With greatness comes reflection. For the design star Michael Bierut that means being able to spot not only when genius struck in his favour but also where things went astray and he should have just kept his mouth firmly shut.
Michael Bierut is a partner in the New York office of international design consultancy Pentagram. Born in Ohio, he started his career in graphic design under the wing of the late Massimo Vignelli and, over the past 35 years, has worked with clients from United Airlines to The New York Times. Bierut has recently published a monograph charting his generation-defining work and monocle catches up with him to discuss the future of design and why it’s not good to be too clever.
Monocle: How has your design philosophy evolved?
Michael Bierut: Early on in my career, I was enchanted by what I now would call “cleverness”. And I thought that regardless of what other things I had to accomplish with each assignment, I had to be sure to demonstrate to people that the guy who did this [project] was clever as hell. If I didn’t have that element then I sort of thought it was a missed opportunity or an outright failure. When I look at the work that I admire, that’s endured – whether it’s people such as Lance Wyman (see page 150) or Massimo Vignelli – some of it is indeed clever but a lot of it just has an enduring intelligence and simplicity that transcends cleverness.
M: Why do people tend to prioritise cleverness, as you put it, over clarity?
MB: When you’re learning your trade in design schools there’s a premium put on individual performance, innovation and imagination; trying to do the thing that will really stand out. And I think that’s what school is for. But what it’s not doing is preparing you for a life where the work you’re doing will have to live beyond the last day of term and go on to a year later – or two, five, 10 years later.
M: What are your most memorable projects?
MB: There are a few projects where I lost my way. I was asked to do an identity for a cultural organisation in Miami called New World Symphony and I kept doing just one more misguided solution after another, and part of my problem was that I was listening too much to the voices in my head and not attending to the client. He was an internationally known conductor and performer named Michael Tilson Thomas and he has a tremendous amount of taste but I remember being besotted by my own professionalism. I thought, “Well if you’re the best conductor I’ll be the best graphic designer and it’ll be this great meeting of the minds.” I really underestimated how much I could learn by just shutting up and listening to him. In other cases there are examples where I think it’s just a result of methodical, hard work. We did a pedestrian wayfinding system for New York and dozens if not hundreds of minute decisions were made; what colour scheme to use on the maps, how to represent streets and parks on the maps. It wasn’t designed so that anyone would notice it and admire it; it was designed so that the overall effect was maybe one-tenth of one degree more integrated and hence pleasing to someone trying to decipher the map and to actually achieve a goal greater than admiring graphic design.
M: Does this mean you will approach projects differently in the future?
MB: I can see the next phase of work I would do. It’s about playing a role to improve people’s lives, to help them do something more easily without calling any attention [to it]. As I’ve got older I’ve gained an almost Christ-like humility. Maybe, as you just get more tired, waving your arms and calling for attention requires too much exertion. Perhaps laying back and just whispering in someone’s ear requires less energy and is sometimes more effective.