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Michael Bierut: 'Essays on Design'

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I am a fan of Michael Bierut. Not only is he a pretty darn good graphic designer, he is also the most perceptive and wittiest writer about design working today. Now his collected essays and blogs are available in paperback, in Seventy-nine Short Essays on Design, ($35; Princeton Architectural Press) and I would urge every architect to get a copy and get out the highlighter. Let me give you a taste.

 

Graphic design might seem rather different than architecture, though Bierut has collaborated with quite a few architects and includes a rather hilarious transcript of a Yale crit in this collection. The lessons he learns from his practice often pertain to any kind of design, even when he is making an exception for his own discipline:

 

“Among the design professions, graphic design is embarrassingly low-risk enterprise. Our colleagues in architecture, industrial design, and fashion design are tormented by nightmares of smoldering rubble, brutally hacked-off fingers, and embarrassing wardrobe malfunctions. We graphic designers flirt with–paper cuts. Thus liberated from serious threats, we invent our own: skating on the edge of illegibility, daring readers to navigate indecipherable layouts, and concocting unlikely new ways to solve problems that don’t actually exist.”

 

“The design process always combines the pursuit of functional goals with countless intuitive, even irrational decisions. The functional requirements –the house needs a bathroom, the headlines have to be legible, the toothbrush has to fit in your mouth—are concrete and often measurable. The intuitive decisions, on the other hand, are more or less beyond honest explanation. These might be: I just like to set my headlines in Bodoni, or I just like to make my products blobby, or I just like to cover my buildings in gridded white porcelain panels. In discussing design work with their clients, designers are direct about the functional parts of their solutions and obfuscate like mad about the intuitive parts, having learned early on that telling the simple truth—“I don’t know, I just like it that way”—simply won’t do. So into this vacuum rushes the bullshit: theories about the symbolic qualities of colors or typefaces; unprovable claims about the historical inevitability of certain shapes, fanciful forced marriages of arbitrary design elements to hard-headed business goals…There must only be the desire to conceal one’s private intentions in the services of a larger goal: getting your client to do it the way you like it.”

 

Trained by the high modernists Massimo and Leila Vignelli, Bierut has a penchant for the simple and the obvious. As he recounts, doing the right thing often means doing away with overwrought solutions: “Poor, poor, Obvious. Come sit by me. I’ll be your friend.” That does mean he hews to the doctrine, finding even contradictions even within Vignelli’s work. Here he equates his excitement about their stylization with love of Manhattan: “My favorite souvenir from my first trip to New York in 1976 was my very own copy of the Vignelli map, straight from the token booth at Times Square: gorgeous, iconic, and cerebral, it represented a New York that didn’t care if it was understandable to a kid from Ohio. It hung on my wall, kin all its mysterious unknowability, for the next three years. That was the city I wanted to live in.

 

At the same time, he has a wicked eye for style. Here he is on one of the most misbegotten typefaces in the modern arsenal:

 

“ITC Garamond was designed in 1975 by Tony Stan for the International Typeface Corporation. OK, let’s stop right there. I’ll admit it: the single phrase designed in 1975 by Tony Stan” conjures up an entire world for me, a world of leisure suits, harvest-gold refrigerators, and “Fly, Robin, Fly” by Silver Convention on the 8-track. A world where font designers were called “Tony” instead of “Tobias” or “Zuzana.” Is that the trouble with ITC Garamond?... And then, just like global communism, it just went away, replaced overnight with a sleek, customized version of Myriad.”

 

I could go on and on, but Bierut says it so much better. Buy the book. Laugh and learn. Here, just as a final snippet, his recipe for how to be a good designer:

 

“Over the years, I came to realize that my best work has always involved subjects that interested me, or–even better—subjects about which I’ve become interested, and even passionate about, through the very process of doing design work. I believe I’m still passionate about graphic design. But the great thing about graphic design is that it is almost always about something else. Corporate law. Professional football. Art. Politics. Robert Wilson. And if I can’t get excited about whatever that something else is, I really have trouble doing good work as a designer. To me, the conclusion is inescapable: the more things you’re interested in, the better your work will be… Not everything is design. But design is about everything. So do yourself a favor: be ready for everything.”

 

 

 
 

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  • Posted by: haridan | Time: 3:52 PM Thursday, April 12, 2012

    Michael is pure heart, hence his design is smart and connected to humanness. Thank you for this insightful piece.

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  • Posted by: Randy Willoughby | Time: 1:50 PM Friday, April 06, 2012

    I always count on Mr Bierut for a reality check. It makes working with fellow designers so much fun, knowing that the bullshit spewing from their mouths is just that.

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.