Design and music go hand in hand, and the ties that bind them are deeper than album packaging or gaming soundtracks. Underlying each practice is a unifying creative mindset. One group says observation, another says listening. One says prototyping, another says demoing. Remixing has become the essential building block for both arts in the digital era. And iteration is essential to any great outcome.
In an episode of the podcast Song Exploder, Wilco founder Jeff Tweedy broke down how he works: “I’ll do a vocal melody based just on sounds . . . And I will sit and listen to the first line over and over, and sketch things on my notepad, and try to figure out [lyrics] that have the same syllables, the same meter, until I get something that’s satisfying. And then I’ll sing it.” Words that at first might sound random unpack a greater meaning as a narrative unfolds. Eventually he passes on the demo to the band, but well before the song is completed. This leaves room for further discovery and development.
Tweedy’s revelation is reminiscent of a famous design duo and their methodical process.
Charles and Bernice “Ray” Eames were two of the most influential American designers in the 20th century. Working primarily in architecture and furniture design, the couple followed the modernist style but also pushed back against the heavy-handedness of many modernists by introducing simple elegance and a hint of whimsy. Their office created some of the most iconic pieces in the history of furniture: tall and cheerful stools with steep legs, beautiful lounges with plush leather seats, and perfectly crafted chairs made of bent plywood.
The Eames Office was also known for extensive and meticulous prototyping throughout the design phase of product development, a practice learned from Finnish modernist Eero Saarinen. Saarinen frequently broke a design concept down into its essential elements—often dozens—then methodically proceeded to make dozens more studies of each piece. It’s a fascinating approach and has applications far beyond product design: to discover how to develop a concept, break it down into its smallest parts, whether that is an individual component of a system, a desired outcome, or a series of notes. When each part has been isolated, you’re ready to explore how it can be manipulated or changed. Each element becomes a prototype with its own question to be tested; each success or failure becomes an answer. It should include an element of what you believe is true.
In October of 2017, along with other partners from IDEO, Michael Hendrix took a bus from San Francisco to Sonoma County to visit the home of the Eames’s granddaughter Llisa Eames Demetrios. Since Ray Eames died in 1988, Llisa has collected and catalogued artifacts from the Eames studio, loaning pieces to museums around the world. She showed the partners a vast collection of furniture prototypes: version upon version of fiberglass chairs, molded plywood forms, and scale models, each one easily identifiable as predecessors to the Eames canon. Among the most fascinating was a long room in the annex of a barn where tables were neatly peppered with scores of joints and fasteners—discrete components that go unnoticed, since they are mounted to the underside of the furniture. Minute changes from one to another showed how the designers advanced each idea as materials and manufacturing capabilities changed: bread crumbs that chart the evolving DNA of the Eames portfolio.
Back in the house, we sat with Llisa in her living room. She had recently converted old reel-to-reel tapes of a series of lectures given by her grandfather to digital audio and wanted us to hear them. The lectures were delivered during his appointment to the Charles Eliot Norton Professorship of Poetry in 1971; it might seem odd that an architect and designer would be tapped for a poetry fellowship, but Harvard uses the term in its broadest sense, celebrating the art of making ideas tangible. It was striking to hear Charles share his ideas, to hear the thoughtful cadence of his voice bringing them to life.
At one point, during a question-and-answer session, he was asked how his studio has won so many awards. Rather than brushing the question aside or letting it stroke his ego, he demystified his process by recalling a collaboration with Saarinen:
This is the trick. I give it to you; you can use it. We looked at the program and divided it into all the essential elements—which turned out to be about 30-some-odd elements—and we proceeded methodically to make a hundred studies of each element. And we made 100 studies of all combinations of these elements, trying to not erode the quality that we had gained . . . And took these elements and began then to search for the logical combinations of the combinations.
Imagine the mathematics of this: to find the ideal ratio between a curved piece of wood and a thin metal chair leg, for example, the Eames Studio explored 3,000 options and then added 100 studies of combinations of the best ones. It might be easy to dismiss his statement as hyperbole, but the artifacts in Llisa’s barn backed it up.
When you are tinkering, consider breaking an idea down into its essential parts, but remember that parts cannot only be considered on their own; they must be seen in the context of the whole. By choosing the most promising combination of the most promising elements, you arrive at the bare minimum—a whole new starting point. What set the Eames Office apart was their willingness to toy with every particular during the prototyping phase.
This is what has set Wilco apart too. The band has created consistently good records, earning a Grammy and seven nominations over two decades. At some point, you have to make the choice to proceed, to believe that you’ve got it right. But the longer you play with every contingency, and the more patience you have for the experiment, the closer to perfect your final product will be.
Excerpted from Two Beats Ahead: What Musical Minds Teach Us About Innovation by Panos A. Panay and R. Michael Hendrix. Copyright © 2021. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Hachette Book Group
Panos A. Panay is the senior vice president for global strategy and innovation at Berklee College of Music, the founder of the Berklee Institute for Creative Entrepreneurship (BerkleeICE), and a fellow at MIT Connection Science. He is also the founder of Sonicbids, a leading platform for bands to book gigs and market themselves online, as well as cofounder of the Open Music Initiative.
R. Michael Hendrix is a partner and global design director at IDEO, a design and innovation consulting firm, and an assistant professor of music business/management at Berklee College of Music.