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Given one minute to make a provocative presentation about design
at the 2005 AIGA
National Design Conference, 20 designers took the stage,
encumbered with elaborate animations, PowerPoint presentations,
professional-grade films. Michael Bierut appeared in a suit,
strolled to center stage, and performed a self-penned AIGA version
of “The Star Spangled Banner.” A capella.
It was the vocal equivalent of Bierut's work: smart, bold,
blissfully on target. He received a standing ovation.
The fact that Michael Bierut will stand on stage and sing before
almost 3,000 designers is not surprising—Bierut has built his
career on making himself, his work, his personality, his opinions,
available. It has worked to great effect. He graciously jets to
speaking engagements tucked into tiny towns in corners of the
country. He makes a point to advise design students. But this
should be of no surprise. After all, Michael Bierut is a
Midwestern-raised, impeccably-mannered person-who happens to be one
of the most famous graphic designers today.
Bierut was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1957. Graphic design as a
career aspiration was not heavily promoted to the young adults of
Ohio at the time. Yet his loves of fine art, music and drawing—all
converging, to him, in the form of album covers—eventually led
Bierut to what were apparently the only two graphic design books in
his suburban town's branch library: the Graphic Design
Manual by Armin Hofmann and Milton Glaser: Graphic
Design. He needed little more to convince him to study graphic
design at the University of Cincinnati's College of Design,
Architecture, Art and Planning. An internship while in school
placed him under the guise of another AIGA Medalist, Chris Pullman, at
Boston public television station, WGBH.
In 1980 Bierut landed his first job at one of the most important
design firms in the world, working for Massimo and
Lella Vignelli in New York City. Working alongside legends for
10 years at Vignelli
Associates, eventually as vice president of design, gave Bierut
serious industry clout. But it also instilled a keystone tenet of
his career. “Probably the most interesting thing I learned is that
a lot of the things about design that tend to get designers really
interested aren't that important,” Bierut once said to Steven Heller. Bierut
has admitted that there's no proof people ever really read the
annual reports and corporate brochures that designers make.
Therefore, Bierut strives to not only make things that people are
able to read, he makes people want to read them. “He has a quality
that I have much respect for in the kind of work that we do,” says
Pullman. “He's a person who's very easy to understand, both when
you talk to him and when he's doing his work. He's accessible,
humane, funny when it's appropriate, and witty almost all of the
time. And that's a very important quality for someone who wants to
be a communicator.”
It is this “democratization of design” that Bierut has
championed while a partner at Pentagram, where he's been since
1990; the act of making things digestible is where he excels. His
list of clients consists of massive corporations that need to be
embraced by the masses: Walt Disney, United Airlines, Motorola, the
New York Jets, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Or he lends a voice
to complex, intellectual entities that need emotional authenticity:
Yale and Princeton Universities, Brooklyn Academy of Music, New
York magazine. This aesthetic also informs his work as an
author, co-editing the design essay series of Looking Closer and co-writing and designing the
monograph Tibor Kalman, Perverse Optimist.
Like Kalman, Bierut has not only made a profound mark on design,
but embedded himself in the cultural concrete of New York City.
Bierut is a director of the Architectural League of New York and a
member of New Yorkers for Parks. He created wayfinding signage for
the Alliance for Downtown New York, assisting millions of tourists
navigating the streets of Lower Manhattan. Bierut's pieces can be
seen at two New York museums, the Museum of Modern Art and the
Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, and more around the world.
It was also in New York that he became involved with AIGA,
initially drawn into the fold when asked to DJ chapter events.
Bierut was president of AIGA's AIGA's New York
chapter from 1988 to 1990 and president of AIGA from 1998 to
2001; he has since been named to the Art Directors Hall of Fame and
the Alliance Graphique Internationale.
But Bierut's influence swings far beyond design circles—so far,
in fact, that he is one of the very few people the mainstream media
turns to for design commentary. He's appeared on the public radio
show “Studio 360” with Kurt Andersen to discuss the design of the
Cleveland Indians' baseball stadium. Dwell turns to him
for design book recommendations, Fast Company culls his
opinions on corporate branding, and he is the resident design
expert for articles in the New York Times. Debbie Millman
has called him a “design personality.” In Graphis, Michael
Kaplan called him a “design generalist.”
But it is as a “design observer,” more specifically as a founder
of the online design journal Design Observer, which has
garnered him a different kind of design audience. Here, Bierut can
lure the likes of William Goldman and Stanley Kubrick into the
realms of collaboration and typography, respectively. He
effectively blends music and design when he pens a remembrance of
the soul singer Wilson Pickett. He seamlessly, coherently, weaves
references from Pulp Fiction to Napoleon Dynamite
into the very fabric of design debate, somehow making the whole
thing more relevant, more accessible—more fun.
Bierut's partner at Pentagram since 1991, says this grasp of pop
culture is evidence of even greater talent. “Michael has a brain
that is a giant compendium,” Scher says. “He absorbs and retains
everything and pulls it out at the appropriate moment and uses it
to its maximal effect. Mention a movie and he quotes from it, maybe
he enacts a little scene. Mention a book and he recites a passage
and relates it to three other books that have the same spirit, that
you haven't read, but you will now. Mention a designer or architect
and he knows the most recent project they've completed and their
first project, how they've changed, how they haven't, who
influenced them, who they influence, and he sometimes will make a
little sketch or diagram of their work. There isn't a day that goes
by when I haven't asked Michael what he knows about anything and
what he thinks about everything. If knowledge is power, then
Michael Bierut is the most powerful person in the entire design
In an essay on Design Observer, Bierut explains that it took him
half his career to realize design is really about the ability to
make connections to other things. He cautions designers, young and
old, to remember this above all else. “Not everything is design,”
he writes. “But design is about everything. So do yourself a favor:
be ready for anything.”
With Bierut as our lead vocalist, we are.
The distinguished AIGA Medal is awarded to individuals in recognition of their exceptional achievements in the field of design.
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