Step Magazine by Sean Adams
At the AIGA 2006 Design Legends Gala, Paula Scher introduced Michael Bierut, recipient of the AIGA medal. Scher discussed Bierut’s many accomplishments and then said, “mention a designer and Michael knows the most recent project they’ve completed and their first project, how they’ve changed, how they haven’t, who influenced them, who they influence, and he sometimes will make a little sketch or diagram of their work.” when asked about Bierut, his Pentagram partners and other designers will begin with his magnanimous nature and generosity to other designers. These things are true. He does know who is doing good work, he is engaged with the community and the first person to promote another designer, and he is a true champion of the next generation (designers, not Star Trek: TNG). But these things are diversions from the actual reason Bierut received the profession’s highest honor and is a household name in households where Franklin Gothic might be discussed: he is a remarkable designer. It’s that simple.
SA: Michael, let me start with the obvious. In my view, there are two kinds of designers in the world: the ones who maintain their positions by holding other designers back, and the ones who confidently promote other designers. This interview might be more caustic if you were the former kind, but you’re the first one out of the gate to find young designers and encourage them. Why? Wouldn’t it be easier to be grumpy and complain about “those damned kids”?
MB: I really like graphic design. I like doing it, but I especially like it when other people do it. I don’t have any particular point of view that design has to be done a certain way, and nothing makes me happier than to see someone else do something great, particularly if it’s something I would never have thought of. I suppose this is one of the reasons I like being a partner at Pentagram: It’s great to have 16 really talented partners on your side. Graphic design isn’t a zero-sum game. Every time someone does something good, all of us benefit.
SA: Did you have the same experience of support and encouragement when you were starting out?
MB: Yes. I had great professors at the University of Cincinnati like Gordon Salchow and Joe Bottoni, and worked as an intern under Dan Bittman of Design Team One and Chris Pullman at WGBH in Boston. Then my first real job out of school was with Massimo and Lella Vignelli. I learned so much from all of them, just as I learn from all the people I work with today.
SA: You’ve been identified as a New York designer for so long, some people may not realize you’re from Cleveland. You’ve mentioned the local library only had two design books—Armin Hofmann’s Graphic Design Manual and Milton Glaser: Graphic Design. How did you go from being the only person repeatedly checking out Milton’s book from the library to your first job in New York at Vignelli Associates?
MB: I’m relieved to hear that some people don’t know I’m from Cleveland, because I’ve been accused of belaboring the fact ad nauseam. I got my first job in New York the same way that every one seems to get their first job in New York: by accident. At one of my internships, I had worked with someone who had been a college roommate with someone who worked at Vignelli. I was between my junior and senior years and visiting a friend who happened to have an apartment on the same street as the Vignelli Associates offices. I tried to visit my ex-colleague’s former roommate—connections!—but he was busy, and I had to drop my portfolio off instead. Massimo happened to be around, happened to see it and happened to like it. And nine months later, a week after graduation, I was working there.
SA: After you left Vignelli Associates, you joined Pentagram. You’ve been a partner there for 18 years. You must like it, or they have dirt on you. Why does it work for you?
MB: The way Pentagram is set up it combines everything I like about working as a designer and edits out everything I don’t like. Every partner runs a small team. I work directly with my clients and directly with my designers. No account people, no hierarchies. On one hand, it’s as if it’s a small eight-person office. On the other hand, my team is one of seven in New York, and one of 17 in our offices around the world, so I get constant stimulation from my partners and the work they’re doing, plus the work and recognition that comes from the international profile of Pentagram.
SA: Try as we might, we can never change how the place we’re from defines us. Being raised in northern Nevada guarantees I’ll never lose the phrase, “That’s real good. Real good.” How did Ohio define you, and how has that benefited you in your life?
MB: I think I am very polite, which I’m told is a positive Midwestern trait, but sometimes I wish I could be ruder. It’s really hard for me to tell a client to take a hike, for instance, no matter how incorrigible they are. I admire people who can get angry in a direct and honest way. Sometimes I worry that what I call politeness is actually cowardice. But I really didn’t have any role models growing up to teach me how to yell at people, so I’m stuck, I guess.
SA: Whenever I come across a piece you’ve designed, I’m struck by the intelligence, craft and wit. The idea may not be unexpected; at times it is the perfect realization of the expected in a completely new and compelling way. Confidence, however, is at the core of each piece. The solutions share the trait of being presented to the world with no apologies, straightforward and direct. Do you ever have moments of doubt?
MB: I’m very pleased to hear I’ve created the illusion you describe. Rest assured, not only do I have moments of doubt, but I actually make mistakes—some quite visible—and have regrets of some kind or another about nearly everything I’ve ever done. My guess is some of what you’ve observed comes from the fact I’ve never been the kind of designer who can spend a long time working toward a solution for a problem. Paula Scher once said that if it’s taking a long time to make an idea work, maybe it’s a bad idea. All my best work involved solutions that were fast and almost easy to conceive—although the follow-through may not be.
SA: That’s a great point. I’ve found that laboring over whether the type is 1 pica to the left or 2 picas to the right is usually irrelevant if you have a crummy idea. So much of your work is large-scale, long-term corporate projects. These involve large-scale politics. How do you handle this and maintain the ability to do good work?
MB: Any time you’re working with people, you’re working with politics, power struggles, turf battles, personality clashes. I realized early on it wasn’t enough to have a good idea or do a good design. You have to be able to persuade other people that your idea is right or your design is good, or else it’s never going to exist. This kind of persuasion depends on a number of things. Does the client trust you? Have you been listening to the client? Can you make your work understandable on their terms? Can you help them negotiate what may be an unfamiliar decision-making process? Unless you take all this stuff very seriously—and, more importantly, learn to take pleasure from doing it right—you are going to have a hard time getting anything done. I simply love this part of my job.
SA: It’s easy as a designer to feel a dearth of ideas, to have those moments when it feels as if you’ve used up every last idea in the tool kit. From the Fashion Center identity to the Yale School of Architecture posters, you seem to have an enormous “Big Gulp” of ideas. Can you talk about your conceptual process? Where are these ideas spawned?
MB: This sounds like a cliché, but I get my ideas from the client, or the subject matter, or from the problem itself. I know for a fact this is true because I am helpless when I have an open “just be creative” kind of brief. Most designers seem to love that kind of job. I hate it.
SA: Since coming to Pentagram in 1990, what was your favorite project personally? And it’s not fair to be politic about this and say “all of them.”
MB: If I had to pick one that has a special place in my heart, it would be the “What is Good Design?” call-for-entries poster I did for the American Center for Design in 1992. My daughter Liz hand-lettered it when she was 5 years old. This June she graduated with honors as a poli sci major from Swarthmore College. Time flies.
SA: At lunch today, my partner Noreen Morioka and I were deciding our top two worst career choices. What would you have done differently if you could go back and change it?
MB: Funny you should ask. If I had to do it over again, I’d go to a liberal arts college like Swarthmore first, and then get a design degree. There are things I’m never going to learn now, that I missed back then.
SA: I have to be honest with you. When I’m on the road and doing a lecture after being awake for 24 hours, or sitting in an airport at 5 a.m., I think about you and realize I need to keep going. You seem to have endless energy and enthusiasm. What’s the secret? Crack? Red Bull? Red Bull mixed with Mountain Dew?
MB: In my earlier days I seemed to need less sleep than most people, at least less than my lovely wife Dorothy. Not so true anymore. Living outside of Manhattan has been a real help to me. I commute to and from the city every day, and I get a surprising amount done on the train.
SA: Your family life is clearly your priority. How do you balance these massive projects, AIGA, writing, and the time and travel demands with family?
MB: I’m ashamed to say that I’ve worked more late nights and been on more out-of-town trips than I’d care to count. I’m proud to say, on the other hand, that I haven’t gone in to work on a weekend for over 15 years. Thank god I have a great family at home and a great staff in the office. They have made it all possible for me to do so much.
SA: A few years ago you founded DesignObserver.com, the most successful design publication online. This seems to be a clear outgrowth of the democratization of design, not in the sense of making work that is accessible to everyone, but in the idea of multiple voices and opinions creating a richer culture. It’s a brave move. You can create content, but you can’t control the responses. And they’re not always glowing, congratulatory comments. Why did you take on this challenge, and how has the experience differed from your expectations?
MB: I love working on Design Observer because I can write on my own schedule, publish it as soon as I’m done, and get immediate feedback. I enjoy reading most of the comments. I don’t take it seriously when they get out of hand, except on those occasions when people start being mean to each other. Then I’ll try to step in to calm things down a little. I really never imagined in a million years we’d be getting 275,000 site visits a week. It’s intimidating. Bill Drenttel and Jessica Helfand are great collaborators and actually do most of the real work involved with the site.
SA: We’ve talked about the fracturing of the design media and multiple outlets available to a designer today. There was a time when a small handful of magazines, AIGA competitions and speaking engagements were the only venues to become aware of someone’s work. Now there are entire sections of books in bookstores devoted to graphic design, countless websites and an increasing number of magazines and competitions. Is this good?
MB: As far as I’m concerned, the more books, magazines, competitions, websites and major motion pictures, the better.
SA: I’ll be boiled in oil before asking you what the future of design is, or what’s next for you. I know this is impossible to answer without sounding like a beauty pageant contestant: “In five years, I see myself helping others.” But what are you doing now that most excites you?
MB: After teaching for almost 15 years in the graphic design program at the Yale School of Art, earlier this year I added another responsibility: co-teaching a class with Bill Drenttel in the Yale School of Management. This is an attempt to teach the value of design to MBA students, with case histories and very informed class discussions. It’s hard, intimidating and—like doing anything new at age 50—very satisfying. If I could figure out something new to do every year from here on out, I’d be a very happy person.
SA: And finally, what’s the story with the accordion and piano? Rumor has it you play a mean jazz piano and kick-ass polka.
MB: There are rumors about me playing the accordion? Playing blues in C on the piano like I do is easy. Anyone could do it—my best friend Charlie taught me how in the sixth grade, and I actually haven’t made much progress since then. But have you ever even held a real accordion? It’s really hard!