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Parsing Pentagram

One of Pentagram’s design partners explores his design philosophy, practice, and process.

Michael Bierut, a partner at the design firm Pentagram, is arguably one of the more accomplished and celebrated graphic designers practicing today. At Pentagram, Bierut has worked with the Walt Disney Co., Motorola, Princeton and Yale universities, the New York Jets, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. As a senior critic in graphic design at the Yale School of Art and a founding contributor to the blog Design Observer, Bierut has a broad perspective on the practice — and profession — of design. Fast Company caught up with Bierut at the Pentagram offices in New York City to learn more about the importance of the customer — in addition to the client — the value of originality, and what he doesn’t like about Google’s design sensibility.

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Fast Company: You’ve worked with a wide range of clients around the world. What are the characteristics of the best clients you’ve worked with?

Michael Bierut: A good client understands that details count. A long time ago, I had a client I had inherited — and who wasn’t one of my favorites. I really wasn’t getting along with him. Every time I called and got put on hold this horrible recorded music would come on. Eventually a new person was hired to take this guy’s place. He turned out to be a great client. When I called him and got put on hold, the music was better. That was the first sign that the situation was going to improve. And when I visited his office, the ugly, plastic potted plant that had been in the corner was gone.

The uncontrolled nature of the visual environment that we all grow up with in America has led us to assume that details don’t count that much — and by extension, that the way places and things look isn’t all that important. Over the last five or 10 years this has started to change, but there’s still a certain “I don’t really care what it looks like as long as it sells,” mentality and a feeling that paying attention to design is akin to taking one’s eye off the ball. My guess is that in Milan it would be tough to find anyone with those attitudes.

Design can sell a product, but it can also make the world a better place. That’s the reason to get rid of the ugly, plastic potted plant in the corner and to change the music that plays while we’re on hold.

FC: When you start work with clients, how do you begin? Do you use design briefs?

Bierut: I see design as an intellectual exercise. It requires a lot of thinking, and the brief is the beginning of that thinking process. One of the problems that business people face when working with designers is that it is really hard to write a vivid and specific brief. To do this requires the client to know two things. First, the client has to know his or her business very, very well. Second, the customer needs to be known inside and out.

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FC: You said that design is an intellectual exercise. Is it true that if better logic goes into the process, better design will come out?

Bierut: Not necessarily. Sometimes I’ll work on a problem and one solution will come forward that has a rightness to it that just comes from sheer, stupid good luck. A recent example in which the stakes were high, was when Citibank merged with Travelers. We redesigned their logo. The Travelers logo was a red umbrella. And the Citi logo had only three different letters, really. Two of them are “i’s,” and then the “c” and “t.” “T” already stands for Travelers. It also is one of the few letters that could be taken to look like the handle of an umbrella. You put a red arc above it, and the result sort of accomplishes many things all at once, including symbolizing in some subtle way the merger of those two companies. With different names, you wouldn’t have had any of that to work with, and you would have had to come at it from a completely different angle.

FC: I’m sure luck never hurts, but it’s clear your results don’t depend on luck alone. What are some of the common stumbling blocks that you’ve seen get in the way of the designer-client collaboration?

Bierut: Designers often see the client as the final arbiter for what the design should be. But in fact, usually the designer and the client are trying to fathom what this third party, the customer, will make of all this. It’s surprising how many times that third party gets forgotten. When I got started as a designer, I thought I would come up with this great idea and then bludgeon my client into accepting it. I would become more and more famous, and the client would be grateful. You quickly learn, however, that it’s all about that third party out there.

FC: How can clients make sure they hire the right designer for what they — and their customers — need?

Bierut: Make sure you are hiring the people who will really be doing the work. Make sure you have good rapport with them and that you will have access to them. I’ve actually turned away jobs because I thought that the chemistry in the initial meeting wasn’t good enough, and I just couldn’t see the relationship proceeding. That kind of veto power cuts both ways.

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FC: How do you ensure that clients buy into your design solutions, though?

Bierut: Frequently, we take them through the process we used to come to their solution. Designers can get addicted to the drama of the darkened room, the rabbit in the hat, and the gasp of surprise that attends that sort of revelation. That can be effective, but showing the step-by-step process helps people understand it — and helps them internalize the rationale.

FC: How important is originality?

Bierut: Designers are taught that the main function of design is to create brand-new things that are 100% original from a blank slate. But what you learn is that 100% originality doesn’t actually help a lot of times. As much as everyone extols innovation, if you come up with a 100% original way to package spaghetti sauce, for example, when you put it on the grocery store shelf, it’s quite likely no one will buy it because no one will understand that it’s spaghetti sauce.

FC: How do you keep up on trends?

Bierut: I occasionally force myself to do things that I wouldn’t ordinarily do. I’ll explore a part of the bookstore that I usually don’t look in. Or I’ll tune into a TV channel I don’t ordinarily watch. With magazines, in addition to Vanity Fair, Vogue, the New Yorker, I.D., and the late, great Nest, I’ll also read Harper’s or browse through something really outside my experience, like Vice — now there is a world that I didn’t know existed.

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FC: Getting out of your comfort zone brings up an interesting point. How dogmatic are you about your personal likes and dislikes?

Bierut: I’ve actually lost a bit of my faith in my own taste. There are things I once really felt strongly about. I thought you had to do things a certain way because if you didn’t it would be just awful. It’s not quite as clear as all that. For example, there are more than 10,000 typefaces. I once felt that if most people can only distinguish between about five, why waste even a second musing over 30 subtle variations of Garamond? Now, though, I am open to the idea that meaningless choice gives people pleasure. I agree with Virginia Postrel that taking pleasure in simple cosmetic change is very human.

FC: This fall, you participated in an exhibition that focused on re-imagining voting booths. How does the idea of cosmetic change tie into the presidential election?

Bierut: One of the things we saw in the campaign and the election is that people think they are listening to statements about policy. Actually, they watch facial expressions, gestures, winces, and stammers — all the stuff that we’re not supposed to care about because it’s just cosmetic. In fact, these things are seen as external manifestations of inner grace — as is design, in a way.

FC: Leading up to Google’s IPO, a lot of people concentrated on the Web site’s clean graphics, as though that unique design characteristic added value in the stock offering. You might think that this would lead to competitors copying Google. But when you look at the other major search engines, they are about as much of a jumble as possible. What’s your take on this?

Bierut: I don’t think Google’s design is particularly clean — or even handsome. It definitely has an admirable sense of restraint and confidence about why people use it, however. When the Internet came along, the last inhibition against excess fell away because everything was free. You need more pages? Fine; they’re free. More colors? Fine; as many as you want. Thousands of colors, millions of colors. It used to be that everything cost money. You had to boil your message down to one postcard to go through the mail. Every larger size cost more. Every added color cost more. There was some kind of control. With the Internet, all the restraint bets are off, and it’s hard to sober up.

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People love Google because it’s incredibly simple, fast, and ruthlessly effective. And the design speaks confidence. They aren’t saying to you, well just in case you’re also looking for something else, here’s what the temperature is and here’s who’s winning the baseball game and here’s where the Dow closed. They are very focused. But they could improve their design typographically, and I know a lot of designers who are conflicted about their logo.

Steve Kroeter is the founder of Design Paradigm, which delivers executive education seminars, and Archetype Associates, a business development, brand management, and design advocacy consulting firm.