kottke.org posts about Michael Bierut
On the occasion of the latest New Yorker redesign, a worthy re-link to Michael Bierut's appreciation of the magazine's practice of slow design.
Publication design is a field addicted to ceaseless reinvention. Sometimes a magazine's redesign is generated by a change in editorial direction. More often, the motivation is commercial: the publisher needs to get the attention of fickle ad agency media buyers, and a new format -- usually characterized as ever more "scannable" and "reader-friendly" -- is just the thing. In contrast, one senses that each of the changes in The New Yorker was arrived at almost grudgingly. Designers are used to lecturing timid clients that change requires bravery. But after a certain point -- 80 years? -- not changing begins to seem like the bravest thing of all.
The New Yorker's design changes over the years have been so slight that, as Bierut notes, the latest issue looks remarkably like the first issue from 1925.
You may remember a short piece by Errol Morris in the Times a few weeks ago that was more of a quiz than a essay. Well, the quiz turned out to be a smokescreen for how people's opinions change when the text is set in different typefaces.
Each Times participant read the passage in one of six randomly assigned fonts - Baskerville, Computer Modern, Georgia, Helvetica, Comic Sans and Trebuchet. The questions, ostensibly about optimism or pessimism, provided data about the influence of fonts on our beliefs.
The test consisted of comparing the responses and determining whether font choice influenced our perception of the truth of the passage.
The results pointed to a small but noticeable effect in the authority of each font.
DAVID DUNNING: Baskerville seems to be the king of fonts. What I did is I pushed and pulled at the data and threw nasty criteria at it. But it is clear in the data that Baskerville is different from the other fonts in terms of the response it is soliciting. Now, it may seem small but it is impressive.
ERROL MORRIS: I am completely surprised by this. If you asked me in advance, I would have guessed Georgia or Computer Modern, something that has the imprimatur of, I don't know, truth - truthiness.
DAVID DUNNING: The word that comes to my mind is gravitas. There are some fonts that are informal - Comic Sans, obviously - and other fonts that are a little bit more tuxedo. It seems to me that Georgia is slightly tuxedo. Computer Modern is a little bit more tuxedo and Baskerville has just a tad more starchiness. I would have expected that if you are going to have a winner in Baskerville, you are also going to have a winner in Computer Modern. But we did not. And there can be a number of explanations for that. Maybe there is a slight difference in how they are rendered in PCs or laptops that causes the starch in Computer Modern to be a little softer than the starch in Baskerville.
ERROL MORRIS: Starchiness?
DAVID DUNNING: Fonts have different personalities. It seems to me that one thing you can say about Baskerville is that it feels more formal or looks more formal. So that may give it a push in terms of its level of authority. This is, of course, speculation. I don't really know. What one would do with, when you get surprising results is you now have to think about, O.K., what do we do to take that back-ended speculation and support it with data?
Update: Pentagram's Michael Bierut weighs in on Morris' article.
Whether or not a typeface can do any or all of those things, I do agree the landscape has changed. Once upon a time, regular people didn't even know the names of typefaces. Then, with the invention of the personal computer, people started learning. They had their opinions and they had their favorites. But until now, type was a still matter of taste. Going forward, if someone wants to tell the truth, he or she will know exactly what typeface to use. Of course, the truth is the truth no matter what typeface it's in. How long before people realize that Baskerville is even more useful if you want to lie?
For the past five years, Michael Bierut has taught a class for aspiring designers where students have to record the results of "a design operation that [they] are capable of repeating every day" for 100 straight days. Here are some of the results.
Zak Klauck: "Over the course of 100 days, I made a poster each day in one minute. The posters were based on one word or short phrase collected from 100 different people. Anyone and everyone was invited to contribute." The perfect exercise for a graphic designer.
Hack 2 Work is a series of tips and tricks for designers from Core77. Looks good so far. Check out Liz Danzico's How to Learn About Your Clients From Their Table Manners (to be taken with a grain of salt, I'm sure):
When the food arrives, does your client salt and pepper the food before he or she tastes it? If so, this is a clear sign that your client is potentially closed-minded, not open to new ideas, or set in his or her ways. If your client first tastes the food, and then adds salt or pepper, tremendous. This suggests your client has opinions, and is not afraid to exercise them-but only after the voice of the "creator" (in this case the chef) has been fairly given a chance first.
and How to Make Your Client's Logo Bigger Without Making Their Logo Bigger from Michael Bierut:
Like all con games, this one is based on the illusion that the sucker has the advantage. In this case, it's the conviction that this kind of client always has that it's your job to do as they say. Little do they realize that your final allegiance is not to them, but to the quality of the work, something that you cannot in good conscience permit them to jeopardize with their lack of taste.
Update: James Grimmelmann shares his similar tip for lighting designers:
The lighting-designer version of this is to tell the director that yes, you can make the lights brighter, but you'll need to turn off the power for a few minutes while you change some of the wiring. Turn everything off, wait fifteen minutes while the director's eyes adjust to the dark, then turn everything back on. It sure does look brighter now, doesn't it?
In the NY Times, Michael Bierut talks about the differences in graphic design when he started work in the early 80s and now. In a word: computers.
Still, I wonder if we haven't lost something in the process: the deliberation that comes with a slower pace, the attention to detail required when mistakes can't be undone with the click of a mouse. Younger designers hearing me talk this way react as if I'm getting sentimental about the days when we all used to churn our own butter.
Uber-designer Michael Bierut talks about the 85 notebooks that he's carried around over the last 26 years (not all at once, of course).
The notebooks function like a security blanket for me. I can't go into a meeting unless I have my current notebook in my hand, even if I never open it. Because I carry one everywhere, I tend to misplace them a lot. Losing one makes me frantic. Everyone who works with me gets used to me asking, "Have you seen my notebook anywhere?" which I assume gets irritating after a while: sorry. I've left them behind in clients' offices. On one occasion, I left one on the roof of a cab on the upper west side. I ended up walking ten blocks, retracing the taxi's route, until I found it on Broadway at 63rd Street, intact except for some tire marks.
I've tried using notebooks several times over the years, but the habit has never stuck.
The Atlantic is getting a redesign. Changes are already afoot over at the web site and Pentagram's blog has an extensive look at the magazine's new look, designed by Michael Bierut, Luke Hayman, and their team. I love the proposed Helvetica cover. The inspiration for the throw-back logo came in part from an appearance of an old issue of the magazine on Mad Men (Bierut is a fan).
BTW, the new cover tells of an article on blogs -- Will Blogs Kill Writing? -- that you will likely be hearing about from all corners of the web when the issue is released next week.
An appreciation of Mad Men by designer Michael Bierut.
Jesus God in heaven! Not until I know I'm not wasting my time! From the minute Don launched his this-meeting-is-over bluff, I was on the edge of my seat, and my lovely wife Dorothy will tell you that I literally clapped my hands at that line. For me, this sequence is as close to pornography as I ever get to see on basic cable.
Alright, uncle, I give, I give. I will try and find some time in my schedule to watch this show.
Michael Bierut celebrates the elegantly simple design of the Brannock Foot-Measuring Device.
Charles F. Brannock only invented one thing in his life, and this was it. The son of a Syracuse, New York, shoe magnate, Brannock became interested in improving the primitive wooden measuring sticks that he saw around his father's store. He patented his first prototype in 1926, based on models he had made from Erector Set parts. As the Park-Brannock Shoe Store became legendary for fitting feet with absolute accuracy, the demand for the device grew, and in 1927 Brannock opened a factory to mass produce it. The Brannock Device Co., Inc., is still in business today. Refreshingly, it still only makes this one thing. They have sold over a million, a remarkable number when one considers that each of them lasts up to 15 years, when the numbers wear off.
Bierut also notes that Tibor Kalman was a big fan of the Brannock Device, once saying:
It showed incredible ingenuity and no one has ever been able to beat it. I doubt if anyone ever will, even if we ever get to the stars, or find out everything there is to find out about black holes.
The humble shoe horn is another well designed shoe-related device that may never be bettered.
The 92nd St Y has put the video of a talk called The Art of the Book up on their site. The talk was held in Dec 2006 and featured Milton Glaser, Chip Kidd, and Dave Eggers with Michael Bierut moderating. You may recall that Glaser got into a bit of hot water for some comments he made about the career paths of women in graphic design.
Michael Bierut on the concept of bershon, defined by Sarah Brown thusly:
The spirit of bershon is pretty much how you feel when you're 13 and your parents make you wear a Christmas sweatshirt and then pose for a family picture, and you could not possibly summon one more ounce of disgust, but you're also way too cool to really even DEAL with it, so you just make this face like you smelled something bad and sort of roll your eyes and seethe in a put-out manner. Kelly Taylor from Beverly Hills, 90210 is the patron saint of bershon, as her face, like most other teenagers', was permanently frozen in this expression.
Bierut notes that Jennifer Grey's performance in Ferris Bueller embodies the spirit of bershon, but Molly Ringwald does bershon pretty well in Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club.
Which actors would play the designers in Graphic Design: The Movie? Maybe Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Michael Bierut, Massimo Vignelli played by Sean Connery (Connery won't do the Italian accent though), and Julie Christie as Paula Scher.
Michael Bierut dug his 1979 design portfolio out of the closet, which portfolio he used only once to get the last job he ever had to look for.
Michael Bierut on design lessons learned from The Sopranos. "On The Sopranos, interest in certain things, including but not limited to event planning, fashion design, literature, and certain psychological theories, are considered indications of effeminacy. A not unsimilar macho attitude often obtains in corporate boardrooms when it comes to design."
Michael Bierut's 13 reasons to choose a particular typeface for a project. "Once I saw a project in a student portfolio that undertook the dubious challenge of redesigning the Tiffany's identity. I particularly disliked the font that was used, and I politely asked what it was. 'Oh,' came the enthusiastic response, 'that's the best part! It's called Tiffany!'"
On the occasion of Helvetica's NYC premiere tonight, Michael Bierut remembers a time when no one knew anything about type or fonts except for designers and typesetters. "[Today] we live in a world where any person in any cubicle in the world can pick between Arial and Trebuchet and Chalkboard whenever they want, risk free, copyfitting tables be damned, and where a film about a typeface actually stands a chance of enjoying some small measure of popular success."
Coming in July: Seventy-nine Short Essays on Design by Michael Bierut. Looks like some of those essays will be drawn from Design Observer.
Pentagram has redesigned the Doomsday Clock, which depicts the world's proximity to nuclear annihilation. The funny thing is that they designed the 12 o'clock face, which will never actually be needed because we'll all be dead before the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has a change to move it forward.
At The Art of the Book event last week, the panel was asked why there were so few female superstar designers. Milton Glaser took a shot at answering the question (many women choose family over work during the crucial superstar career development years) but judging by the reaction afterwards online, his comments were not appreciated by some. To be fair, Glaser's comments were taken out of context, I think, and what he said is a part of the overall answer to the question. On Design Observer, Michael Beirut, who was the moderator for that evening's event, takes a closer look at the issue. "The real question was the unspoken one: 'Why is it that you guys up there are always...guys?'" Oh, and here's a list of women speakers for your conference.
Took in The Art of the Book lecture at the 92nd Street Y last night. Milton Glaser, Chip Kidd ("a modern day Truman Capote" I heard him described as afterward), Dave Eggers, with Michael Beirut moderating. One of the most interesting comments came late in the proceedings from Dave Eggers, who described one of the main goals of the McSweeney's design staff as attempting to design the books as well and as beautifully as they could as objects so that people would be compelled to save them. That way, even if people didn't have time to read them soon after purchase, they couldn't bear to throw/give the book away and would instead put it on their shelf in the hopes -- McSweeney's hopes, that is -- that the buyer would at some point pull it down off the shelf and give it another try.
This design goal runs counter to the design process behind most contemporary book jackets, which are engineered almost entirely for the purpose of eliciting in the potential buyer a "buy me" reaction within two seconds of spotting them. McSweeney's, as a champion of authors, wants the writing to be read while most major publishing companies, as champions of their shareholders, want books to be purchased. People buying books is important to the goal of getting the writing within them read, but McSweeney's emphasis on designing books to last in people's homes is a clever way to pursue that goal after the sale.
Michael Bierut on his design process, written in plain language that the client never gets to hear (but maybe they should):
When I do a design project, I begin by listening carefully to you as you talk about your problem and read whatever background material I can find that relates to the issues you face. If you're lucky, I have also accidentally acquired some firsthand experience with your situation. Somewhere along the way an idea for the design pops into my head from out of the blue. I can't really explain that part; it's like magic. Sometimes it even happens before you have a chance to tell me that much about your problem! Now, if it's a good idea, I try to figure out some strategic justification for the solution so I can explain it to you without relying on good taste you may or may not have. Along the way, I may add some other ideas, either because you made me agree to do so at the outset, or because I'm not sure of the first idea. At any rate, in the earlier phases hopefully I will have gained your trust so that by this point you're inclined to take my advice. I don't have any clue how you'd go about proving that my advice is any good except that other people - at least the ones I've told you about - have taken my advice in the past and prospered. In other words, could you just sort of, you know...trust me?
It is like magic. Reminds me of something Jeff Veen wrote last year on his process:
And I sort of realized that I do design that way. I build up a tremendous amount of background data, let it synthesize, then "blink" it out as a fully-formed solution. It typically works like this:
- Talk to everybody I possibly can about the problem.
- Read everything that would even be remotely related to what I'm doing. Hang charts, graphs, diagrams, and screenshots all over my office.
- Observe user research; recall past research.
- Stew in it all, panic as deadline approaches, stop sleeping, stop eating.
- Be struck with an epiphany. Instantly see the solution. Curse my tools for being too slow as I frantically get it all down in a document.
- Sleep for three days.
Like I said when I first read Jeff's piece, in my experience, a designer gets the job done in any way she can and then figures out how to sell it to the client, typically by coming up with an effective (and hopefully at least partially truthful) backstory that's crammed into a 5-step iterative process, charts of which are ubiquitous in design firm pitches.
Second part of a two-part interview with designer Michael Bierut. "I've found that any reluctance I've had to doing more of this 'political design' has to do with my own fear that things like T-shirts and posters are usually feeble tools to address the enormous problems we face as a society today." Read part one.
Interview with designer Michael Bierut. "The best thing design can do for a company is to express that company's personality accurately and compellingly, and in so doing permit that organizations inherent strengths to prevail."
Business Week holds a competition to design their new design magazine and Michael Bierut says to hell with this kind of spec work. I love Andy Rutledge's analogy.
Designer Michael Bierut confesses: "I am a plagiarist". "...my mind is stuffed full of graphic design, graphic design done by other people. How can I be sure that any idea that comes out of that same mind is absolutely my own?"
Slideshow of graphics submitted for New York magazine's High Priority feature, the production of which Michael Bierut says "is as close as the graphic design world gets to an Olympic event".
Michael Bierut: "the great thing about graphic design is that it is almost always about something else".
Michael Bierut on the "slow design" of the New Yorker. "In contrast, one senses that each of the changes in The New Yorker was arrived at almost grudgingly. Designers are used to lecturing timid clients that change requires bravery. But after a certain point -- 80 years? -- not changing begins to seem like the bravest thing of all."
Michael Bierut offers a requiem for the AT&T logo by Saul Bass. SBC is buying AT&T, keeping the name, but introducing a new logo.
Here's a sampling of the rest of the AIGA Design Conference, stuff that I haven't covered yet and didn't belong in a post of it's own:
- Juan Enriquez gave what was probably my favorite talk about what's going on in the world of genetics right now. I've heard him give a variation of this talk before (at PopTech, I think). He started off talking about coding systems and how when they get more efficient (in the way that the Romance languages are more efficient than Chinese languages), the more powerful they become in human hands. Binary is very powerful because you can encode text, images, video, etc. using just two symbols, 1 and 0. Segue to DNA, a four symbol language to make living organisms...obviously quite powerful in human hands.
- Enriquez: All life is imperfectly transmitted code. That's what evolution is, and without the imperfections, there would be no life. The little differences over long periods of time are what's important.
- Enriquez again: The mosquito is a flying hypodermic needle. That's how it delivers malaria to humans. We could use that same capability for vaccinating cows against disease.
- Along with his list of 20 courses he didn't take in design school, Michael Bierut offered some advice to young designers:
1. Design is the easy part.
2. Learn from your clients, bosses, collaborators, and colleagues.
3. Content is king.
4. Read. Read. Read.
5. Think first, then design.
6. Never forget how lucky you are. Enjoy yourself.
- Nicholas Negroponte: If programmers got paid to remove code from sofware instead of writing new code, software would be a whole lot better.
- Negroponte also shared a story about outfitting the kids in a school in Cambodia with laptops; the kids' first English word was "Google", and from what Negroponte said, that was followed closely by "Skype". He also said the children's parents loved the laptops because at night, it was the brightest light in the house.
- Christi recorded Milton Glaser's mother's spaghetti recipe. "Cook until basically all of the water is evaporated. Mix in bottle of ketchup; HEINZ ketchup."
- Ben Karlin and Paula Scher on the challenges of making America, The Book: Books are more daunting than doing TV because print allows for a much greater density of jokes. In trying to shoot the cover image, they found that bald eagles cannot be used live for marketing or advertising purposes. The solution? A golden eagle and Photoshop. And for a spread depicting all the Supreme Court Justices in the buff, they struggled -- even with the Web -- to find nude photos of older people until they found a Vermont nudist colony willing to send them photos because they were big fans of The Daily Show.
- Bill Strickland blew the doors off the conference with his account of the work he's doing in "curing cancer" -- his term for revitalizing violent and crime-ridden neighborhoods -- in Pittsburgh. I can't do justice to his talk, so two short anecdotes. Strickland said he realized that "poor people never have a nice day" so when he built his buildings in these poor black neighbohoods, he put nice fountains out front so that people coming into the building know that they're entering a space where it's possible to have a good day. Another time, a bigwig of some sort was visiting the center and asked Strickland about the flowers he saw everywhere. Flowers in the hood? How'd these get here? Strickland told him "you don't need a task force or study group to buy flowers" and that he'd just got in his car, bought some flowers, brought them back, and set them around the place. His point in all this was creating a place where people feel less dissimilar to each other...black, white, rich, poor, everybody has a right to flowers and an education and to be treated with respect and to have a nice day. You start treating people like that, and surprise!, they thrive. Strickland's inner city programs have produced Fulbright Scholars, Pulitzer Prize winners, and tons of college graduates.
- I caught 30 minutes of David Peters' presentation of Typecast: The Art of the Typographic Film Title and realized I should have gotten there in time to see the whole thing. I could sit and watch cool movie titles all day long. Among the titles he showed were Bullit, Panic Room, Dr. Strangelove, Barbarella, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and Superman. The title sequence for Napoleon Dynamite (which was discussed on Design Observer last year) was shown later in the main hall.
- At the closing party at the Museum of Science, we checked out the cool Mathematica exhibit that was designed by Charles and Ray Eames, two designers who were also pretty big science/math nerds.
- And some final thoughts from others at the conference. Peter Merholz says that "form-makers", which make up the vast majority of the AIGA audience, "are being passed by those who are attempting to use design to serve more strategic ends". (That's an interesting thought...) A pair of reviews from Speak Up: Bryony was a bit disappointed with the opening Design Gala but left, like everyone else, in love with emcee John Hockenberry while Armin noted that the preservation of digital files is a big concern for museums in building a collection of graphic design pieces...in 35 years, how are you going load that Quark file or run that Flash movie?
For more of what people are saying about the conference, check out IceRocket. There's a bunch of photos on Flickr as well.
UnBeige blogged the blog panel that I participated on with Michael Bierut, Jen Bekman, Armin Vit, and Steven Heller. More here and here.
As part of the conference within a conference for students, Michael Bierut listed 20 courses he did not take in design school (I think I got all of them):
Contemporary Performance Art
The Changing Global Financial Marketplace
Early Childhood Development
Economics of Commerical Aviation
Biography as History
Introduction to Horticulture
Sports Marketing in Modern Media
The 1960s: Culture and Conflict
20th Century American Theater
Philanthropy and Social Progress
Studies in Popular Culture
Building Systems Engineering
Geopolitics, Military Conflict, and the Cultural Divide
Political Science: Electoral Politics and the Crisis of Democracy
His point was that design is just one part of the job. In order to do great work, you need to know what your client does. How do you design for new moms if you don't know anything about raising children? Not very well, that's how. When I was a designer, my approach was to treat the client's knowledge of their business as my biggest asset...the more I could get them to tell me about what their product or service did and the people it served (and then talk to those people, etc.), the better it was for the finished product. Clients who didn't have time to talk, weren't genuinely engaged in their company's business, or who I couldn't get to open up usually didn't get my best work.
Bierut's other main point is, wow, look at all this cool stuff you get to learn about as a designer. If you're a curious person, you could do worse than to choose design as a profession.