, Mr Bierut.
Next post, "Information graphics according to the late great Shelley Winters" ?
Stéphane Darricau

You harmonize; then you customize.

That's sweet. It's especially applicable to work within corporate identity standards.

Dare I nominate that for Gunnar Swanson's "mini-canon" over on Speak Up?
Daniel Green

A very touching tribute. Mustang Salley is certainly a great example of customizing the harmony and running away with it. The world will miss this talented artist.


Darn tootin. Even In the midnight hour could even be a testament to designers love for the after hours. "I'm gonna wait 'till the midnight hour, That's when my love begins to shine" sums up the time when we are most creative and productive.
Jason Tselentis

Thank you for the wonderful tribute to an icon. The simplicty of thought "harmonize then customize" feels so right in these often fragmented times. When I hear artists creation philosophies, I am drawn to think about how it manifested in the rest of their lives.

How we bring these ideas home and into the relationships we have is a fascination to me. Pickett struggeled with addiction and continued to try and try again to overcome it.

His willingness to mess around, till it worked, speaks to the creative process in such a deep way. It gives testament to the iterative process we all love and willingly participate in.

Be them design principles or life philosophies, they bring order and rythm to our lives.

Florence Haridan

This artical was quite amusing. As a design student, we are often flooded with cute little sayings that help us better realize how to create good design.

Harmonize then customize...Design and music have many similarities. As a musician and a design student, over the years I have observed countless simlarities between the two in terms of concept (what is the song about) and excecution (how does the sound support the concept, and when is too much sound just muddying up the message).

One thing I have realized, however, is that for every saying about design, the exact opposite is always true. I always look to Andy Worhol for my inspiration here. When Greenburg said that kitsch has no place in art, Worhol creates fine art kitsch.

One of my professors always told me, if you see something that bugs you, either make it harmonize, or make it really bug the hell out of you, but dont leave it in limbo.
Andy Poes

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