Michael Bierut is a partner in the New York office of Pentagram and a proper gentleman. With his sharp dress punctuated by an iconic hat and scarf, he moves through a room with the gravity of one of the world’s best known designers. But his iconic status is paired with an arresting attentiveness. He’ll write you a surprising and unexpected personal note thanking you for something you should probably be thanking him for. That personable attitude comes through in conversation. In this episode of First Things First, we discuss how your own children could become the best critics of your work, the perils and pitfalls of holding onto a stubborn ideology, and the deliciously reductive work of book jacket design.Episode Transcript
Michael Bierut: I was with my dad. He sold printing equipment. He never would have claimed to know anything about [design] but he had a natural intuition and pleasure in that sort of thing. He was my early mentor in that world, oddly enough. I might have been eight or nine years old. He pointed out a logo for a heavy-equipment manufacturer called Clark. It was on the side of a forklift truck and he said, “Oh, look at the way they’ve written the name. Isn’t that clever?” And I’m like, “Clever how?” I just saw C-L-A-R-K. And he said, “Well, look at how the bottom part of the L is lifting up the side of the A the same way the truck lifts things up.” And I was gobsmacked by that
I mean, the idea that someone had been given the chore of putting a name on the side of a truck and putting that little grace note just for my dad—a secret thing, you know—to provide some joy and delight to some random people at a street corner in Garfield Heights, Ohio. I just thought, you know, a world that contains tiny miracles like this is a world worth living in.
Paddy Harrington: Michael Bierut is a proper gentleman. With a sharp dress sense punctuated by an iconic hat and scarf, he moves through a room with the gravity of one of the world’s best-known designers. But his iconic status is paired with an arresting attentiveness. He’ll write you a surprising and unexpected personal note thanking you for something you should probably be thanking him for. That personable attitude comes through in conversation. In this episode of First Things First, we’ll discuss how your own children could become the best critics of your work, the perils and pitfalls of holding onto a stubborn ideology, and the deliciously reductive work of book jacket design.
Michael Bierut: I grew up in suburban Cleveland—and not the prosperous, sophisticated suburbs of Cleveland—the southwest suburbs, which were very decisively middle class. I was good at art but impatient or didn’t think I quite had the attention span, or even quite saw the point of doing art for art’s sake. That’s ironic because I think one clichéd route to being a graphic designer is you really want to be a fine artist and not have clients, be liberated from all that and just kind of use it as a vehicle for your own creative expression. And you grudgingly take on clients because you need the money and you sort of “sell out.” The whole time you just want to get back into your art.
I remember thinking I was good at art and I liked doing it, but I just couldn’t quite see the point of it. Yet I would see things like movie posters or album covers or things that now I would call logos, though I wasn’t really sure what they were then. And I could tell there was some sort of creative thing happening in there, but I couldn’t fathom where these things happened or how one trained to become a person that participated in that.
If I could just do something that you’d see on a construction site, that would make me so happy. And still does—it still does.
But I was lucky. I found a book in my high school library called Aim for a Career in Art/Graphic Design. And I opened up that book and I thought, “Oh, my god! This is what I want to do!” Confronted with the question of art versus design, it’s like, “Do I want to do something that will be interred, if I’m incredibly lucky, in a room in a gallery where sophisticated people may choose to make time in their busy days to go visit it? Or, alternately, do I want something that’s going to be ubiquitous in the world?”
I just always liked that second path. If I could just do something that you’d see on a construction site, that would make me so happy. And still does—it still does. So it’s acknowledging, I think, that graphic design is fulfilling a social function and has a social component. It’s about communication.
And that implies that there is a sender and a receiver. To the degree we get to shape what those messages are between those parties, we’re challenged to get out in the world and understand what people want to say, what people need to hear, how you get from Point A to Point B.
Paddy Harrington: What I’m hearing that I find fascinating is an idea of accessibility around design, how design can be a method by which you can make connections between groups of people who may not otherwise have those connections.
MB: In many circles, design is seen as something that somehow quote-unquote adds value or even signifies that this thing is expensive, is fancier than other things and is worth more money. And if you buy it you’ll be able to send signals to other people that you bought something that costs more and you can afford these things, right?
I teach in an MBA program at Yale School of Management. At the beginning of a semester I’ll poll the students and I’ll get a lot of people thinking that that’s what design is: that a pair of Louboutins are designed and sneakers are not. They won’t recognize the idea that everything is designed: some things are badly designed or unconsciously designed, but everything human-made is the product of a series of decisions and plans that are, one way or another, familiar to designers as part of the design process. It’s hard to be educated as a designer without having phrases like, “This is the right way to do it” and “this is the wrong way to do it.” Or “this is good design” and “This is bad design.”
I’m not a pure relativist, in terms of “all design is valid” or “all design is equally good.” I do think some things are badly fit for their purpose, that some things overtly do harm to the world—either in egregious or sometimes very modest and incremental ways. Some things just look super ugly and stupid to me. Some of those same things may look cool to someone else. So there’s a part of it that really lapses into taste and arbitrariness. It’s always been a complicated thing to navigate.
I’ve never been able to lose sight of the fact that for a lot of people what we do is completely under-the-surface at best. And yet, I think that the decisions we make do have consequences. They’re not just meaningless hand-waving for our own and our knowing friends’ amusement.
But part of my secret as a designer, I think, part of what’s really shaped me, is it just so happened that I married my high-school sweetheart back in suburban Cleveland. She was not then and is to this day not a designer. I believe that’s why we’ve raised three children, none of whom are designers. My kids are very good critics of my work, very funny and cynical critics of my work. My wife can barely rouse herself to be a critic of my work at this point, after forty-plus years of being together and hearing me go on about this stuff at length.
If I get to go to a conference like Design Thinkers in Toronto, I get to luxuriate by being surrounded by a bunch of people who really are excited about design. You know, I’ve never been able to lose sight of the fact that for a lot of people what we do is completely under-the-surface at best. And yet, I think that the decisions we make do have consequences. They’re not just meaningless hand-waving for our own and our knowing friends’ amusement. I think there are choices to be made in how messages are communicated and how experiences are shaped. Every one of us is challenged using our own point of view or our own talent or our own experience or our own opinions about what constitutes the right way to do it and a wrong way to do it, to move things forward.
PH: That gets to something I’m really interested in speaking with you about: the concept of subjectivities and authorship—or maybe not even authorship so much as authority. You’ve described how early in your career no one cared about what you did and now, in the later part, they do. What has been the experience of that transition, say, from supporting authority to then becoming a supreme authority in this field?
MB: It’s curious to go through the transition you’re describing. I’m lucky I had a fantastic job early on: I worked for Massimo Vignelli in my first job out of school. He really did deploy all the trappings of glamour, authority, and charisma in design in order to attract clients and in order to have clients agree to his recommendations. He was completely impassioned about design in general, its transformative power, and unabashedly delighted in his own ability to create great work. A lot of it got encased in a sort of ideology as he went forward. Why only use five typefaces? Or why modernism as an approach to design is superior to alternative approaches?
But when you’re side-by-side with him, I actually felt that the work he created wasn’t the product of ideology or theory. It was intuitive to him. The way he made it look was the way he had to make it look. It’s the only way it looked right to him. And it just so happened that the way he liked to make things look corresponded with not just an aesthetic but also a series of design decisions that were often incredibly functional. If you’re hiring someone to sort out the signage in your incredibly complicated urban transit system, you don’t want someone whose primary interest is self-expression or elaborate detail or toying with multiple meanings and obfuscation. You want someone who likes the way clarity looks. And I think Massimo liked clarity—and he really liked the way clarity looks. I think those are, oddly enough, intuitive choices, right?
So, when I started working for him, I was used to being the youngest person in the room. If I said something it would be like, “Oh, he talks!” No one pays much attention to you because you’re in your twenties. And then you get a little bit older and if you have some ability—if you have anything going for you, whatever your hustle is—you start to attract some attention. Then, if you keep at it long enough, when you’re your fifties, suddenly, people are actually giving you authority that is—in my opinion—often undeserved.
PH: Why is it undeserved?
MB: I’m quote-unquote a famous designer. I’d rather have someone hire me because they don’t know who I am, they meet me, they hear me say something intelligent, I ask some good questions, they’ve seen some work that I’ve done that indicates I might be able to help them with the work that they are looking to get done. That’s my favorite kind of client. If it’s someone who has decided, “I want the best” or “everyone talks about this guy, I want this guy to do it,” you know, I don’t think that’s necessarily a good reason to hire someone.
People who want a “Michael Bierut” design—I don’t even know what that would be. I try to deflect that. I say, “I’m just an anonymous battlefield surgeon.”
People are buying insurance sometimes, or they’re buying reflected fame—certainly with a lot of the work that Vignelli would do. He did work not just in graphic design but architecture, interior design, product design, too. And it always struck me that when he’d be asked to design a chair—for a furniture company, let’s say—you’d know that it wasn’t someone at the furniture company sitting around saying, “You know, this chair problem … mankind just has not quite cracked it. I’ve seen a lot of chairs and none of them seem quite right. We need to get a smart guy to really apply his intelligence to this thing. How about that Massimo Vignelli? Let’s have him design a chair.” No. Someone says, “Look, the big trade show’s coming up. We need to create some buzz. What if we had—who’s hot?—oh, let’s get Vignelli to design a chair.”
PH: While you were working under Vignelli, you started working on your own side projects and developed a sort of mantra—
MB: “Stay up late,” you mean.
MB: [It refers to] the amount of energy that I brought to bear on my work when I was young and had seemingly infinite amounts of energy. More importantly, I couldn’t afford any of the things that might serve as useful distractions. I lived with my new wife in a really tiny, claustrophobic apartment. She had to go to bed early because she had to wake up early and put on a business suit and go to work downtown. I worked three blocks from our tiny little apartment. She would have left for work two hours before I was out of bed, and at the end of the day she’d go to bed three hours before I would.
So I started bringing work home. Then I got a key to the office. I would tuck her in, do the dishes, kill the cockroaches, and then I would walk three blocks back to the office and spend a couple hours working. I’d redo stuff I had done during the day, or get a jump on things I’d been assigned so I could take on even another thing when morning came. I’d do freebies for friends: overdoing announcements for parties, or gig posters for buddies who who had a band or a show they were putting on. I just treated each one of those things as if they were going to be the most important thing I’d ever designed.
It’s that cliché about your countryman Malcolm Gladwell, who talked about the ten thousand hours you need to do something before you get good at something. I’m not sure that’s the number, but, that was how I got good at design—just doing it like crazy.
PH: Have you found that’s changed for young designers?
MB: I’m not positive it’s the same, actually. When I was doing that work, I don’t think I had the same motivations that people a decade or two before me had. I could sense from them they really thought they had discovered something new—and the world was filled with things that needed that discovery. From Paul Rand to Vignelli to the modernists who came of age in the postwar years, all the way through to the 1960s—the motivation really had to do with the idea that good design was a way to improve people’s lives. That simple, clear Helvetica packaging would have an ennobling quality for people in a store who would otherwise be faced with confusing and sentimental claptrap that seemed to be ascribing false values to fancy filigree. Whereas, if what’s in that package is salt, just S-A-L-T, just fuckin’ say SALT.
I was more ideologically eclectic. My motivation to do the work had less to do with taking something bad and making it good. It was the delirious thrill of making something, in and of itself, that really excited me.
I missed that; I never partook of that “true believer” thing. Instead, I loved the way Helvetica Medium looked, but I loved how a lot of things looked. I remember seeing work from people who Massimo just hated. Their work would drive him crazy; he would throw things in the garbage can. I’d be in his office and he’d open his mail, open a package, someone would send him a beautiful book they had designed. He would say, “Ach! Look at this! It’s terrible!” And he’d pitch it in the garbage can. I would wait. He’d go out to lunch, I’d sneak into his office, grab the book, and take it home.
I was more ideologically eclectic. My motivation to do the work had less to do with taking something bad and making it good. It was the delirious thrill of making something, in and of itself, that really excited me. It was really addictive.
PH: I wanted to return to a theme that I know you have an interesting opinion on. It starts with the idea of book-cover design, describing it as “deliciously reductive.” It’s the notion of design as distillation. Clarity is part of that, too. What, for you, is the process or importance of distillation and clarity within the practice of design?
MB: Distillation and clarity means something different to me than white space or sans-serif typography or “minimalism.” A lot of what I find myself doing as a designer is trying to reconcile three things. I remember in college, in design school, we had some professor who told us design was about reconciling semantics, semiotics, and pragmatics. And then Vignelli would say “Discipline, appropriateness, and beauty”—or something. I’m really embarrassed, I used to know those things like the back of my hand. But then Vitruvius had his three things.
There are always the three things you’re trying to satisfy for any design problem. First, you’re trying to do something that discharges some function. It has to work. It has to do the thing it is designed to do. Second, it has to do it in a way that is specific to its context. If it’s useful to have it look different from other things that do the same thing, it should look different in a way that makes sense for what it is. Then, finally, if it could give people some pleasure—as a bonus, almost—that’s like the home run.
Say you’re designing a book cover. The function of a book cover is to signal to a potential reader, “If this is the kind of thing you like, then you’re going to like this thing.” And then there are a lot of subtle queues you have to know how to deploy to do that. They change now and then. But there’s a way that a big, fancy bestseller looks versus literary fiction versus biography versus nonfiction versus something that’s fun to read versus something that’s challenging to read. Book cover designers are constantly manipulating color, image, typeface—all those things—to send those signals out, right?
Part of it is just, “I need to make someone pick up this book and buy it.” It also needs to reflect the thing that’s behind the cover. In theory, if the problem is that it’s a rectangle in a bookstore and you need to make it stand out against the other rectangles—that’s the barest statement of function. But it doesn’t tell you what to do because you’re also trying to figure out how it’s a rectangle that’s uniquely suited to sit on the cover of that book, as opposed to other books. Good designers get those two things, and I try to score 100% on those two things when I’m doing my work.
It’s that last one, the delight or surprise or beauty part, however you define it, that’s a little bit hard to get to. Sometimes you’ve solved the first two in a way that is like a magic trick. Sometimes the three things are so closely bound together they’re inseparable. Sometimes you’re adding something that’s your own interpretation of the author’s intent, perhaps unasked for or unbidden or even resented. But it can be the kind of thing that makes someone smile—through beauty, humor, surprise, delight, something.
It’s when those three things come together, when you get them carefully interlocked, that you can say you’ve done something that is a distillation, is very reductive. Book covers, specifically, are both consumer packaging—an all-out war of all against all in the context of the shelves in a retail environment—but also meant to somehow honor the time and intelligence that an author has put in to the contents of that book. It’s a challenge.
PH: A bigger, broader question: What’s next?
MB: When you get to be old like me, you start thinking about what you want to do next. I’ve been trying to figure it ou. If you have a certain amount of experience, it’s given you, on the one hand, a kind of authority you can manipulate. On the other hand, the threat of irrelevance—I’m very conscious of how baby boomers are getting very close to destroying the entire world. Partly through neglect, partly through greed and self-centeredness, and partly through—to my surprise and horror—a lot of sheer malevolence. Some of us baby boomers should just get the hell out of the way and let younger people fix things. We should just cower in the corner and hope we aren’t all taken out and hung, which we might richly deserve. You might want to cut this part out of the podcast—
MB: That took a dark turn. Or it sounds like an invitation, in which case…. But part of what I’d love to do is figure out a way to be of use to the design community, to the people I work with now, and to the people who have worked with me over the years. There are things I think I’m good at that I alone can do, but that list is getting shorter. Maybe it’s just things that only an old guy with a certain amount of experience can do, and it might be time to just to focus on that.
I have to admit, still, I can remember the first few things I designed—inspired by my favorite album cover or that Clark truck logo. I can remember rubbing down that first piece of press type. Every once in a while, on the same day I’m idly planning my retirement, I’ll have an instance in which an idea will occur to me. Or I’ll be working with someone on my design team and we’ll move something a little bit to the left, or make something bigger or smaller, and suddenly we’ll have that moment: “Oh! That’s perfect! That’s exactly the way it should be!” That was the thing that had me coming back to the office at midnight to work for three more hours. Every day when I go into work I just want that to happen again. So I can be forever young.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.Credits
First Things First is produced in partnership with the Association of Registered Graphic Designers. It is hosted by Paddy Harrington and edited by Max Cotter. Frontier’s sponsor music is an edited version of “sketch (rum-portrait)” by Jahzzar from the album Sketches.
This episode features an edited version of “Seashore” by Podington Bear from the album Carefree; an edited version of “If” by Broke for Free from the album Layers; an edited version of “Acme Coke” by Roger Plexico from the album No Man’s Land; and an edited version of “The Zeppelin” by Blue Dot Sessions from the album Aeronaut.
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