Interview with Michael Bierut

So I took another trip to New York in February, and as is my want, I visited a couple of designers and talked design. Prominently on my list for this trip was a visit to Penragram’s New York office and in particular, to speak to one of my design heroes, Michael Bierut. Michael has built his career on making himself, his work, his personality, his opinions, available and in the process has become one of the best known and most well regarded designers in the world. I’m not usually too nervous when I visit the offices of other designers, we’re all just folks in the same profession after all, but I have to admit the Pentagram offices are fairly imposing and hold under their roof some of the most well know designers in the city (something that struck home as I sat on their waiting room couch as I watched Paula Scher walk past, while Abbott Miller and Luke Hayman worked away at their desks in the short distance). Michael was very generous with his time and his opinions while I fumbled through my questions, the following is a transcript of our discussion back in February.

Chris Bowden: A couple of years ago you put your graduate portfolio up on Design Observer and discussed it. It’s been a pretty popular piece on the site and an interesting examination of the process of putting together your first folio. What are some of your impressions of starting out in graphic design from back then?

Michael Bierut: I don’t think that my portfolio was very typical at the time. It had some very anomalous aspects to it, partly because I was enthusiastic about graphic design in 1974. Compared with now when almost everyone knows what graphic design is and has some sort of access to the tools to make it, back then, it was really esoteric, you had to quantify it as being ‘like commercial art’, as one still does in certain circles. It was a strange thing to want to do for a living. I had a lot of enthusiasms that were very contradictory, I was never very doctrinaire in the type of design I wanted to do.

CB: When you first started your studies, did you always think you would end up as a ‘graphic designer’?  When I started University I was still somewhat uncertain what exactly a graphic designer was and was looking toward a future as an illustrator of some sort.

MB: I wanted to be a graphic designer from the time I was 15, without ever having actually met one. I lived in the mid-west, not in a media centre, and I didn’t know anyone who did that for a living. It took me a while to find out what that thing I wanted to do was actually called, but once I sorted that out I got really interested in it. Anything that seemed like it was graphic design appealed to me, that included Swiss design that was just filtering into America, for example, Wolfgang Weingart who had attended the Kuntstgewerbeschule (The Basel School of Applied Arts). There had been a tour through some American Universities showing how they did design work in Switzerland that had a great influence on me at the time. I was also into American eclectic illustration based design, whether it was Pushpin or that whole genre of work.

CB: Those influences are quite apparent in that initial portfolio, you can also see that you were already very proficient in the ‘lost art’ of hand rendering letterforms and finished artwork. How did emerging technologies in the industry affect you?

MB: It was 4 or 5 years into my first design job before the idea of doing graphic design on computers started taking hold. I started working in 1980, the Macintosh was introduced in 1984, then the real desktop publishing only started coming around in 85-86, but it wasn’t really until the end of the decade that the transition became irresistible. I’ve never really acquired any facility for working on the computer, though one day I think I would like to. My generation just barely missed it, which I don’t think is a good thing or a bad thing. I can see how some people get sentimental about how we used to do things in ‘the good old days’ but in a way I just think they are being nostalgic for the way they were brought up.

CB: You seem very ‘hands on’ when it comes to the design work, how does a typical project play out for you and your team?

MB: I have half a dozen designers who work for me, they ‘realise’ most of the design work, and I act as the design director and the main point of client contact on each project. Sometimes I will give some very vague directions to the designer that I’m working with on a particular project and they’ll come back and surprise me with something that really shows a lot of their own ‘hand’ in it. Other times I’ll have a really clear idea about how I want it done and I’ll draw it out pretty precisely and say ‘make it look exactly like this’ and it will be something where it looks like I can say it was ‘fully my design’. The work can also range between the two.

CB: I noticed walking through (Pentagram) that all the partners here sit within the same space with the designers they work with rather than in separate offices.

MB: The partners here are all working designers, we all have client responsibilities and our role with the clients is being the design director of the work that is being designed, so we keep in very ‘hands on’.

CB: One of my favourite pieces of design work in recent years is the range of material you produced for Saks Fifth Avenue; in fact, I made my wife purchase something there so I could get my hands on one of the bags. You seemed to be very invested in the concept of updating the design of the past for a contemporary audience.

MB: Yes, very much so. I’ve heard some designers talk about the design process being centred on invention, starting with a blank slate. I admire that and occasionally I’m capable of that, but I have to admit that I really have trouble working with completely open briefs. I’m always conscious of the context, the history, the specific environment of anything that I design and what it is going to be operating within.

When it comes to working on identities, a lot of the time I find myself working with a company that has been around for a while. No matter what they say their goal is, the history and the impression that they have already made in the minds of the public is a real thing that you have to deal with. Sometimes you will get a client who wants to make a clean break from the past and to signal that everything is different and everything is changed. In the case of Saks for instance, they were very ambivalent about their relationship with their heritage. They didn’t want to look old fashioned or frumpy, they didn’t want to look overly feminine or masculine, but on the other hand they wanted to look as if they had a real history. In fact, they wanted to somehow visually exploit the equity of a history that hadn’t actually even been established. They’d had a lot of different logos and packaging throughout the years. When they hired me, they had been using packaging design which comprised of silver packaging with some Pinot typography on it that was very subtle to the point of invisibility. The assignment that we got from them was to create immediate visibility and to consolidate their position as an authority in New York and the US on fashion. They wanted the public to see that this was based on a track record stretching back years and that they would continue to be seen as innovative into the future.

To begin this project we just started by setting the words ‘Saks Fifth Avenue’ in different typefaces. I found it to be a really depressing exercise, because every time we would try to take it some place completely new, it seemed as though we were amputating their heritage in a way that was really cruel. It felt like we were setting them on the same level as someone just opening a shop on Fifth Avenue out of nowhere. It just seemed like a brand like Saks couldn’t credibly exist that way, even if they wanted to. We struggled a lot with that because on the face of it, that was part of what the initial brief was. The people we dealt with from Saks were fantastic.  They gave us a couple of clues including the idea that if we went back and looked into their history a bit, we might find something. We were told that there were still people working at Saks who really loved the logo used in the 1970s, in fact just because of the economics of mass merchandising that logo from the 70s was still being used in places such as in stores in Chicago and Boston. Down south, there were still a huge sign up featuring a logo that was designed back in 1973, they never got around to changing it because it was too expensive. They couldn’t justify the cost. So as it turned out, in a lot of people’s minds, Saks Fifth Avenue had never changed their logo from what it was in the 70s.

You could really get frustrated with that as just one more part of an already complicated challenge. It was then that it hit us that instead of trying to invent something out of nothing, what if we took something that already resonated in peoples minds and did some dramatic transformations to it? In a certain sense, it would be even more surprising than being completely different. Taking an old thing and restoring it as an ‘adaptive re-use’ as an architect would call it. It would be like taking a beautiful building, restoring it lovingly and inserting some modern elements to make it useful, as opposed to just demolishing the thing and building something new. This was actually quite hard to accomplish, there were sceptics within the company who thought that the public would not recognise it as Saks Fifth Avenue.  I’m not sure about my design work every time, but in that case I knew people would know it was Saks, they might not know it the first time they see it, but by at least the third time they see someone holding the bag, they will know it as Saks. What they wanted was for people to be able to see their bag from a block away, across the street, to be able to glimpse it out of the corner of their eye and think Saks Fifth Avenue. They got the reaction they were looking for even faster than we thought.

CB: My wife thought I was crazy wanting a shopping back until she saw it herself and had to admit it was a pretty good looking bag, as someone who often has to feign interest in whatever design I’m looking at, that’s high praise indeed. 🙂

MB: That’s very flattering to hear.

CB: Pentagram are well known for their identity design work, what is your opinion on the recent rise in ‘crowd sourcing’ for logos?

MB: The truth about logos is that they are not that hard to do. If you ask people in the US what logos they like and recognise, they’ll name Target or Nike. Target for example, is just a dot with a circle around it, that’s all it is, so if you want a logo like Target, you don’t need to hire a designer, you barely need to know how to operate a computer program, the logo may as well be anything. God knows we do a lot of them here, but I think the best work in the area comes down to what most designers would agree on: the obvious thing, it’s not the actual logo but how it is used. The Nike swash that cost $30 and was designed by a Portland State University art student was probably worth that when she first showed it to them. At that point it had no equity at all. None of the guys commissioning it particularly liked it, they all wanted the Adidas three stripes and they thought that was a good logo. In the meeting she said “these guys don’t want a new logo they want an old logo, the Adidas logo, but they can’t have that”. So finally, because they were guys and they were embarrassed talking about logos, they said screw it, we’ll take ‘example number three’ the one that looks like a check mark. They just built so much messaging around the logo and associated it with a lot of good products as well; then it became a ‘strong’ logo. The logo itself is really nothing, it’s just two curves, and it’s not hard to do. The way identity firms earn their money is in guiding a company into making a decision about one of these things and giving them a plan for actually using it so they can start to create value around it. That’s one of the reasons I think I like old logos. Someone has already ‘picked’ it and they may have forgotten they did, but we’re not going to argue which is the right logo, we’re just going to say you already have one, here it is! I’ve done that with a few companies. I think part of the reason I like doing that is because I actually don’t think that brand new logos are worth that much or mean that much in and of themselves. So why not have a class of third graders compete to design your logo?

CB: Why is it do you think then, that professional designers get so upset over the miniscule of a logo, griping about letter kerning and Bezier curves in the comments section of sites like Brand New?

MB: There is this peculiar obsession with kerning on Brand New. I’ve realised that it’s because that’s what a lot of the people who comment on the site do during their work day: kern type. They don’t spend a lot of time presenting challenging identities to tough, cynical boards of directors at major corporations. A lot of them would never have done that, but they’ve adjusted the space between letters and it’s something they can react to with absolute authority. It’s fun, it’s anyone’s game, and everyone can have an opinion on a logo. I try to take it all with a grain of salt; I’ve never taken them seriously. I think that you could design a terrible logo for a good company with great people and they could build it into a great program. Alternatively you could design what seems to be a brilliant logo for people who are not smart or energetic or are incapable of associating with anything positive and it would become a terrible logo.

CB: Sometimes when something ‘radically’ different is presented, it’s hard to look beyond that logo to the greater program to be built around it, The London 2012 Olympics mark comes to mind.

MB: The thing about that is once these things reach a certain level, everyone will come to see that ‘something’ as good. Then, by the nature of business, commercial mindsets and the designers that work within that mindset will too, and people will start to do things that kind of look the same kind of ‘good’. With Olympic communications over the years, there has been a lot of well resolved logos that all look well resolved. You saw it in Vancouver and you see it in all the bids for the logos done for the London Olympics. I think Wolf Ollins just said: “let’s just do something that looks different to all of that”. I’ve never talked to anyone who was involved with that project, but I’ve been in meetings and in that sort of situation where you will just see something lying on the floor and you’ll say: “why can’t it just be this”? I’ve never heard any strategic justification for why it looks really different from the banality of the well designed Olympic logo. If you just do it enough and you get enough people enthusiastic about it, all of a sudden it starts to look natural. At that time there seemed to be this sense of some kind of reaction coming to the overall slickness in graphic design practise, that there was room for a new intentionally brutalist aesthetic. Certainly, Wolf Ollins did a number of marks that really kind of looked that way at the time. These things are dictated as much by fashion as anything else. The thing I think was smart about their Olympic logo was, a lot of times, you design a logo to be timeless, but with something like the Olympics, timelessness is maybe not something you should be going for. Maybe you should be trying to come up with something that will really become associated with a moment in time, a few weeks, that happened, period. Then you look back, think about it and connect it with that time. It may look dated later but it will be still be evocative. If you look at the Olympic graphics for Mexico or Los Angeles, those programs don’t look contemporary by today’s eyes but they really look like they are of their place and time.

CB: Designers still get excited over the graphics for the Munich Olympics.

MB: When I was in school, we all thought the Munich identity was sterile and typical German ‘fascism’, just a lot of banal Univers type and human beings reduced to cold geometric shapes. In 1980 I thought it was terrible, just so corporate looking. Now you look at it and it seems a perfect, complete graphics system.

CB: What is your impression, if any, of Australian graphic design?

MB: I don’t really even have strong impressions of American design. I don’t perceive that much difference. I think different designers have different points of view and different strong personalities can influence the way certain cities are perceived. Guys like Joe Duffy and Charles S Anderson. They weren’t just two guys – that was a Minneapolis style. There were a tonne of designers who either imitated them or their protégés working in and around the city creating this whole point of view that can be associated with a certain time and place. Australia has always put out some good design, particularly environmental graphics. I associate that with Australia, more so that a lot of other places. Whether that has anything to do with the landscape, who knows? Australia is one of the few places that I can think of where the cities, at least those I’ve been to, seem to have strikingly different characters and visual textures. To an American like me, there’s basically Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane and the rest is all bush. I have a really shallow idea about what Australia is. In the US you have New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, Miami and dozens of other cities; a few of them have a really strong visual character. But even with those there is just too much space between them and too many people.  Australia seems to strike a balance between big and small. It’s big enough to have that diversity, but not so big that it disintegrates into something that is not connected.

CB: Australia seems to be desperately searching for its own identity away from the Commonwealth and the US, especially when it comes to the local design community.

MB: People in the UK will say that the design community in the US is much more coherent than other countries. It has no government support at all, so it’s really like a grass roots thing. The AIGA is strong and well distributed, even though there are many more people practicing graphic design than there are AIGA members.  As a network, it is surprisingly coherent. It runs conferences, publications and websites with quite a bit of stability and authority. To the world design community, a lot of what Australia is, is the AGIdeas that Ken Cato runs every year. Last time I was in Australia I was as a speaker for that, so it ends up looming large in people’s minds.

Thanks again to Michael Bierut for taking the time out of his busy schedule to talk to me.

Michael Bierut is a graphic designer, design critic and educator.
Since 1990 he has been a partner in the New York office of Pentagram.

12 thoughts on “Interview with Michael Bierut

  1. Chris Lane

    Excellent interview! It was a great start to my day reading this. I laughed at the part about the kerning comments on Brand New, as Michael had the perfect insight into that.
    Thanks for putting the work into this.

  2. Krystal Ferguson

    Thanks for sharing this interview I’ve read several transcripts of Michael’s interviews, but I enjoyed hearing his ideas about design abroad. I, too, am even more inspired.

  3. Brendan

    This is so great! I love reading interviews from prominent graphic designers.

    I noticed that you’re from Australia and that you’re interested in the Australian design scene as a whole. I actually wrote a thesis on the subject of an emerging Australian national identity…it’s a proper research paper, and if you’d be interested I’d be happy to pass it along.


  4. Caterina

    Excellent article, love the bit about Australia being 3 cities and the rest all bush! Very succinct and precise in his expression, and not making out that some designs are more than they are.
    Very practical and not precious about it. Just honest.

    Thank you.

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