Having studied graphic design at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning, Michael Bierut has been a central figure in the design world as a partner at Pentagram since 1990. Throughout his career, he has amassed a client list including the likes of The New York Times and Mastercard, and notably created the “H” logo for Hilary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Like many, Michael’s journey to graphic design began at a young age with his love of books. “I’ve loved books – and more importantly, reading – all my life,” he tells It’s Nice That. “Today my shelves are packed with the kinds of big illustrated volumes that I could never have afforded when I was a student. But my high school and college years were filled with cheap paperbacks, usually bought used for a few dollars or less. These were the books that have truly influenced me. And almost fifty years later, I still have most of my favourites.”
For this week’s Bookshelf, Michael has pulled a few of these old favourites to the surface, check out his selection below.
Ayn Rand: The Fountainhead (1943)
As a kid, I was good at art, but socially inept. So I sought comfort in books with lonely, tormented and creative protagonists. These included the young painter in My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok, the budding playwright Moss Hart in Act One, and especially the monomaniacal architect Howard Roark in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. The good news is that I got over Miss Rand and her all-encompassing philosophy (including her extremely twisted sexual politics) before I turned 20. The bad news is that it took me six readings of The Fountainhead to do it. C’mon, people: it’s a very entertaining book! Sophisticates make fun of it today, but I bet that most designers (and all starchitects) secretly or not so secretly agree with Roark’s attitude towards design and business: “I don’t build in order to have clients. I have clients in order to build.”
William Strunk Jr and E.B White: The Elements of Style (1957)
If there was one book more than any other that taught me how to write, it was Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. William Strunk was a teacher at Cornell University and E.B. White was his student. Strunk’s classroom guide to usage and composition was so plainspoken and powerful that New Yorker contributor and Charlotte’s Web author White adopted it 40 years later into the ultimate writer’s self-help guide. Only 85 pages long, its core is 33 simple rules. These include the legendary Rule 17, “Omit needless words.” Strunk & White’s elaboration of this principle could be equally applied to good design: “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”
Jane Jacobs: The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961)
This is one of the most revolutionary design books ever written, starting with the very first words. “This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding,” writes Jane Jacobs. “It is also, and mostly, an attempt to introduce new principles of city planning and rebuilding, different and even opposite from those now taught in everything from schools of architecture and planning to the Sunday supplements and women’s magazines.” In short, she was saying to an entrenched professional class of designers and theorists: everything you know is wrong. Jacobs was the antidote to the hubris of Howard Roark. In place of reiterating the bold and abstract gestures of modernism, she suggested we simply observe real people living real lives in real places, try to figure out what works, and do more like that. Every designer today who worries about “user behaviour” follows in her footsteps, or should. And no design book has ever had a better note on the pictures it didn’t contain: “The scenes that illustrate this book are all about us. For illustrations, please look at real cities. While you are looking, you might as well listen, linger and think about what you see.”
Tom Wolfe: The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1966)
The cloth cover of Tom Wolfe’s first collection of essays bore the letters TKKTFSLB, an acronym for one of the most influential titles of the decade. In its pages, he documented the rise of sixties pop, from customised hot rods to rock and roll, writing as if he were an anthropologist deep in territory no one had ever thought to explore. And with turbocharged, overheated prose capable of breaking most of Strunk & White’s rules in the course of a single paragraph, Wolfe singlehandedly created the template for what would come to be known as the New Journalism. Here he is on the signs of Las Vegas: “They revolve, they oscillate, they soar in shapes before which the existing vocabulary of art history is helpless. I can only attempt to supply names – Boomerang Modern, Palette Curvilinear, Flash Gordon Ming-Alert Spiral, McDonald’s Hamburger Parabola, Mint Casino Elliptical, Miami Beach Kidney.” (This was, mind you, four years before Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown arrived on the scene with their more sober assessment.) When I began writing about design myself, Tom Wolfe (who died earlier this month at 88) was my model: not cautious and esoteric, but vivid, energetic, and funny.
[Edited by] Jerome Agel: The Making of Kubrick’s 2001 (1970)
Fifty years ago, I sat in a theatre with my dad and witnessed Stanley Kubrick masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey. I left stunned and obsessed, a sensation that has never quite left me when I think about this amazing film. In those days, before Netflix and Amazon Prime, a movie would disappear from theatres and live for years at a time as nothing more than a memory. So finding this book in my local drugstore a couple of years later was electrifying. Conceived by its publisher as a quick bit of behind-the-scenes exploitation for super-fans like me, it’s so much more: a breathlessly unruly compilation of reviews, essays, interviews, letters, poems, cartoons, parodies and, as the cover promised, a 96-page photo insert, all in smudgy and unglamorous black and white. Produced and edited by Jerome Agel, who had worked with Quentin Fiore and Marshall McLuhan on The Medium is the Massage three years before, this thick paperback offered 368 pages of dense information, and yet rendered its subject more mysterious than ever. Looking back, I realise that the hours I spent with this book – which describes the creation of a monumental work of art without ever fully explaining it – shaped me as a designer more than I know.
About the Author
Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor. Get in contact with Ruby about ideas you may have for long-form stories on the site.