AIGA Portfolio Festival with Michael Bierut
By AIGA August 18, 2020
AIGA Portfolio Festival with Michael Bierut
By AIGA August 18, 2020
AIGA Portfolio Festival with Michael Bierut
By AIGA August 18, 2020

Michael Bierut is a distinguished graphic design leader. After working at Vignelli Associates for a decade, he joined Pentagram’s New York City office as a partner in 1990. His clients include the New York Jets, Mastercard and The New York Times. As a volunteer, he designed the prominent H logo used throughout Hilary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. Michael is a senior critic in graphic design at the Yale School of Art and a lecturer in the practice of design and management at the Yale School of Management. His many accomplishments include serving as president emeritus of AIGA National and earning the prestigious AIGA medal in 2006.

Michael’s program consisted of three sections: 1) a keynote on mentorship; 2) questions and answers; and 3) portfolio critiques with three aspiring graphic designers.

Using mentorship to keep growing as a designer and a person is important. We all need to resist the idea that you only get one mentor through a formal relationship. It’s better to engage many mentors throughout your career.

Rule #1 – You Don’t Even Have to Know Your Mentor’s Name
Michael’s first unknown mentor was the director of the Cleveland Museum of Art. As a child, his parents took him to the museum and enrolled him in programs.

Rule #2 – You Can Find Your Mentors at the Front of the Classroom
From two art teachers, Michael learned art has a purpose.

Rule #3 – Sometimes Your Mentors Are Just Names in Books
Michael found three books at his high school library that influenced his path. He realized that what he imagined actually had a name. (It was graphic design.)

Rule #4 – Find People Who Have Spent Their Lives Learning How to be a Mentor
When you go to college and study design, you meet people who have spent their lives learning how to be a mentor. You can learn so much from the people around you.

Rule #5 – Sometimes Your Mentors Sign Your Paychecks
In the work world, bosses impart knowledge. Straight out of college, Michael spent 10 years working for Massimo and Lella Vignelli in New York. 

Rule #6 – Sometimes Your Mentors Are Sitting Right Next to You
Sometimes sitting side by side brilliant people is the luckiest thing that can happen to you. Michael joined Pentagram in 1990. In the New York office, there are nine partners. Pentagram is unique – it’s the only major design studio where the owners of the business are the creators of the work and serve as the primary contact for every client.

Rule #7 – Sometimes Your Mentors Just Come Walking Through the Door
Some of his best mentoring experiences were both being a mentor to and learning from the designers who have worked on his team. Everyone brings something valuable to the table.

Rule #8 – The Best Way to Find a Mentor is to Be a Mentor
You can be a mentor at any age while you're in school or throughout your career.

Tips for Finding a Mentor

·   Anyone is eligible

·   Don’t bother to ask permission

·   Be a sponge

·   But don’t be a nudge

·   Don’t stop with just one 

Tips for Being a Mentor

·   Listen and learn

·   Share your experiences

·   Be an advocate

·   Hold the door open

·   Do it for a minute or do it for a lifetime 

Questions and Answers
In the time of social distancing, how do you cope without the energy and proximity of your team? 

Answer: Design is about people. Pentagram uses zoom and slack to keep teams connected. They also engage in other conversations besides the work. Pentagram’s team coordinators are especially helpful. Interns sit in on virtual meetings, which probably would not have happened in normal times. Michael is attending more virtual meetings which is an upside to the pandemic.

Where do you find inspiration?

A: Outside of graphic design, Michael finds inspiration from other creators, such as musicians, athletes and film makers – anyone who is at the top of their game. He provided an example of Ira Glass who revealed: You know what good work is but you are not there yet. That gap is what makes you an artist. It inspires you to be better.

How has he changed?

A: Michael doesn’t think his graphic design skills have progressed much since college. Where he has gotten better is learning more about the world. He breaks rules (like stretching logos). Ignore the rules. Don’t be hesitant; be bold.

What will we learn from 2020?

A: Michael doesn’t like to work alone. He needs people around him to get feedback and perspective. The world allows you stay fresh. Choose your collaborators wisely. Take on stimulating client work – pursue opportunities to learn something new. Learn something from every situation. Great design will come out of this pandemic. 

Portfolio Review
Takeaways included:

Use stories to expand upon challenges and solutions. You want to somehow convey who you are as a person. Hiring managers want to know this information. Many people possess the skills, but there is always someone out there who is better. You need to show potential employers who you are.

In your portfolio, create a really clean visual story that goes all the way through.

Graduate school is a substantial investment that you may not need. Determine a good reason to earn a MFA. If you studied something other than design in college, then a MFA can make sense. You don’t need an advanced degree to work as a designer.

Think of a portfolio as your handwriting. It reassures people you are capable of responding to the moment and you’re versatile.

Throw yourself some challenges to get out of your comfort zone.

In the 1970s and 80s, elaborate craftsmanship was required to bring an idea to life. You could see something in your mind. To get there, you started editing out things that were too hard. With technology, you aren’t limited. If you have an idea, you can bring it to life.

The most surprising thing Michael learned in his career is the gap between what designers think they are creating and what people are actually absorbing. Think hard about the audience. Many projects are worthy.

Tags Portfolio Festival