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What it’s like to design for Justin Timberlake

Pentagram teamed up with the star to design his new book–including one spread Michael Bierut calls “the funniest thing Pentagram ever designed.”

Justin Timberlake’s new book, Hindsight, is essentially a coffee table biography: a collection of highlights of his career from SNL to Suit and Tie. But flip through the pages and you’ll quickly realize the design is good. No offense intended to Timberlake (love you JT!), but you might call it surprisingly good. Did Mom help you with that assignment, Billy? good. Each page is an unexpected delight to the eye, with moments of bold typography and restrained prose.

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As it turns out, the book looks good for a reason: It was designed by the lauded graphic design firm Pentagram, in a project led by partner Michael Bierut and designer Britt Cobb.

[Photo: courtesy Pentagram]

“We got called by my editor at HarperCollins, asking whether we were interested in taking this on. And at first she just described it as ‘a book by a celebrity.’ And I was a little bit wary because you don’t know who the celebrity is,” says Bierut. “But when I heard it it was Justin Timberlake, I was enthusiastic . . .  I’ve always really liked his range and willingness to reinvent himself. It seemed like he actually thought about these reinventions much the same way a designer thinks, really considering, visually, how do I present this persona, or, sonically, how do I present these sounds?”

After a conversation with the celebrity, Bierut agreed to the project. Timberlake met with Bierut and Cobb over two to three studio visits, in which Pentagram inundated Timberlake with options.

[Photo: courtesy Pentagram]

“Like with any new client, you go into that first meeting showing creative work, and when I do that, I go in ready to find out, one, what can we learn about the direction we should be pursuing from a design point of view? And two, what kind of person are we working with here?” says Bierut. “This is true dealing with a CEO on a corporate logo. Some people are impatient and like to make a decision really quickly. Some people are decisive. Some people make a decision quickly and are prone to change their mind. Some people don’t like anything on the first pass. Some people like everything, then call you back and say nothing was right. They’re all different ways of reacting to design, which is inherently subjective.”

As Bierut recounts, he and Cobb laid out a smorgasbord of initial options with countless typographical treatments–all trying to get a feel for what Timberlake wanted. “He looked at it and said, ‘you know, I like all of these.’ And I don’t think he was saying that because he was indecisive. I think he was giving us permission to really play up the contrast you can find in his life story.”

To capture the breadth of that story–a Memphis-born kid falling in love with music, becoming a boy bander, evolving into a pop star, comedian, and Superbowl halftime show performer–Bierut and Cobb tried to match the tone of each moment with the right typography. Ultimately, the book features 30 typefaces, many of which were pulled from turn-of-the-century woodcuts that have never been digitized but amplify the subject’s relationship to Americana in a historically authentic way.

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[Photos: courtesy Pentagram]

The approach shouldn’t work, and Bierut is the first to admit it.

“What I was trained to do, as a book designer, was maybe you’d have three to four typefaces at most–two if you could get away with it–to have a calm, predictable pace from page one to the last page,” says Bierut. “In this case, we took almost every anecdote or episode . . . and kind of treated them as if they were stand-alone works of art in a way.”

The standout has to be the design team’s treatment of the SNL single Dick in a Box, which was Timberlake’s breakthrough moment as a comedian. Bierut bursts into laughter just thinking of what they did, calling it “the funniest thing Pentagram ever designed.” It’s a simple 1-2-3 list, presented in a modified version of Helvetica, the ultra-rational, informational typeface of our age.

[Photo: courtesy Pentagram]

“That’s a layout right out of The Graphic Artist and His Design Problems by Josef Müller-Brockmann. It’s classic International Style design that’s perfectly suited to an Ikea assembly production sheet,” says Bierut. “You reconcile the Vignelli-like austerity of the Helvetica 1-2-3 presentation in contrast to the instructions actually being delivered.”

Working with so few constraints–while satisfying–presented its own challenges. For instance, Pentagram was concerned that all of that visual excitement and variation might turn the book into an unreadable mess for anyone who tried to absorb it in one sitting. So, to balance the typographic experimentation in the headers, Pentagram set all of the body text in neutral sans serif and kept chapter notations identical. The single big trade-off was color. Originally, Bierut and Cobb used major variations in color throughout, across both pages and type. “Most of that we ended up reining out,” says Bierut, “because it was one variation too far that made everything look chaotic and sort of cheap.”

All in all, Bierut is still beaming from the project. “It was one of those things where I kept waiting for someone to spoil the fun and it never happened,” says Bierut. “I kept saying to Britt, brace yourself, someone is going to realize this is really happening and say, ‘Are you crazy? You can’t have 30 typefaces!’ But we received encouragement and inspiration from everyone, especially Justin.”

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day

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