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Pentagram’s holiday card has some of the most poignant advice for 2021

The design firm’s annual card pays tribute to Michael Sorkin, who died of COVID-19 last year, and his ‘250 Things an Architect Should Know.’

Pentagram’s holiday card has some of the most poignant advice for 2021
[Image: courtesy Pentagram]
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Most holiday cards are festive celebrations of the season. You know the kind: sparkly, heartwarming, may accompany a fruitcake. Design agency Pentagram took this year’s card one step further, with a list of items that can double as New Year’s resolutions.

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[Image: courtesy Pentagram]
The card is based on celebrated architect Michael Sorkin’s “250 Things an Architect Should Know” from his 2018 book, What Goes Up. Sorkin died earlier this year from COVID-19 complications and was remembered as “a fierce champion of architecture and urban design as a medium for social justice.” While his list was targeted toward architects, much of the advice functions as a guiding philosophy for just about anyone.

Pentagram partner Michael Bierut and associate partner Britt Cobb designed the card, which features all 250 items. (“Card” is also a bit of a misnomer—it’s actually a 24-page booklet.) Some of the entries are also paired with red-and-black line illustrations by illustrator Chris DeLorenzo.

Pentagram has been sending out holiday booklets since 1974, just two years after the international design firm was founded. This year’s version went out to about 3,000 recipients, according to Bierut. The cards, which have a different creative twist each year, are a case study in designing corporate communications that are actually good. (Last year’s card, designed by partner Yuri Suzuki, had a clever interactive component.)

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[Image: courtesy Pentagram]
The newest card pays tribute to Sorkin, who advocated a holistic perspective and challenged people to design, create, and live with the world in mind. “He was a theorist who was extremely practical,” says Bierut, who served with Sorkin on the board of the Architectural League of New York for about 20 years. “What always came through was his ability to act in the world not as an architect, nor as a critic, but as a human being.”

[Image: courtesy Pentagram]
The 250 items on the list—everything Sorkin believed an architect should know—can be read as individual pieces of advice, but some entries show additional nuance by unfurling into the next, like lines in a stanza. Take one such group Bierut calls out:

39. What the client wants.
40. What the client thinks it wants.
41. What the client needs.
42. What the client can afford.
43. What the planet can afford.

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It’s a “a lovely bit of rhetorical sleight of hand in a piece that’s full of them,” he says.

[Image: courtesy Pentagram]
The universality of Sorkin’s perspective is especially striking. “Sure, there are things you need to know as a designer. But most of them are things that would simply make you a better person,” Bierut says of the list. It does include straight design tips (38. The color wheel), but it also pushes the reader to think more broadly about human behavior, social policies, and philosophical questions (247. The depths of desire). The list encourages—and inspires—people to consider the context and implications of their work: Does it make the world more sustainable? More just?

Much like Sorkin’s outlook, the real lesson for Bierut was broad in scope: that “being relentlessly curious and open to new experiences makes you a better designer and a better human being.”

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See the full list here.

About the author

Lilly Smith is an associate editor of Co.Design. She was previously the editor of Design Observer, and a contributing writer to AIGA Eye on Design.

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