David Bowie is one of those cultural juggernauts every literate person needs to contend with—and I’m sorely remiss. Therefore I hied myself to the excellent exhibit “David Bowie Is” now open at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art.

Originally curated by the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the exhibit gathers diverse artifacts from the Bowie Archive: hand-scribbled notes, postwar glass milk bottles, red plastic boots, even a wadded-up tissue with Bowie’s lipstick smeared on it are presented chronologically in a sensually immersive dive into his impact on music, fashion, design, and culture.

As a Bowie-ignoramus (and one married to a music historian, egad!), I had plenty to learn. But even more interesting than getting up to speed on my cultural history was witnessing Bowie’s uncanny skill at self-branding and design writ as large and stardusty as possible. Below are six observations about great design the Bowie exhibit taught me.

1. Authenticity is overrated.

This early portion of the exhibit knocked me between the eyes a bit. The text reads: “In the 1960s rock was all about authenticity, but Bowie anticipated that by the 1970s it would move in the opposite direction—towards acting, plays, masks, makeup, costume, kabuki, mime, and imagination.”

Bowie’s early years back this up. He left school at 16 to work in—what else?—advertising, all the while furiously throwing himself into the London band scene, trying and discarding styles both musical and visual. At the tender age of 20, he discovered the stage and studied mime with Lindsay Kemp. Above, he’s pictured in looks he donned in quick succession: wearing Lauren Bacall-style flowing trousers, as a pharaoh, and lounging in a “man dress” designed for him by one “Mr. Fish.”

You hear tons about brand authenticity nowadays, and certainly brands do get nailed when they lie. But are we really drawn to brands because of the truths they present, or for the extraordinary fantasy they can project?

2. Root your brand in verbs, not nouns.

Bowie was smart enough not to define his brand in nouns—limited musical categories, or points on a geographic map—but reached for verbs instead. “Bowie” means to change, subvert, provoke, to consume culture voraciously, to remix our collective anxieties in the modern age and serve them back to us more glittering, estranged, and so weird as to feel vaguely comforting. It’s akin to Lady Gaga, Boy George, and many other oddballs whose magnificent swooping skirts provide misfits a place where they feel welcome.

Even the small selection of images here show how fast Bowie pushed the “remix” button on his personal brand. Rooting his persona in verbs meant he never got stuck in a dated look or era; he was moving at the speed of zeitgeist (or coke-addled imagination) itself.

Promotional photograph of David Bowie for Diamond Dogs, 1974. Photo: Terry O'Neill. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum.
Promotional photograph of David Bowie for Diamond Dogs, 1974. Photo: Terry O’Neill. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum.

3. Brands multiply their power by intersecting with culture…

Bowie drank deep at the well of culture. His breakout hit single, “Space Oddity,” is a pun on the 1968 Kubrick film 2001: Space Odyssey. The song introduced Major Tom, a moodily ambivalent astronaut who felt dismayed by Earth’s smallness when seen from space. Turns out many Americans felt the same queasiness at the first moon landing the following summer.

Bowie also seized on Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange, which Kubrick remade in 1971. Bowie was a fearless appropriator and interpreter of cultural events, unafraid to mingle his brand with other cultural products and figures. He amplified his ideas through apt collaborations, most notably with fashion designers like Kansai Yamamoto and Alexander McQueen.

4. …but great brands lead culture.

You wouldn’t catch Bowie dead commenting on “social media” today. He’d find that way too 2012 for his taste. At the height of his popularity, he famously killed his iconic character Ziggy Stardust onstage (and without warning his bandmates first). Which leads me to another Bowie-verb-as-brand-value: soothsaying. The strongest brands lead culture forward instead jumping on the bandwagon as it ambles by.

5. Think Gesamtkunstwerk.

Bowie always conceived of each album as a multi-media experience; writing mere songs was an insufficient outlet for his ideas. He pioneered musical operas, music videos, and multi-sensory shows we now expect today.

Gesamtkunstwerk refers to an impossible 19th-century ideal of opera, a “total artwork” that engages all the senses at once. “Total artwork” need not be expensive, although Bowie’s most certainly were. The best brands today have a strong and presence across multiple channels, whether their budget stretches to every possible outlet or not. The flexibility this feat requires will test a brand’s potential and suggest ways to invite users to remix the brand for themselves, content-marketing-style. Bowie pioneered this early.

6. Brain scramble is excellent! (But brand retrenching is also powerful.)

For me, the weakest aspect of “David Bowie Is…” is how blithely it skips over Bowie’s cocaine addiction and the role it played in his creativity. On the one hand, his frantic pace of production clearly owes something to Bolivian marching powder. On the other hand, editing this factor out of Bowie’s story entirely leaves one tempted to over-credit cocaine’s role in Bowie’s extraordinary output during the early ‘70s.

Bowie moved from L.A. to Berlin in the mid-‘70s to quit cocaine and retrench. His absorption of his new surroundings, the moody, walled-off, sexually experimental capital city of Germany, produced yet another compelling character, the Thin White Duke.

What can brand designers learn from this move? First, don’t do drugs! But do throw yourself and your design chops in the way of conflicting opinions, influences, and experiences. Stretch your mind, test your assumptions, get into heated arguments. You’ll be stronger and smarter for each uncomfortable moment.

Also, consumers love a comeback story. Bowie was at the height of his fame, but personally he was a mess. Once-beloved brands that have lapsed into obsolescence can rebound, but the move needs to be strong and decisive—like moving from L.A. to Berlin, multi-color to black-and-white—to jolt consumers back to attention.

Design, like music-making, is a way of thinking, another verb Bowie successfully cornered. “All art is unstable,” Bowie wrote in a 1999 journal entry that opens the exhibit. “Its meaning is not necessarily that implied by the author. There is no autherative (sic) voice. There are only multiple readings.” You can substitute “brands” for “art” without missing a beat.