Michael Bierut: Learning the Slow Way
Here are seven lessons Michael Bierut of Pentagram would like us to know, lest we repeat—or, worse, improve upon—his mistakes:
1. There are no little problems. Bierut tells us the a story of a graphic designer, a woman in Florida named Theresa LePore. She was given one of the most classic challenges in design, TMTNES (Too Much Type, Not Enough Space—or, “Eleven Pounds of Shit, Ten Pound Bag”). What resulted was a design that we’re all familiar with: the infamous butterfly ballot that threw the entire 2000 presidential election upside-down and prevented parents of future generations from naming their kid “Chad.” In short: design counts.
2. Work with what you’ve got. Apparently, people like it when you sell them back their old logo. Saks Fifth Avenue wasn’t happy with their square, tracked sans serif letterform, as it wasn’t making any sort of statement on the shopping bags (which are their miniature billboards). Bierut dug into the clothier’s rich history and found examples of beautiful hand-crafted script on the cover of a hat box. The modern take on this was splitting the script type logo into an 8×8 grid and jumbling the 64 square pieces until it became a mosaic that was both striking and sophisticated. Saks was thrilled, and Bierut made a note to trust the wisdom of hat boxes.
3. Less is more. Except, sometimes…it isn’t. The Yale School of Architecture wanted a logo, and Bierut wanted to buck the whole idea of a logo: never use the same typeface or layout twice. His wife (whose patience with Bierut’s crazy ideas is an inspiration to us all) was skeptical, and suggested he was going a little overboard. (Specifically, she called him a “font slut.”) So he reigned himself in by setting parameters: it would always be black and white; the logo would always be a white letter Y inside a black circle; and the size of the school’s name and the size of the body text would remain unchanged. But otherwise, it could be as wild or restrained as they wanted. So remember, a brand is not a font! (Except when it is, of course.)
4. Without problems, there would be no solutions. The New York Times building in Times Square wanted a sign. But it had to be huge. It had to be separate from but attached to the exterior of the all-glass building. And it had to not block the view from the windows inside. Easy! Bierut used the existing structures on the building. He added black covers to areas of the white porcelain horizontal bars over the windows, which from the street would add up to “The New York Times.” Had the building been ugly concrete, anyone could have slapped a neon sign on it. But, like the original Star Wars trilogy, technological limitations drive the most creative solutions. Without limits, you get The Phantom Menace.
5. If you can’t make a great idea work, maybe it’s a bad idea.
In a moment of weakness totally uncharacteristic of graphic designers, Bierut let his ego get a little out of hand. The Museum of Art + Design (“MAD”) wanted a simple logo. Inspired by the museum’s geometric architecture, and harboring a dislike of three-letter acronyms, he wanted to change the name to “a+d” and created a barely legible logo out of a continuous line…that communicated diddly squat about the museum. Realizing his idea was more hysteric than high-brow, he went back to the basics: geometric shapes, a square and a circle, that created block letters for MAD. The use of the word “mad” in branding (on a T-shirt: “IF YOU CAN READ THIS YOU ARE MAD”) had some humor to it. Bierut notes that the element of humor, fun or delight is usually a good sign you’re onto something good. And he has since come around on three-letter acronyms.
6. The client is (eventually) always right.
Michael Tilson Thomas, or “MTT,” of the SF Symphony commissioned Bierut to create a logo for the New World Symphony to match the building’s beautiful architecture designed by, oddly enough, MTT’s old babysitter: Frank Gehry. Bierut tried idea after idea, but the client never seemed happy with it. They finally uttered the words that strikes fear and horror into the heart of the graphic designer: “We’re going to send you a PDF,” and they emailed Bierut a scanned image of sketches on Post-It notes. Bierut was incensed. How dare they? He had half a mind to call up MTT and say, “Hey, conducting doesn’t look too hard. How about you let me lead your orchestra for a few minutes at the next performance?” But then it occurred to Bierut: here was a guy who was incredibly busy, leading two symphonies, and he sat down to sketch out his simple idea for Bierut to consider. So Bierut took the suggestion to heart and, of course, created a truly lovely logo based on the idea. Bierut now admits that his client was a much better graphic designer than Bierut would ever be as a conductor.
7. It isn’t all about you.
The New School Libraries of New York City wanted consistent aesthetic for their libraries. So, naturally, Bierut said, “I’ll design you a logo!” And the New School Libraries said, “Uh, okay….” But the real success happened by accident. The architect told Bierut there was a problem: the bookshelves were for kids’ height and stood six feet tall. The ceilings were normal height, so there was a lot of empty space above the shelves. Bierut just figured they needed a mural. So he asked his wife for photos of kids to put in a row on the walls over the shelves. Well, the library loved it so much, every branch wanted their own. Every mural had art by a different artist. And the logo? Never needed one. The experience itself was the identity. These kind of accidents, Bierut says, are the kind he hopes designers make instead of the ones like that of poor Theresa LaPore. May your mistakes be good ones!
Michael Bierut is the founder of Design Observer and former president of the AIGA. What he could tell you about design off the top of his head, you could use to write an encyclopedia. He is the author of 79 Short Essays on Design, which is a great place to start.
posted by Cori Johnson