Michael Bierut’s latest collection of design essays is inspiring and surprisingly entertaining.
Michael Bierut, partner at the design consultancy Pentagram and noted graphic designer behind identities for Hillary Clinton, The New York Times, and Saks Fifth Avenue, has long had a shadow career as a writer. In 2003 he co-founded the website Design Observer (now a resource of the AIGA), and became one of its most prolific bloggers.
Bierut’s latest book, Now You See It and Other Essays on Design, compiles 54 short essays, most of them originally published on Design Observer. Each story is short and pithy, with most running only 3 or 4 pages. The topic is almost always design, and even if some essays seem only tangentially related to the subject, they generally make their way back to it in the end.
Having published a monograph just a few years prior, Bierut spends very little time discussing his own design work – his Clinton campaign work being a notable exception. Instead, he turns his eye to a cornucopia of subjects. His accounts of his early career, working in the strict, high-modernist office of Massimo Vignelli, shed light on a pre-digital era of design (which I only tangentially experienced), where mechanical skills were as important as aesthetics and there were only five “approved” typefaces from which to choose.
Other essays highlight lesser known design visionaries, like Lou Dorfsman, creative director of CBS during its heyday, and Helmut Krone, the man behind Volkswagen’s iconic “Think Small” ads. Remembrances of Bierut’s early influences, from his childhood suburban home to early 1980s hip hop, are charming and nostalgic, and reminded me of the indelible impact of my own youth on my sense of aesthetics.
My favorites essays are those that speak to the tenuous relationship between designers, the business world, and the public. On formalizing design processes (to make them more palatable to the business world), Bierut writes:
“…my ‘honest’ description of the process is an idealized one. Sometimes I have one great idea but can’t convince the client it’s great and I have to do more ideas. Sometimes this leads to a better idea. Sometimes it leads to a worse idea. Sometimes after I go back and explore other ideas we all come back to the original idea…. One way or another it always seems to get done, but never as originally promised.”
It’s comforting to know that a designer of Bierut’s standing suffers these challenges; throughout, he is charmingly self-deprecating about his own design skills, making him surprisingly relatable. Other essays, on the business value of design and the general lack of respect for designers in the corporate world, cover similar ground with wit and insight.
Several of the articles tackle public critique of designs, including logos for The Met, Tropicana, and Bierut’s own Clinton campaign logo. Thanks largely to social media, public response to these designs was immediate, and harsh. Bierut is sympathetic, pointing out that the success of any visual identity takes years to play out, and that the public’s attachment to brands can be a blessing and curse in equal measure.
Throughout, there’s an optimism and generosity that distinguishes the essays from much contemporary design writing. Only here and there does Bierut take issue with a design – much of this is in the chapter on “ugly” design (the 2012 London Olympics logo, David Carson’s typography, etc.). Another essay criticizes the trend (now diminished from its decade-old peak) of designing sports stadia in faux-vintage nostalgic styles. An entire essay is devoted to the “neutered sprites,” non-gendered, abstracted human silhouettes prevalent in healthcare advertising, that offend no one and communicate nothing.
The book is smartly and minimally designed, in keeping with Bierut’s style. Giant numbers introduce each essay, overshadowing the titles, and simple black sans-serif text turns red only for the occasional footnote. A handful of images appear, each monochromatic and thumbnail-sized in the book’s margin. The cover implements a clever visual pun, obscuring the book’s glossy title with a matte red strikethrough.
My only critique of the book is a minor one – more than half of the 54 essays date from 2006-2008, and only three of the essays were written during the last 5 years. As such, some of the bigger cultural references – Mad Men, The Sopranos, Enron, Man on Wire – seem a little less relevant than they might have when first published. The insights are still interesting, of course, though the book might have been more accurately subtitled as Writings 2006-2013, or positioned as a sequel to his 2007 book 79 Short Essays on Design.
In the book’s introduction Bierut discusses his own challenges in writing:
“When I began writing about graphic design, it was with all the self-consciousness that only a lifelong manipulator of letterforms could bring to the task. I was not very good at the beginning, and even now it is a painful process.”
…but the writing here seems effortless: concise, natural, and always entertaining. Having experienced my own frustration with professional writing, I find Bierut’s essays to be inspirational, not only in their quality but in their breadth. I struggle to keep posts topical and rooted in my expertise, but Bierut confidently expands his reach beyond his work to explore design in everyday life – with great success.