— Michael Bierut is a partner at Pentagram and a simply wonderful writer. In Graphic Design Criticism as a Spectator Sport, he takes on the thorny topic of untrained amateurs daring to voice an opinion on graphic design. Thankfully, he doesn’t come to the traditional designerly conclusion that such interlopers clearly don’t get it, but instead offers a nuanced argument and a call to action for design professionals to step up and do a part of the job they too often don’t consider or relish. As he writes, “perhaps the question in these logo discussions could be more than: could I do better? Perhaps we could also ask: what was the purpose? What was the process? Whose ends were being served? How should we judge success? But we seldom look any deeper than first impressions, wallowing instead in a churning maelstrom of snap judgments. Should we be surprised when the general public jumps right in after us?” Important questions, all.
Yesterday, Fast Co Design published an essay by Pentagram partner, Michael Bierut, entitled The Main Failing Of Design Schools: Kids Can’t Think For Themselves. In it, the legendary graphic designer, Pentagram partner and longtime advocate of design divides design education into two camps: process-driven or portfolio-driven, and concludes that neither serves anyone in this day and age particularly well.
Modern design education… is essentially value-free: every problem has a purely visual solution that exists outside any cultural context. Some of the most tragic victims of this attitude hail not from the world of high culture, but from the low. Witness the case of a soft-drink manufacturer that pays a respected design firm a lot of money to “update” a classic logo. The product of American design education responds: “Clean up an old logo? You bet,” and goes right to it. In a vacuum that excludes popular as well as high culture, the meaning of the mark in its culture is disregarded. Why not just say no? The option isn’t considered.
It was Bierut’s conclusion that had me clapping my hands in agreement:
It’s the broader kind of illiteracy that’s more profoundly troubling. Until educators find a way to expose their students to a meaningful range of culture, graduates will continue to speak in languages that only their classmates understand. And designers, more and more, will end up talking to themselves.
Pentagram partner, Michael Bierut closed the first day of Design at Scale, and did so with mastery and aplomb. He laid out the cliches of what designers supposedly like… and then neatly shot down each one, with a series of things he actually loves. Hugely entertaining and, as with all the best presentations, also educational. Here’s a brief recap of things Bierut truly loves about design:
1. Incredibly Short [Design] Briefs
When Robert Stern became the head of Yale School of Architecture, there was panic in the halls that a new reign of fusty neoclassicism dawned. Instead, when commissioning Bierut to work on a new identity for the school, Stern simply said “I just want to surprise people.” The result: an identity which never uses the same typeface twice. The only consistency, said Bierut, is “lack of consistency.” Bold, memorable, clever.
2. Briefs that are Filled with Paradox and Internal Contradiction
Bierut trotted out some of the classic contradictory desires clients can express when trying to commission a design. They want old and new; male and female; consistent and ever-changing; timeless and surprising. “A lot of designers hear this and roll their eyes,” he said. But he gets to thinking about a way to hit both ideas. He showed work for Saks Fifth Avenue, most recently designed by Bierut’s former boss, Massimo Vignelli and which he updated to include a world of vigorous modern abstraction that also nods to the heritage of the department store. (Read Logo A-Go-Go, a NYT story from 2007 with details of the project.)
3. Working on Things I Don’t Know Anything About
Bierut told the story of working on the Harley-Davidson museum, confessing that he himself is not much of a hardcore biker, having never actually sat on a motorbike before. But rather than let this be a cause for dismay, he instead got to play the role of reluctant spouse to his partner, Jim Bieber. In the process, the museum became a destination for more than just those obsessed with every nut and bolt of the Harley machine. An important nuance here: you might not know anything about a subject, but you have to have passion for discovery. Not knowing and not caring is a recipe for disaster.
4. Working with Impossible Restrictions
This is a common theme from designers, who often recoil in horror at the nightmare of an open brief calling on them to do whatever they like. Bierut talked of the challenge of putting a sign on Renzo Piano’s building for the New York Times. Times Square isn’t known for its subtlety, while the occupants of the NYT building wanted the fancy exterior of their fancy building to speak for itself. Bierut helped devise a cunning plan to hack up the Times’ logo into 923 pieces and then mount said pieces onto the rods already covering the building. Cunning and ingenious.
5. The Very First Idea
Another great story, of the challenge when Citibank merged with Travelers back in 1998. On the very first meeting of the first day they worked on the project, Bierut doodled the “T” of the word “Travelers” as an umbrella handle. Now, he said, you see pretty much that exact idea everywhere. “99% of the word was done on the first morning.” He also good-humoredly acknowledged that partner Paula Scher insists she did the fateful doodle.
6. When the Very First Idea Gets Thrown Away
Bierut told of his desperate attempts to get the Museum of Art and Design to see sense and buy into a logo he’d developed which involved the lettering “A+D.” Despite his valiant efforts, they weren’t buying it, and the eventual solution, a typeface that recalls the architecture of the original building while providing a legible alphabet to write in, was clearly superior. Stop digging, said Bierut. Accept you’re not always right.
7. Being Told Exactly What To Do
Another project that caused heartache and teeth gnashing was the New World Symphony in Miami, Florida. Asked to create a logo for the Frank Gehry building, Bierut came up with a series of solutions that the client absolutely hated. Having presented one idea, he recalled, “they were supposed to see it and ask ‘how can we thank you?’ Instead the question was ‘is this supposed to make us feel nauseous?” In the end, the company founder Michael Tilson Thomas sent a series of his own scrawled ideas. Usually a cue for designers to feel uppity and upset that a client is trading on their toes, Bierut welcomed the input, and used it to come up with the final (gorgeous) solution. See a video of the process here.
[Image c/o DMI.]