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When Design Is Too Good: Stunning Border Signage Is Deemed a Threat

Canadian border
The new U.S.-Canada border crossing station at Massena, NY, as seen from the Canadian side.
Photo by Michael Moran.

The graphic designer Michael Bierut, a partner working in the New York office of the firm Pentagram, designed a 21-foot sign for the new U.S.-Canada border crossing at Massena, New York. The sign, as well as the building, which was designed by architects Smith-Miller & Hawkinson, has received substantial praise as a bold and daring piece of federal design. Too daring, perhaps. The sign is being dismantled by the Customs and Border Protection Agency for fear that it will be a target for terrorists. I asked Bierut about how the sign came to be and why it's coming down.

EL: I was excited to see a piece of graphic design on the front page of the New York Times Arts section recently, but then I was disappointed to learn that the sign is being dismantled. Does graphic design only get covered when it has been deemed a failure?

MB: It's a pity, but maybe it's inevitable that graphic design only gets mainstream attention when there's some kind of problem with it. Look at the recent debacle with Pepsi's Tropicana packaging, or, for that matter, the design of the 2000 Palm Beach County "butterfly" ballot. When graphic design works well, it tends to just become a part of everyday life, which is really all we wanted with our sign in Massena.

EL: Describe the design process that resulted in the sign. How does the sign interact with the architecture? What were you trying to achieve?

MB: When our team was working with the architects, the wonderful Laurie Hawkinson and Henry Smith-Miller, we all agreed that it would be great to have some kind of large-scale, figurative element on the building. The building itself is beautiful, amazingly efficient and incredibly functional. And of course cost was at the top of everyone's mind throughout the process. There was no budget for decoration or art. The only applied figurative element on the building were the functional signs to guide travelers around. So we thought a big sign would create a kind of ceremonial moment to mark the significance of the building. Public buildings have had inscriptions for years: every New Yorker knows that long passage about "Neither snow nor rain nor gloom of night" that appears on the main post office building on Eighth Avenue. In a way, this sign was meant to be a 21st-century version of that.

Most of my vacations as a child were car trips, and long car trips can be boring for kids. The most dramatic moments always came as you crossed a border, even if it was just that first glimpse of the big OHIO sign on I-80 when you enter the state from Western Pennsylvania. So we thought it would be great to create a similar moment with a big UNITED STATES sign.

EL: The Customs and Border Protection Agency is dismantling the sign because they see it as a security threat. The words "United States" rendered in such large letters could invite terrorist attacks. Was there any discussion during the design process or more recently about using a less provocative message, such as "Hello," "Good Bye," or "E-ZPass"?

passportMB: We did talk about what the message should be, but both the design team and the client team thought, at the time, that there could be nothing more neutral than simply the name of the country you're entering. Other messages might raise language issues, or seem overtly provocative. Being provocative was the last thing on our minds. By the way, if you're looking for potentially provocative messages that our country shoves in people's faces at border crossings, I'd call your attention to one of my least favorite recent designs, the design of the new U.S. passport. It's filled with eagles, flags, passages from historic documents and aphorisms that may be heartfelt statements of patriotism, but they are absolutely anything but neutral.

EL: Pentagram partner Paula Scher titled a book about her work Make It Bigger, referring to the fact that clients often ask graphic designers to use larger type. Along the road to the Canada border sign, were you ever asked to make it smaller?

MB: The scale issue is interesting. When you're up on the Canadian border, 21 feet is nothing. It's dwarfed by the surrounding landscape. So just creating, say, some big 21-foot-tall colored light poles wouldn't have seemed dramatic. However, we're used to reading type that you can measure in inches, or in fractions of an inch. So a 21-foot-tall letter "U" is enormous. It has a little bit of the effect of a Claes Oldenberg sculpture, or maybe an Ed Ruscha painting: Think of the iconic Hollywood sign.

I don't recall anyone asking us to make the sign smaller.

EL: Do you think the Statue of Liberty is an inviting target for terrorists?

MB: Of course the Statue of Liberty, sadly, might be considered a potential terrorist target. It's really filling the same function as the Massena sign. It was designed to be the first thing you see as you're about to enter our country. That's why it was closed to visitors after 9/11. And it was a great moment when it was reopened this summer. I The reopening seemed to signal that we were taking a different stand, perhaps a bolder stand, in the face of external threats.

lower manhattanAll this aside, I want to stress that I'm hesitant to second guess any of our officers who've been charged with keeping us safe. I learned my own lesson about this. Ten years ago, we got an assignment to create a wayfinding system for lower Manhattan. One of the elements in the system we designed was a 4-sided sign, small, about six feet tall, to provide information about nearby destinations. When we were picking locations for the signs, I was told that none of these 4-sided ones would be allowed on the World Trade Center site. When we asked why, we were told that the security people there, still on alert after the 1993 bombing, were concerned that the signs could be used to conceal some kind of explosive device. I remember thinking privately that they were being overly paranoid. All the rest of our signs were installed by the summer of 2001. Then came September 11, and I remember thinking that maybe it was impossible to be too paranoid, even about something as seemingly harmless as signs.

Read more of Ellen Lupton's Design Your Life blog
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Ellen Lupton is curator of contemporary design at Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York City and director of the Graphic Design MFA program at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore (MICA). An author and illustrator of numerous books, articles, and blogs on design, she is populist critic, frequent lecturer, and 2007 AIGA Gold Medalist. Now working on Cooper-Hewitt's 2010 National Design Triennial, Lupton also co-curated the museum's current sustainability exhibition, Design for a Living World. Ellen Lupton's latest book, Design Your Life: The Pleasures and Perils of Everyday Things (2009), is co-authored with her twin sister, Julia; and her books Indie Publishing: How to Design and Produce Your Own Book (2008) and D.I.Y.: Design It Yourself (2006) are co-authored with her MFA students. Baltimore-based Lupton and husband Abbott Miller, a partner in the design firm Pentagram, met as students at The Cooper Union and collaborate on books, exhibitions, and their kids Jay and Ruby.

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2 Comments

  • Nathaniel Salzman

    What a spectacular example of the terrorists winning — abandoning beautiful architecture and design because we're AFRAID that someone will target it. It's not ostentatious — it's not arrogant. It's simply nice. If anything it should stand in defiance. Obviously, we have to seek out threats and address them, but let's also be realistic that being 100% safe is just not possible and the vain attempt comes at entirely too high a cost — i/e the very freedoms we would seek to keep safe. We lose freedom of movement, of thought, of expression, and yet some crazy guy is still going to find a way to blow himself up somewhere in the world. Such a shame.

  • Julietta Cheung

    Signage, as most graphic design, is a form of communication. Context matters much in terms of who has a message about what and where this message is placed. At a border-crossing facility, that one-sided message signals a point of exchange—the United States over here and you are about to enter the U.S. There is something indelibly optimistic about the message. It implies that the U.S. is a welcoming place and this checkpoint is an exchange between what is outside and within the bounds of this country—a liminal space that hails. Removing the sign eliminates that communication and erases the metaphoric richness of the exchange. Worst in practical matters, this decision cements an aesthetic of federal building architecture (signage as a component here) within the framework of non-communication and, as such, removes the human context from this type of architecture and from the positive effects of politics. Taking into account the security concerns cited, the question is whether the sign hails friend and foe alike and whether the U.S. is taking a bolder stance in the face of potential attacks. I wonder if we should collectively rethink what boundaries mean. Is it easier to exert control when spaces such as borders and buildings function as a vulnerability or when we operate what is by nature locations of exchange with an openness that can be directed?