Graphic designers are the masked superheroes of the design world. They shape the way people interact with everyday objects, often at a subconscious level, and create identities for events, services and businesses. Michael Bierut, with his familiar designs for Saks 5th Avenue, New York City parking signs, Verizon, Billboard, and most recently, Hillary Clinton’s much talked-about campaign logo, is a prime example of a man looking out for public aesthetic good. Now, with the release of his book, "How To use graphic design to sell things, explain things, make things look better, make people laugh, make people cry, and (every once in a while) change the world," and a retrospective exhibition of his works coming to a close this weekend at the School of Visual Arts, Bierut’s mask has been lifted.
In his book, Bierut explains how he got his start as a designer and the path he took to get from working in the office of legendary designer Massimo Vignelli to partner at design consultancy Pentagram. Each chapter looks at the different skills he acquired while working on projects of varying scale and purpose. In many cases those projects have overlapped with architecture, including the sign designed to fit over the screen of ceramic rods on the exterior of Renzo Piano’s New York Times Building. The School of Visual Arts’ Masters Series retrospective is an award given for lifetime achievement in visual communication, and places Bierut among legendary designers such as Paul Rand, Saul Bass, and Bierut’s mentor, Vignelli.
As a founding writer of Design Observer, the host of a podcast on design matters and a professor at Yale, Bierut has continued to place an importance on educating a future generation of designers. Fortunately, that goodwill has extended to ArchDaily, as we have been given the opportunity to ask Bierut about his origins, the value of a retrospective, and his thoughts on working with architecture.
Patrick Lynch: You started learning about graphic design by going to your local library and checking out the only book on file. Today, thousands of books are available at the click of a button. How would you recommend someone get started with so many choices out there?
Michael Bierut: I suspect that consuming a very limited diet of design inspiration as a beginner had a lot to do with shaping the kind of designer I am today. I was hungry, and if I had grown up with access to the unlimited spectrum of visual material that exists online today, I suspect I would have overeaten one hundred times over. However, I do feel that there is something powerful about the real thing — an object, a building, a book — that digital images can only hint at. So I would suggest a different approach. Start with one book, really get to know it, and see where your curiosity leads you. It may be another book, or an exhibition, or a city, or a person. Working sequentially like this will turn your experience into a journey, which has the advantage of revealing a direction. With luck you will never arrive at your destination.
PL: The term “mimic” is often used with disdain in design circles, yet it was a badge you wore with pride, and one that seemed to form the groundwork for your career. What skills did you acquire through this phase of your career, and how would you encourage design students to ignore that stigma?
MB: There is real pleasure in being a good mimic. It’s not that different than the satisfaction a master forger takes in creating a convincing fake. But of course even a convincing fake is still a fake. Imitation can be a meaningful teacher. Supposedly Hunter S. Thompson completely retyped “The Great Gatsby” just to find out what it felt like for F. Scott Fitzgerald to write it. But sooner or later, if you want to find out what you’re really capable of, you have to face a blank piece of paper with no voice in your head but your own.
PL: Some architects subscribe to the belief that the success of a building’s wayfinding is proportional to the number of signs needed for a user to reach their destination: the fewer the better. Would you agree with that sentiment? How much of a company’s identity can be derived from the building it occupies?
MB: My first boss, Massimo Vignelli, used to say “Every sign is an admission of a failure of architecture.” I understand what he meant. In theory, a perfect building could be navigated through intuition alone. And I know that most people, even me, will use almost any visual cue before resorting to reading a sign. All that said, I take a great deal of pleasure matching the design of a sign to the design of a building, figuring out exactly what sans serif typeface is perfect for Lever House, for instance, or how to use a Venetian Roman serif typeface to connect Renzo Piano’s addition to Charles McKim's original buildings at the Morgan Library. When it works best, it’s when the choices I’ve made for the signs are complementing, and magnifying, the vastly more important decisions that the architects have made about the building. It’s always a little depressing to me when a client expects the graphics to bring personality to a building that doesn’t have any. I much prefer a building with a strong personality that has already established the owner’s identity.
PL: You’ve said that when it comes to identity design, “you’re not designing the rocket ship, you’re designing the launch pad.” This works great when designing material that is constantly being produced and self-updated, but how would you translate this mantra to apply to designing the identity of something (relatively) static, such as a building?
MB: Graphic design is inherently ephemeral. I try to design things that will endure, but graphic design solutions can be discarded so quickly, and for a million different reasons. Architecture is built to last, and the best of it actually does change. The same building can serve different users, different purposes over time. And a good building can actually get better as it goes along.
PL: You’ve worked on one of the more subtle additions to the Times Square streetscape, the New York Times Building. Times Square can certainly be a bit visually overwhelming, yet it is precisely that chaos that helped to create its identity. Do you consider Times Square to be a graphic success?
MB: In many ways, Times Square is a case of graphic design triumphing over architects. It’s an outdoor room where the walls are made of signs. For most of its history, of course, it was entirely organic, the outcome of laissez-faire commercialism run amok, with a result that people found not just characteristic of a particular place, but incredibly compelling. In the late 80s and early 90s, Times Square was made safe for corporate architecture. Amazingly, thanks to people like Robert Stern and Tibor Kalman, retaining that special character was literally legislated. The big sign we designed for the New York Times Building isn’t just a statement of corporate identity, it’s a requirement of the special zoning for Times Square. So Times Square has changed over time, but I think the fact that its character has more or less been retained is a real success.
PL: What's the one unifying message that you would like your retrospective to convey?
MB: I want people to have a mild shock of recognition, to see things that they have seen every day — street signs, shopping bags — and realize that these things just don’t come out of nowhere. People think of them, people design them, people work hard to come into existence, just like so much of the world around us. What I love about design is that it’s not confined behind the doors of the museum, but right outside on the sidewalk.
"The Masters Series: Michael Bierut" is on display at the School of Visual Arts' Chelsea Gallery until tomorrow, November 7th. Bierut's new book, "How to use graphic design to sell things, explain things, make things look better, make people laugh, make people cry, and (every once in a while) change the world," is available from Thames and Hudson here or via Amazon here.
Feature image of New York Times Building via Shutterstock.com