Michael Bierut: “The differences between mass culture and elite culture are getting less meaningful”

29 September 2017

It is easy to fall into superlatives when writing about designer Michael Bierut. A partner at Pentagram since 1990, his prestigious roster of clients range from the New York Times to the New York Jets — even Hillary Clinton — and listing all his accolades would fill the entire article. Beyond his commercial practice, Michael has found a second vocation as a Public Ambassador of Design, a sort of unofficial poet laureate of design. In his work as co-founder of Design Observer, the senior critic at Yale School of Art, and the author of several celebrated books, Michael articulates the humble, invisible power of designers to shape the daily lives of actual people. “It’s the responsibility of designers to address the needs of human beings and improve their lives in whatever way we can,” Michael comments. “Passion is a fairly raw material which doesn’t necessarily in its unalloyed state get that much done. I think that passion combined with expertise combined with situations that have a kind of inspiring specificity make for the greatest combination for real things to happen.”

Michael Bierut has recently joined the University of the Underground, an institution dedicated to reimagining the rules of countercultures for the 21st century. Michael is a guest tutor for the university which is starting this autumn. Here he speaks to Ted Gioia about finding inspiration in the everyday, democratising cultural institutions, and the social responsibility of designing for real people.

Tell me about your “100 Days of Design” project at Yale, which spread to become a global initiative. What were you trying to achieve by experimenting with conventional formats in education?
I had given myself that assignment as a way of administering a little bit of self-therapy at a moment in time where I happened to need it. The task I gave myself involved drawing because I was trying to rekindle my ability to draw and produce things with my hands. The head of the department of Graphic Design at Yale, Sheila de Bretteville, heard I was doing this and said that would make an interesting assignment for the students. What I ended up trying to do was make it a very simple, open-ended thing where you do one thing for one hundred days in a row—past the point of exhaustion, boredom, and every other thing and beyond—and come out the other side.

What I also like is that it actually doesn’t require a teacher, doesn’t require a classroom, doesn’t require tuition, doesn’t require supervision, doesn’t require any of those things. You kind of give yourself an assignment, and you make yourself do it. What’s funny, is there’s something kind of miraculous about it, where I would maintain that it always works. If you really do it for a hundred days in a row, you sort of can’t go wrong. If you just do it day after day there’s comes to a point suddenly where you realise that you got it, and you pass through the point of exhaustion and break the wall in a way that you’re just able to take pleasure in your ability to do that work. There are people who actually end up making it a lifelong habit in some form, which is great.

I think there is this myth that creative people have to be animated by lightning bolts or moved in some special way before they can produce. I think whether you’re a designer, an artist, a writer, a musician, or anything, the ability to sit down and make yourself produce something [is invaluable]—whether or not you’re in the mood, whether or not the conditions are perfect, whether or not you have something that just can’t be resisted and you have to get out. Instead those moments when you’re exhausted, when you have no inspiration, when you have neither the time nor the space or anything to produce—if you’re able to learn how to do it under those conditions, you develop a tremendous capacity for productivity that becomes a real tool in your life as a designer.


Michael Bierut: George Nelson’s How to See

What advice would you give to young designers searching for genuine inspiration?
The people whose work I admire (and this is true in almost any field) what they seem to have in common is this real curiosity about the world around them. They’re just avid to find out more about things. They have the capacity to be interested in almost anything. If there’s one trope or cliché that I think is misleading it has to do with “When I want to be inspired, I go to the museum and look at paintings.” I mean I’m not against going to museums or looking at paintings. I think you should do that. But I think the idea that inspiration somehow is sequestered away in special places and is labeled as such in the sign over the door is one of the great myths. The more things you’re capable of finding inspiring the more inspired you’re going to be. It took me a long time to figure that out in my life as a designer.

I think another trap that creative professionals and creative people fall into is the idea that there are requirements that our output assumes certain forms, and that we have the final form of what we’re shooting for in mind as we’re beginning the process.

Social design can so easily be pigeonholed into exercises like designing posters for charity. What does socially-responsible design mean to you?
One, I think it’s the responsibility of designers to address the needs of human beings and to improve their lives in whatever way we can. I have nothing against the idea of design as a form of therapy. Sometimes doing posters for non-profit causes can be a way to discharge a kind of anger or guilt one has about a situation. But I think that’s done from the comfort of one’s professional position. “I know how to design posters. So I’ll design a poster and I’m done.” I think just like any other design situation, the process benefits from contact with the real world and real people. The kind of work that’s actually transformative is based on engagement with audiences and users and groups that actually benefit from the work, where their situation is being addressed more directly.

I think sometimes that can be a little confusing. It starts to end up defining design ever more broadly so it sort of doesn’t seem to be about anything at all—it just seems to be the same as life basically—which I think is not particularly helpful. I think if you can engage with the larger world but still do it from a position of generous expertise that’s the ideal situation.


Michael Bierut: NYC Schools Libraries


Michael Bierut: NYC Schools Libraries

What are some specific examples from your work, where you’ve seen design change the way people engage with their social environment?
One of my favourite projects—the thing I did my TED Talk about — was working on a series of libraries in inner-city schools in New York City. I probably started 15 years ago and did it for about 10 years straight. It was interesting because throughout the entire process I kept underestimating it. I started out being fairly oblivious, thinking it would just be a sort of feel-good thing: I’ll lend my expertise and get in-and-out pretty quickly. The more engaged I got, the more I realised the forces at work were more complex.

At the beginning, I was approached by an organisation that had decided that an effective way to improve the quality of education in the vast and almost immutable New York City school system was to fund the renovation of one room in as many schools as possible— that room being the school library.

They had enlisted a bunch of publishers to donate books, a bunch of financiers to donate money for the renovation. They asked architects to donate the design, and they asked me to do the logo for the whole thing. I could have even said, “Why does this even need a logo?” That seemed stupid. They’re just libraries. But instead, I said “No, I want to help. I want to do my part. I’ll do this logo. It’ll take me a week, and I’ll be done.” Somewhere along the way, almost by accident, I started commissioning murals for the insides of these libraries. Again, I thought “Oh the murals are nice because they make the libraries more pretty and active.” It was very late in the process that I came to understand the function of the murals — and in fact the function of the whole project — wasn’t necessarily to inspire the kids in the libraries. Although it did do that. But the real potent thing that all this activity did was create a pride of place for the librarians.

I really think the work this project did helped those librarians do a better job. It added inspiration and dignity to a daily activity that I think a lot of them felt was sort of an endless, uphill, Sisyphean task. Having a place to come every day, where they could feel that they were the proprietor of this special place within their school building: this made them powerhouses. It was never said quite this clearly: If you can inspire one of those librarians you could in effect inspire hundreds and hundreds and thousands of school children who would pass through those rooms. So that was a case where I was doing design work and kind of blundered my way, slowly but surely, to a solution that I know had some impact.

In your work, how have you seen graphic design influence the identity of a cultural institution?
One of the roles that cultural institutions can play—and let me say this carefully—is using design with the same confidence and bravado that any commercial enterprise would, which I think has the effect of democratising what the institutions are offering to the world. There is a certain kind of design that has traditionally been used to signal hierarchy and to stratify society—where good design equals expensive design equals design that will let people know you’re rich because you can afford good design. To the degree that good and thoughtful design can be made accessible to people on a mass level, on a democratic level, is a way of demolishing those barriers.

I don’t necessarily mean that museums need to market themselves as soft drinks. I mean that the differences between mass culture and elite culture are getting less meaningful as time goes on. I think thoughtful designers both can bring thoughtful, responsible design to commercial culture and effective, strong design to more traditionally “elite” culture as well.


Michael Bierut: Museum of Art and Design


Michael Bierut: Museum of Art and Design

What are examples from your work of democratising the design of a cultural institution?
It’s funny. I work with a lot of cultural institutions, and you don’t have to preach to them about democratising their offering. They all want to do that. The idea that there was a time when “high culture” was an elite proposition — the audience for that thinking is getting older and older and pretty soon that audience is going to be dead. So if you’re trying to reach not just Baby Boomers, but Generation X, millennials, and whatever comes after millennials, I think there’s a whole different proposition and way that these institutions communicate.

At the same time, you want to honour and value what makes these places special too. One of the things that was interesting about that library project was one of the architects I worked with felt strongly that the architecture of the libraries in these schools should look as much as possible like a traditional library with traditional moldings on the shelves and fine casework in all the built-in cabinets. Make it look like the Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue. His philosophy was that we want to make this experience feel special to the kids there and make them feel like the world of reading and learning is a special one. That it isn’t like going to Burger King. So I think we designers have to walk a fine line when we’re navigating between making things accessible but still keeping the dignity and wonder about them as well. I think that’s true if you’re working on museums, libraries, cultural centres, or anything.

There are so many different visions of utopia that have to do with levelling everything off. Whether it’s oppressing everyone to the same degree if it’s a dystopia or eliminating all class distinction if it’s a more Marxist utopia. I don’t think the role of design is to impose uniformity and to make everything the same. In fact, what makes design so interesting is that it’s able to celebrate difference and to dramatise the difference between different things. If something is esoteric and hard, you do it a disservice by making it look cheap and easy: You make sure the front door is marked clearly, there’s a welcome mat beneath your feet and a doorknob that turns. But that doesn’t mean every single person has to be compelled to come in that door, it just means that the right people have to find their way to it.

One of the challenges of the United States is that unless your thing is a best-seller, unless your movie opens number one at the box office, unless you’ve got the number-one song, you’ve failed in a way. I mean I love number-one hits, but at the same time there’s a whole world of smaller things that different people and different audiences can access and take pleasure in. I think one of the roles that designers have is to figure out what’s special about each one of those things and make that legible to the people who would get the most out of it — and make sure that everyone’s got an invitation to experience it who might benefit.

How is the cultural role of the designer changing in the 21st century as opposed to the 20th-century?
I think in a lot of people’s minds, design was a signifier. Design was used to represent value or cost or expensiveness. Fancy things were designed and cheap things were un-designed. But I think we are increasingly living in a world where everything is designed. Inevitably, every single thing is designed. This isn’t an original idea (and it’s not my idea) but the world is approaching a point where even things designated “wilderness areas” are designed to be wilderness areas. After a certain period of time, there won’t be a single square inch on Earth that won’t be designed, for good or for ill.

I think designers are no longer just courtiers to the bottom line — to make something look more expensive or make something demand more of a margin in the market place. There’s still some designers who are doing that, and there’s probably a role for that activity. But at the same time there are designers who in a way are almost doing the opposite: calling attention to humble, almost un-designed moments and going from there. There are other cases where they are making things accessible to surprising audiences with whom they might not have been in touch earlier. And all sorts of different things.

I think in a way designers are having more influence than ever in more areas than ever. The sort of the hyper-consciousness and ubiquity of design is a gift to people who have the energy to jump in and take advantage of it.


Michael Bierut: Impeach Him

What advice would you give to young activist designers who want to use design as a social or political tool?
I think the more you can connect it with real situations in the real world and address the real needs of real people the more you’ll learn from it and the more effective you’ll be as a designer. I think a lot of times people mistake passion, which is important, for effectiveness. Passion is a fairly raw material which doesn’t necessarily in its unalloyed state get that much done. I think that passion combined with expertise combined with situations that have a kind of inspiring specificity to them make for the greatest combination for real things to happen.

It’s cliché that design is problem-saying. A lot of times I’ve heard people counter that with all sorts of alternatives to the quotidian and boring statement that problems are there to be solved. But I do think that what people who say that are getting at in the end is that designers benefit from taking what they do and care about and putting it directly in the service of specific situations that could be really challenging and unwelcoming sometimes. If you can figure out a way to come up with something that is a welcome addition to that part of the world, no matter how small, you learn something that will benefit not only that moment in time and that particular community, but will also teach you something you’ll be able to scale up going forward.

Any specific examples from your own work where you put that advice into practice?
Every mistake I’ve ever made as a designer had to with me thinking that I could solve a problem by talking instead of listening. I could name thirty of them like that. One of the things that designers are taught is to be proselytisers to the power of design. I think a lot of times that means you end up prone to giving speeches and trying to teach people what they should want instead of listening carefully to what they do want. Probably, every single project I’ve ever done has had a moment of truth like that where I either met that challenge or failed at it—and that’s something I remind myself every time I undertake a project.

The University of the Underground is a new interdisciplinary creative postgraduate university hosted in subterranean spaces across the globe that’s dedicated to the design of experiences which support power shift in institutions. To learn more about the University of the Underground, click here.

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Ted Gioia

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