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

A daring new sign at the U.S.-Canada border is being dismantled after officials decided it was a target for terrorists. Ellen Lupton asks designer Michael Bierut why.

Canadian border


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

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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.

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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”?

passport

MB: 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?

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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 manhattan

All 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
Browse blogs by other Expert Designers

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.

About the author

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 (MICA) in Baltimore. An author of numerous books and articles on design, she is a public-minded critic, frequent lecturer, and AIGA Gold Medalist.

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