Reputations: Michael Bierut
‘The biggest challenge that faces a designer isn’t the quest for novelty, but coming to grips with the fact that much of what we do has little content’
Michael Bierut was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1957. He studied graphic design at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning, graduating in 1980. Prior to joining Pentagram in 1990 as a partner in the firm’s New York office, he worked for ten years at Vignelli Associates, ultimately as vice-president of graphic design. His clients at Pentagram have included Alfred A. Knopf, Disney Development Company, The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, Princeton University and Interiors Magazine. His work is represented in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Musée des Arts Decoratifs, Montreal. He was president of the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) from 1988 to 1990 and is a member of the AIGA’s national board. He has been director of the American Centre for Design and was elected to the Alliance Graphique Internationale in 1989. In 1991, he chaired the AIGA National Conference in Chicago with his fellow Pentagram partner Paula Scher. Recent activities include the identity and environmental graphics for a new children’s museum in St Paul, Minnesota, and coordinating all promotional material for the Brooklyn Academy of Music. He is the graphic design consultant to Mohawk Paper Mills and edits its annual critical journal Rethinking Design. He is a Senior Critic in Graphic Design at the Yale School of Art and co-editor, with Steven Heller, of Looking Closer and Looking Closer 2, anthologies of writing on graphic design.
Steven Heller: When did you decide to become a graphic designer?
Michael Bierut: I grew up in Ohio, in a milieu that had nothing resembling graphic design. Because I drew well, I was the guy who always designed the logo for the clubhouse or painted the band’s name on the drum. I didn’t know it had a name until I found a book by [former CBS art director] S. Neil Fujita in the school library. It was part of a series called something like Your Future in …Cosmetology, or Garbage Disposal, or Plumbing, and there was one called Your Future in Commercial Art/Graphic Design. Up to that moment I thought this stuff got done by Robert Rauschenberg or Franz Kline or Frank Stella banging it out on a Saturday; they’d put aside the paintings with the slashes and the stripes, and do a Three Dog Night cover. When I found out it had a name – I was fifteen years old – I went to the Parma Regional Library in Ohio and looked up graphic design in the card catalogue. They had one book: Graphic Design Manual by Armin Hofmann.
SH: What was your reaction to it?
MB: All these pictures of dots and squares hypnotised me. After repeatedly taking this book out of the library I went to a department store in downtown Cleveland and asked if they had it, expecting to get a frown and a puzzled look. Instead the saleswoman said, “Oh, yeah, we just got that in for Christmas.” She led me to this pile of books, but it was a book called Graphic Design by Milton Glaser, with Bob Dylan on the front. So there were two books – one by Glaser and one by Armin Hofmann – that seemed diametrically opposed.
SH: You were at the crossroads of Modernism and eclecticism, in which direction did you go?
MB: I went to the University of Cincinnati, a school where most of the instructors were either born in Switzerland and had studied with Hofmann or had studied at Yale. It was a very Yale-Swiss kind of education – rather than the Glaser tradition.
SH: Is that how you wanted to practice?
MB: I was really good at it, but I was always very promiscuous and would do freelance jobs where I would just rip off anyone that struck my fancy.
SH: When you left school, did you see a particular place for yourself to fit in?
MB: I wanted to work for someone really, really good. It was either Milton Glaser, Chermayeff & Geismar, or Massimo Vignelli. I got Massimo on a good day.
SH: You worked at Vignelli Associates for ten years. What did you learn?
MB: Probably the most interesting thing I learned is that a lot of the things about design that tend to get designers really interested aren’t that important.
SH: Do you mean the decorative aspects of design?
MB: More or less. See, Massimo would arrive at things from an ideological point of view. For instance, he has always had this thing about there being only five good typefaces: Garamond 3, Futura, Century, Helvetica and Bodoni. I agreed with this, not so much as a moral issue, but for the practical reason that ordinary people like my mom could only distinguish between five typefaces, and that the time that designers would spend splitting hairs between Garamond and Bembo and Sabon was a waste. Likewise all the attention designers give to clever layouts and putting the page numbers in a cool place, when ordinary people just want to read the words and look at the pictures. Massimo taught me to focus on the big ideas, and I thought that big ideas were what connected with the greatest number of people.
SH: Was this method a revelation for you, or was it accommodation to the will of your employer?
MB: It was a revelation. Maybe unconsciously the whole thing was like the Stockholm syndrome, where hostages identify with their captors. But I honestly don’t think it was.
SH: Do you think Massimo Vignelli saw good design as a moral imperative?
MB: Massimo’s point of view is that cluttered or self-conscious design bespeaks some sort of moral failing. But I never felt that. I always believed that if you have the time to show you were awake while you were designing, then, why not?
SH: Why do you think Vignelli has become the spokesman for and the target of reaction in terms of the old guard versus the new?
MB: To Massimo’s credit, he has always felt it incumbent on him to engage with this stuff. I mean, you have Massimo on the one hand, who takes a lot of the heat from the younger generation, but then you have armies of designers of his generation whose way of dealing with it is just to grumble and pull the shades down. Massimo is always in the front row, saying, “How can you do this crap?” To me, if more designers actually stated their position and got dialogues going, it would be more interesting. It’s dreary when there’s just a single, stupid conversation about “You can’t read that, it’s ugly” versus “How can you keep doing that boring stuff?” It goes nowhere.
SH: At the end of your tenure at Vignelli’s, what was going on in design that interested you?
MB: When I first came to New York in 1980 there was this thrilling ascendancy of avant-garde design as represented by the Basel School. Dan Friedman was working at Pentagram and Anspatch Grossman Portugal. April Greiman was just beginning. There were firms like Doublespace and Carbone Smolan doing things that I thought were cool-looking. But by the middle of the decade, I was surprised to see that the avant-garde stuff had been absorbed by the mainstream. What you had were many firms, fuelled by the real estate and retail and financial businesses, who were pouring out nice-looking brochures that had gradations and spaced-out type – all the stuff that had looked astonishing in Wet magazine seven years before – to sell mortgages for Manhattan banks.
SH: You absorbed Vignelli’s ideas, but you also discovered your own path. At what point did you begin to have a more singular vision?
MB: Well, it began to happen slowly. But first, Paula Scher, with whom I had become friendly, was a real pipeline to the outside world for me. Paula is a perfect example of the anti-Vignelli approach in the purest way. I remember Massimo and I going to a presentation where she spoke. I just loved her work. It was exactly what made me go into graphic design in the first place. We came out, and I said, “Man, Paula is great.” And Massimo said, “All that novelty stuff and those Victorian typefaces, that’s not the way to do it.” And I said, “Massimo, if you design 200 album covers a year, you have to be eclectic. You can’t just do all the classical ones in Garamond and all the rock ones in Futura.” And Massimo, of course, said, “That would be fantastic!” Paula’s kind of virtuosity really spoke to me deep down inside.
SH: I have an image of you with your veins popping out, panting to jump right out of your skin and do some of this eclectic stuff as well.
MB: I could do some virtuoso stuff sometimes, but there were a lot of things I couldn’t do. I couldn’t just effortlessly do a Modernist-looking thing at nine o’clock, a historicist-looking thing at ten o’clock, and something else at midday. It suggests, I suppose, a kind of ideological bankruptcy to be able to slip in and out of all those clothes. But it’s certainly something that I had been toying around with for almost all my life. I remember seeing things I loved, like what Katherine McCoy was doing at Cranbrook, and I’d try to do some of that. I just was bad at it.
SH: Did you accept all these approaches equally, or were you beginning to establish hierarchies?
MB: I think good graphic design can look lots and lots of different ways. In 1988, there was good Charles Spencer Anderson and there was bad imitation Charles Spencer Anderson. There was good Cranbrook and there was not-so-good Cranbrook. Just like now there is good Tomato and there is bad Tomato. The good stuff always seems to come out of someone’s conviction and proceed directly from their passion.
SH: Was there any ideological or philosophical reason why the method of design promoted at Cranbrook, which later became a style of layering, was objectionable to you?
MB: I would say there are two issues. First, as a pluralist, I’m always suspicious of ideologies or movements in design. I understand formal approaches to design that grow from someone’s personal point of view, but when that point of view becomes dogmatic, the work loses its richness for me. I think this was true at Cranbrook, where after a certain point there seemed to be a sense of manifest destiny, that all design history was leading up to this glorious moment where every message, regardless of its content, could now be collaged with a quote from a French structuralist, a diagram of an electrical circuit, and a Photoshopped image of the back of someone’s head, and that the very nature of communication would thus be transformed. In its own way the result was as regimented as anything Emil Ruder could have dreamed up. And then, of course, when the word goes out to the people who can’t afford the tuition in Bloomfield Hills but can afford an issue of Emigre, that’s when the deluge of imitative sludge really cranks up. Secondly, I really think the biggest challenge that faces a designer isn’t the quest for stylistic novelty, but coming to grips with the fact that so much of the work we do has very little content, very little that would actually engage normal people on a human level. So we amuse ourselves by styling what we’ve been handed, and the world at large continues to go to hell.
SH: So ten years have gone by. You are approached by Pentagram to become a partner. What goes through your mind at that moment?
MB: Over the years, I’d been approached by other people of Massimo’s generation who thought I would just want to trade Massimo for someone else for fun. That never interested me. The other thing that didn’t interest me was going out on my own. I always thought if I could just run into a partner that I liked a lot, that would do it for me. I never thought that those partners already existed, and that they were Woody Pirtle and Alan Fletcher, David Hillman and Kit Hinrichs.
SH: You were also out there movin’ and shakin’ in the design world. You were president of the AIGA/New York, a habitué of design conferences and mixers.
MB: I love graphic design. I’ve been a glutton for this sort of stuff. So being the guy who always showed up for every single event, eventually you get to run the slide projector at the AIGA. I volunteered for some AIGA committees, then eventually got on the board, then eventually was one of those few people who were smart enough to be able to be the president and dumb enough to serve.
SH: What was your goal as AIGA/New York president?
MB: To make the AIGA like the “big tent” that the Republicans always talk about. I was the guy who said “Yes” to anything. I was AIGA president [from 1988-90] when the Walker Art Center’s “Graphic Design in America” exhibition was at the IBM Gallery here in New York and there was a lot of contention about who was included and who wasn’t. That was why I set up a programme to have professional designers – a few of whom were critical of the exhibit – act as museum guides.
SH: Did you take a critical position?
MB: First, I loved it because it was rooms filled with graphic design. But beyond that, it seemed inconsistent. I could never figure out which part of graphic design history it was supposed to be. It wasn’t so much that there was no Milton Glaser in it, because I think it’s a perfectly valid view to take of one kind of graphic design history – to show the rise and permutations of Modernism, for example. But if it was about Modernism, why wasn’t Rudy de Harak in the show? So I think the problem was that it was derived from a Rolodex that wasn’t quite as full as it should have been. It wasn’t based on a broad enough knowledge of the subject to do the right kind of thing. It either should have been narrower or broader.
SH: In your position as a design glutton, would you presume to be the curator of such a show? If you were picking a thread, and the mandate was to create something that had some controversy, something that addressed either the issues or problems of graphic design, what would it be?
MB: What has always fascinated me is watching how style is used and abused. I think you could do real case histories. The funniest little part of the “Mixing Messages” show on at the Museum of Modern Art in New York at the moment is where Ellen Lupton shows the typeface Neuland next to all those African-American book cover things. This typeface designed by a German, Rudolf Koch, in the 1930s, all of a sudden becomes the signifier for “there’s African-American Literature in here.”
SH: It is easy, these days, to appropriate and steal.
MB: Now we have relative freedom, it means that people who have conviction and people who just have enough time on their hands to click the mouse a few more times can achieve very similar results. It used to be that mediocre work looked bland and boring. Now it looks complicated and boring. But I think you still have the same challenge, to sort out what is really interesting and what is really original, and what is not. Also, the style cycle turns much more quickly. Cycles that took years now take months, and things that took months take weeks.
SH: In your own work, how do you avoid falling into those traps? Is it a conscious effort? Is it an instinctive effort? Is it an effort at all?
MB: The last time I really came to grips with this question was when I did the poster for the ACD 100 show in 1992.
SH: The one where your daughter did the artwork?
MB: Yes, exactly. They asked me to chair the judging of the show and I thought: “Fine.” I had been cast, unintentionally, as a critic of the previous show. At that point I had a bias towards eclecticism. I was ideological about things not following one ideology, which is inherently oxymoronic.
SH: You were rather critical of the one-dimensional, Cranbrook-inspired stance of the show.
MB: I got quoted as saying that the work had a certain bias. I actually counted how many things we associated with Cranbrook, and said: “I wasn’t just sensing it; there actually are a lot of things from Cranbrook in this book.” Lorraine Wild, the chair of the show, thought I was accusing her of throwing it towards her buddies. I really hurt her feelings – which I didn’t mean to do.
So I was asked to chair the show after that. In my essay I said: “This last show had been driven by either conscious or subconscious or unconscious commitments to certain stylistic ideologies. My era will be free of all that dogma.” So then I had to design a poster to announce the show. It’s not possible to design with no style. You can’t. ACD ask me to write a statement for the back of the poster, and I typed out a stream-of-consciousness thing: “What is good design? Is it all these stylistic things or is it something else?” And they said, “Why don’t you just print that on the front?” And I said: “Oh, brilliant – a type solution. I know how to do that.” But then, of course, it’s which typeface? Do you use Futura, Bodoni or Helvetica? I mean, which typeface do you put it in so it doesn’t appear to admit that it has any conscious selection of style? I sweated over that for two weeks, and then finally turned to my daughter Elizabeth, who was four years old and had just learned to write. I realised that if I dictated it to her and she did it in her handwriting, that would solve my problems. She did it perfectly. It fitted on the page. It was like God telling me what to do.
SH: Some people say here is a Pentagram style and a Pentagram clique. How do you respond to this Pentagram ruling the world concept?
MB: You know, you don’t get chosen to be a partner here completely at random. There has to be a certain affinity with the existing partners. So like any group that votes in its future members, it proceeds from a certain point of view. Just like in a school faculty, the challenge is to try to bring in people who are compatible without being identical. The basic premise of Pentagram, founded by five guys, has never been as single-minded as, say, an office that was founded by one person whose point of view permeates everything.
SH: Is there an exclusive design community that you’ve seen developing in the last ten years?
MB: Let me tell you my creation myth about the graphic design field. There used to be just good designers and bad designers. There were so few good designers that they knew each other on sight – Saul Bass was in LA, Chermayeff & Geismar were in New York. You could put them all in one room and they would all hold hands, and that was a wonderful world. Now, there are so many designers, I think there’s room for groups and sub-groups. The fact that Pentagram, which is really just a single firm, can be considered any kind of group at all, is kind of funny. But what’s really funny is the idea of dominance by one or the other. I know that if you live outside New York you have this fantasy that there are these people in New York calling the shots on everything. I remember in the 1980s going to AIGA meetings in the Midwest, where I’m from, and hearing questions that suggested there were Trilateral Commissions of Massimo, Milton, Ivan, Rudy de Harak and God knows who, who would sit around and decide everything that would happen in graphic design for the next twelve months!
SH: There has been a perception of a “star chamber.”
MB: There is always this idea that other people are in control. I think a lot of the contention that has developed in the last few years has to do with this reciprocation between groups of people feeling the other group is in control. Believe me, there’s a whole group of designers who feel like Emigre magazine rules the world, and not just fans of Emigre. It’s people who would never be published in Emigre whose feelings are hurt: “Why don’t they ever publish anything that looks like me and my friends.” Likewise, Eye or anything else.
I think there was a period in graphic design where you might have felt like you were screwed if you didn’t go to Cranbrook or CalArts. It didn’t matter how much work you did, or how good you were. And they would deny absolutely there is any kind of single-minded cabal happening there. On the other hand, if you’re out there in Valencia, California, you imagine that there are these East Coast designers driving really expensive cars, who have really big, bad clients, who just for the joy of it like to grind their heels right down and squelch any kind of poor, innovative designer who is trying to design an ugly-looking-on-purpose typeface.
SH: In 1997, is there a hot-button issue for our field? Or have we come to the point where we accept all standards, regardless of what is being done?
MB: Ugly versus boring was the second famous argument. The first was Tibor Kalman and Joe Duffy, which was about something different. But in the same way, it was the kind of argument that was waiting to happen, and it had to do more with personal expression versus service to the client.
Ugly versus boring was about what constitutes acceptable appearance standards for graphic design. I don’t think that everything is settled. What people want is to have their point of view acknowledged and validated.
Designers of the older generation don’t want to be dismissed out of hand as a bunch of schmucks who had their glory days a long time ago, and are now blindly and pathetically defending their turf against kids who have had less of a chance to have their moment in the sun. And the people that took offence on the other side don’t want to be pigeonholed as a bunch of mindless nihilists who think it’s fun to make things look messy because there’s no reason not to. Once you acknowledge that a point of view is valid, the wind kind of comes out of some of the arguments. A mature field figures out a way to still have a discussion after that.
If there is an argument waiting to happen, it may have to do with a theoretical approach to design versus, I don’t want to say an anti-intellectual, more pragmatic, approach, but a less theoretical approach to graphic design. There’s this mania in America now for writing about graphic design instead of doing it. I can accept all kinds of different design, but there is something about bad writing that drives me crazy, and incenses me in a way that bad design doesn’t.
SH: What constitutes bad writing in this field?
MB: That which is impossible to understand, non-specific and circular. You have to really be smart to be a writer, and I think fewer people should attempt it. If you’re not smart enough to be a writer, don’t simulate the process. A lot of bad writing about graphic design is produced by people who aren’t quite sure what they want to say, but have learned to simulate the locutions of academic writing. It bugs me that it’s becoming a new mandatory pastime for designers, the path to glory.
I guess in the big world out there, it is progress to have graphic design stand shoulder-to-shoulder with a lot of other fields that are similarly opaque in their discourse. Maybe it’s enough if the graphic design department can clink a glass at a faculty party with the head of comparative literature. Maybe that’s a great moment for graphic design.
SH: We worked together editing Looking Closer, a compilation of critical writing. How do you define critical writing?
MB: I would distinguish between criticism and academic writing. My favourite kind of criticism takes what we do and puts it into a larger cultural context in terms that an intelligent, interested layperson could understand. I also like it when it’s tough and even mean. Academic writing, which I don’t like as much, seems to be written for journal editors, fellow academics and, ultimately, the tenure committee. Words and phrases like “the privileged hermeneutics of gender” float around like “Dominus vobiscum” used to in an old Latin mass. I worry about some bright second-year design student wading through an issue of Emigre, and thinking that they can’t hack it because they don’t know what “hermeneutics” are.
SH: What would be your model of effective graphic design criticism?
MB: The best writers are those who are able to frame an argument, have a point of view, and make connections with things that ordinary people can touch and evaluate. After all, graphic designers do make things, and even if those things end up in the digital world they still have physical characteristics. Good writing always connects up with things that are bigger than what is being discussed, even with things that are outside the field of graphic design. A writer like Herbert Muschamp does this with architecture and Simon Schama does it with art.
SH: Do you think there is a dumbing-down or a smartening-up of designers?
MB: A smartening-up. All you have to do is go back to issues of CA from the 1970s and graphic design feels like the dumbest field on earth. Most of the profiles had zero intellectual content. Even if they were doing great work, they may as well have been customizing cars. Only in the reviews by Dugald Stermer and Byron Ferris might you find thoughtful, provocative things. In a very casual way, those two would let drop opinionated things that opened my eyes as a designer then. But you never got an inkling that there were things to be for or against, or things to think or worry about. In spite of my dislike of the most incomprehensible excesses of academic design criticism, it does mean that there is an attempt being made to establish a higher rigour for things that will have a trickle-down effect. The next step is for people to learn how to have fun with this stuff, to learn to disagree in a way that is erudite and smart.
SH: Let’s end with this question: what is graphic design for you?
MB: One of my favourite movie scenes is in Do The Right Thing by Spike Lee. It is a pointless scene, it doesn’t advance the plot, it has nothing to do with anything, but I know exactly why it’s there. It’s a speech by Love Daddy, the DJ who forms the “Greek chorus” for the whole thing. At about the mid point of the movie, the camera pans through the neighbourhood, and shows him doing a rap, and all he does is say the names of Black artists and Black musicians.
It’s so thrilling because there’s absolutely no aesthetic or ideological consistency between the names he’s saying: “Run DMC, John Coltrane, Parliament, Funkadelic, Ella Fitzgerald, Prince, Sam Cooke, Steel Pulse…” It goes on and on – the names of rappers, the names of jazz musicians, the names of every possible artist from the past, from the future, just naming all of them, one after another. He never says at the beginning: “These are African-American musicians who have made a contribution” or “and now you realize how rich our field is.” There’s something about this recitation of names, and the differences between them, and the fact that a single idea embraces them, even the idea of ethnicity in this case.
I always thought that if graphic design is an idea, what makes it powerful is the thought that you can have a litany that goes: Alexey Brodovitch, David Carson, Jilly Simons, Alex Isley, Laurie Haycock Makela, Lester Beall, Don Trousdell, Woody Pirtle. You could go on and on and on. And I swear to God, I could list more graphic designers’ names than anyone else in America. If we had to fill blackboards, I could fill more blackboards. Everyone else would have quit, everyone else would be lying dead on the floor, and I would still be writing. So what makes the field thrilling, and what always gives it a sense of possibility, is not just what I am going to do tomorrow, but what someone else is going to do tomorrow.
First published in Eye no. 24 vol. 6, 1997
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