How to make a monograph that spans 35 years of your career, with Michael Bierut

AUTHOR:  
Published:  October 20, 2015
Katia Pase

Legendary designer and partner at Pentagram, New York, Michael Bierut talks to desktop about collecting 35 years of design work into his new monograph 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. 

Part memoir, part manual, part exposé of workbooks, sketches and developmental documents, How to… spans the recent history of an entire industry through the trajectory of one career.

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desktop: How To covers 35 projects from your career in graphic design. I’d like to look outward for a moment, and ask if you can identify being affected or enthralled by a social or news event from this bracket of time where a design element played a role? What do you remember about the impact that design played in that event?

MB: Like many graphic designers, I used to be frustrated by the fact that what we do is so cosmetic and ephemeral. On the other hand, one could also take comfort that, unlike other fields like architecture and product design, what we did was fundamentally harmless. Bad graphic design, people used to say, never killed anybody.

The US presidential elections of 2000 changed my mind about that. A badly-designed ballot in Palm Beach County, Florida, confused thousands of voters and perhaps decided the election that year for George W. Bush. Whether you believe that or not, there is no doubt in my mind that in this case the things we do every day — typography, layout — played a role in the future of our country and the world. It was a little job, one colour, all type, but it had an outside influence. It reminded me that there are no little jobs.

What non-design-related ideas or principles shaped and shifted the way you approached your work over the years?

I feel that knowing how to read is more important for a graphic designer than knowing how to draw. We work with words constantly. I love reading, so I take these words seriously. It took me a long time to really understand how powerful language can be.

What did the process of remembering and documenting all these projects involve? Did you work from memory or documentation?

I keep pretty good records, but I also have almost bizarrely good recall of the work I’ve done in my lifetime. I have no idea, for instance, what I was doing on my 38th birthday, but I can probably tell you exactly what typeface I used on each of the projects I did that year.

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How to be a graphic designer in the middle of nowhere (first attempts)

What surprises did this process turn up? Did you find that the way you feel about old work, the way you view the body of work, the idea you had of the trajectory of your career, was challenged?

What I discovered is, I think, fairly predictable: that the pieces I’ve done that have endured tend to be strong ideas executed simply and clearly. I am lucky to have a few clients that I’ve worked with for more than 30 years, such as the Architectural League of New York. The work I did for them at the beginning, and occasionally along the way, was often fussy and confused. The pieces that still look convincing to me are the simple ones. Someone once told me, you can’t confuse someone into agreeing with you. For me, this is true with graphic design as well.

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How to run a marathon (The Architectural League of New York)

What else can you see about your own development as a designer, in the brand evolution of your longstanding clients?

As I’ve gotten more experienced, I’ve found I have more confidence to speak really honestly to my clients, and to have a more expansive view of the problems they are facing. Whereas 30 years ago I would be focused on typefaces and colours — my world, you might say — now I’m more interested in the worlds I know less well, the worlds of my clients and my collaborators. I used to be like a doctor who would ask his patients what colour pills they liked. Now I’m much more interested in listening carefully, developing an accurate diagnosis, and then coming up with just the right cure. I find designers are too eager to shove pills down our patients’ throats.

When working now, do you ever doubt your abilities or your instincts, and how do you work through this?

I doubt my abilities and instincts all the time, including today. Will I come up with an idea for this project? What’s the right way to execute that idea? How can I tell if my execution is good or bad? And what will other people say about it? I have found the only way to work through these moments of doubt is to simply accept that you’re going to make mistakes, and to surround yourself with people that you trust and who trust you, insecurities and all.

How to make a museum mad (Museum of Arts and Design)

How to make a museum mad (Museum of Arts and Design)

You said in a previous interview that the questions you asked yourself when you began the process of self-reflection for How To were, “Is this worth putting all together? Does it all add up to something?” Now you’ve finished the book and it exists in the world. For you, what did your body of work add up to?

Of course, what’s interesting is that while I’ve finished the book, I’m still working every day. I myself am far from finished. What I suspect is true, however, is that this kind of book represents a kind of marker in one’s career. My greatest hope is that by putting the first 35 years of my career in a nice package like this, it will mean that there will have to be a different form for the second 35.

At this point in your career, what do you want to learn how to…?

I would like to learn how to speak Italian. I’m taking lessons right now, and it’s the hardest thing in the world.


How To… is published by Thames and Hudson, and available now.

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