what Captain Beefheart taught me about design

Feather Times a Feather, 1987

Last month the musician/artist variously known as Don Vliet/Don Van Vliet/Captain Beefheart died after a long battle with MS. Much will have been written about his influence by now, but I doubt that his wilfully eccentric music, abstract poetry and visual works are too frequently cited as inspirational by many designers (over-rational control-freaks that we tend to be) but… they worked for me.

I don’t recall what led me to Trout Mask Replica shortly after its release, but Beefheart’s now-legendary ‘cultiness’ must have been part of the attraction. Barely anyone I knew liked the album and immersion in its spiky, unsettling universe of off-centre rhythms and (apparently) stoned rantings was a solitary pleasure. Beefheart invented a fully functional musical world entirely of his own which I only truly appreciated it when I finally saw him and the Magic Band live, where the rhythms, notes and tones—dry, awkward, spidery and a little thin on record—were now rich, full and deep and to my amazement ‘swung’ and ‘rocked’— here a living, breathing musical entity.

Contrarian and ‘outsider’ in approach, I doubt that ‘design’ was of any interest to Beefheart. I’m pretty sure he must have despised the very notion. But if we are talking creative integrity, few could match his in music, and certainly no rock star/Sunday painters touch the quality and commitment of his artworks. Here are a few things he (inadvertently) taught me about creativity in design:

You can make something from anything. Despite limited musical ability and musicians operating beyond the outer limits of their comfort zones, Beefheart took apart ‘rock’ music and reassembled as something new and unique that always made you think, differently. That took the most extraordinary and singular persistence and vision. I wish I could claim to have these qualities. Few have them. Burdened by commercial constraints designers rarely get to prove the point, but I believe that you can make something good, something interesting, something worthwhile from virtually anything, given time, patience and an inquiring attitude.

Design is not the exclusive preserve of the designer. Beefheart had an extraordinary voice but could not play a musical instrument—quite a handicap for a band leader. Through sheer charisma and creativity he imposed his will on a group of (some might say unfortunate) musicians, to reinvent a musical form. I personally find drawing essential for articulating design thought, for collaboration and management— but I have also had the good fortune to work with some exceptional design figures for whom realisation does not need to be personally ‘owned’: Michael Wolff (Wolff Olins), Terence Griffin (Sedley Place) and Tim May (Design House) spring to mind: non-sketching thinkers who routinely contributed significantly more to projects than ‘traditional’ designers.

Genuine originals are few and far between. All creative endeavour generates heroes, alleged geniuses and innovators, most of whom ‘stand on the shoulders of giants’ and true originals are thin on the ground. Beefheart may have been vocally indebted to Howlin’ Wolf and the Blues tradition, but the rhythmic foundations of his music and other ideas came from… who knows where.  Commercial design gives its practitioners little opportunity to really explore and genuinely innovate, so caps must be doffed to those few designers who somehow manage to create the space to rise above the need to earn a crust and make us look at our world/work anew. Good job Eatock, Sagmeister, Bantjes, Heatherwick…

Humour and seriousness are not mutually exclusive. The sounds, shapes and words of Beefheart’s art provoke amusement, if not joy, whilst at the same time stimulating (even scaring) the onlooker/listener. It’s a potent and rare mix. Prolonged seriousness stifles creativity and I learned early on that finding humour in some aspect of one’s work keeps ‘possibility’ alive—and it also makes for engaging communications.

Words matter. All graphic designers need to develop some form of appreciation of words. This does not mean you have to be ‘literary’. Meaning is important but so is appearance and sound. Beefheart wrote/improvised/performed abstract expressionist lyrics that delight in the sound, often to the exclusion of meaning: “Pappy with the Khaki sweatband
/Bowed goat potbellied barnyard that only he noticed” —try saying that without smiling. Born Don Glen Vliet, even a fringe figure like Beefheart/Don Van Vliet also recognised the power of a ‘brand’ name. When asked why he added the ‘Van’, he just said: “I needed a van” (and as for the other legend surrounding his name… please, don’t even ask).

There is always another way. You may not have the time, you may not have the money, or you may simply be unable to find it—but there is always another solution, another way to do things. There are no ‘last words’ on anything. Once in a while somebody comes along to remind us that most ‘solutions’ are merely habits in disguise. Beefheart was the epitome of the ‘other’ way.

True inspiration comes from ‘out there’. Its an oft-derided fact that many musicians claim Beefheart as an ‘influence’ although that is undetectable in their music—his musical ‘style’ is almost unreproducable and never lent itself to absorption/development by others. Designers commonly talk of ‘inspiration’ meaning either: ‘that’s a great piece of work (that I plan to steal from in future)’, or more respectably (and with less likelihood of legal action) find inspiration in the approach of a piece of work that might apply to some aspect of their own. Less common but much more inspirational are individuals outside our everyday experience who demonstrate that—in art, work or life—anything is possible.

There is little that sounds or looks ‘designed’ in Beefheart’s work and most struggle to see the value in it. His most inspiring achievement to me is as an embodiment of a sense of possibility, something I don’t see in design that often. You may see it in other arts, often it is in science and it is always there in nature. It is something that Beefheart’s work achieved. Possibility is what fuels, compels and inspires all creators to push forward.

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