Michael Bierut

Michael Bierut is a part­ner at the design firm Pen­ta­gram. His work is rep­re­sent­ed in the per­ma­nent col­lec­tions of the Muse­um of Mod­ern Art and the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art in New York.

The pub­lic won’t ever tell you, “this is how you change our mind.”
As a designer, how can you learn from the public to meet their needs or redefine the problem? How can we learn from the public and make something that’ll convince them, for instance, of a long term problem like climate change?

Michael Bierut: The pub­lic won’t ever tell you, “this is how you change our mind.” Peo­ple will say, “oh, the gen­er­al pub­lic has an inabil­i­ty to take in infor­ma­tion on mul­ti­ple lev­els, so the only intake they can han­dle is coarse, low nuance, low den­si­ty bits of things.”

On the oth­er hand, a com­pelling expla­na­tion of some­thing can car­ry the day and have an effect. For instance, by weird chain of cir­cum­stance I hap­pen to be on the advi­so­ry board for some­thing called the Bul­let­in of the Atom­ic Sci­en­tists. Now, most peo­ple have nev­er heard of the Bul­let­in of the Atom­ic Sci­en­tists, but most peo­ple have heard of this thing that they invent­ed a long, long time ago called the “dooms­day clock.”

The­se were all for­mer Man­hat­tan Project physi­cists who decid­ed, after they invent­ed the atom bomb, that they need­ed to take respon­si­bil­i­ty about how atom­ic pow­er and atom­ic weapons would be used, con­trolled, and, in many of their views, elim­i­nat­ed. Once they invent­ed this thing they were very ambiva­lent about, they real­ized it was extreme­ly dan­ger­ous.

And she said she put it at sev­en min­utes because she thought it looked cool.

They were found­ed in the late ‘40s and they still are active today. Ear­ly on, they had a mag­a­zine that was called the Bul­let­in. One of them was mar­ried to an artist named Martyl, and Martyl was asked to do a cov­er illus­tra­tion for it and just decid­ed to just to show the last fif­teen min­utes of the hour face of the clock approach­ing sev­en min­utes to mid­night. And she said she put it at sev­en min­utes because she thought it looked cool.

The­se Ph.D. physi­cists — who are much smarter than me and a lot of oth­er peo­ple — were eval­u­at­ing whether the world was a more dan­ger­ous place to be. And final­ly one of them said, “well what if we move the hands of the clock and change the posi­tion of it depend­ing on our sci­en­tific assess­ment” of whether the world was mov­ing closer or far­ther away to nuclear anni­hi­la­tion.

Way back in the for­ties they start­ed this process, and now with some reg­u­lar­i­ty, they have the­se sched­uled meet­ings where they meet to assess things and decide if they’ll move the clock for­wards or back­wards.

Dur­ing the Cuban Mis­sile Cri­sis it was two min­utes to mid­night — the clos­est it’s ever been. The far­thest it’s been from mid­night was in the ‘90s, dur­ing the Clin­ton admin­is­tra­tion after the col­lapse of the Sovi­et Union. The last meet­ing they had was in Feb­ru­ary, and they moved it one min­ute closer to mid­night. They moved it from six min­utes to mid­night to five.

It’s a real­ly com­pli­cat­ed his­to­ry. There are lots of com­pet­ing views about it, but the fact is that they’ve agreed this unbe­liev­ably sim­ple, almost child­ish, comic book-y metaphor is mean­ing­ful enough to sig­nal the sum of all of the­se indi­vid­u­al sci­en­tific polit­i­cal assess­ments they’ve been mak­ing. I think it’s mirac­u­lous. It’s real­ly incred­i­ble. Martyl man­aged to intu­itive­ly come up with this real­ly sim­ple metaphor that is able to con­tain mul­ti­tudes of detail, or be the lead­ing edge, the head­line.

And it also ties into any Bruce Willis movie you ever saw – the tick­ing clock, the hands mov­ing closer, the thing that’s going to hap­pen at mid­night. There’s some­thing – it’s Cin­derel­la, it’s a dis­as­ter movie — it’s just such a great metaphor: poignant and acces­si­ble to peo­ple.

And to me, that’s graph­ic design. That’s real­ly pure graph­ic design: tak­ing a set of com­pli­cat­ed inter­lock­ing con­cepts and trans­lat­ing them into a sim­ple, fair­ly two-dimen­sion­al graph­ic design idea. That actu­al­ly trans­lates also into words.

And now, because of com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nol­o­gy, it’s inter­est­ing to try to fig­ure out what actu­al­ly becomes the most like­ly car­ri­er of such sim­plic­i­ty. The Occu­py Wall Street move­ment, for exam­ple. Every time I’ve heard the cre­ation sto­ry of that – attrib­ut­ed to Kalle Lasn, the edi­tor of Adbusters mag­a­zine – he says that they had this idea to do this poster that shows bal­leri­nas stand­ing on top of the Wall Street bull stat­ue down on Wall Street, under­neath it says “Occu­py Wall Street,” and then it says “we have one demand.” Have you ever seen that poster?

Both the dooms­day clock and Occu­py were very organ­ic and they weren’t nec­es­sar­i­ly con­ceived to be the thing that they turned into.
No, I’ve never seen that Occupy Poster.

Michael Bierut: No! Exact­ly! Both the dooms­day clock and Occu­py were very organ­ic and they weren’t nec­es­sar­i­ly con­ceived to be the thing that they turned into. With that cov­er design for the Bul­let­in of the Atom­ic Sci­en­tists, the sci­en­tists didn’t sit down with her and give her a Pow­er­point pre­sen­ta­tion explain­ing what the sur­vey results said and what their goals were. They didn’t say, “We need you right now to come up with a device that will be an imme­di­ate­ly under­stood metaphor for the dan­gers of man­made threats to the world in the form of nuclear anni­hi­la­tion or oth­ers.” They just said, “Can you come up with some way to dec­o­rate the cov­er of this thing? It looks bor­ing and prob­a­bly we just got a lit­tle dona­tion, so we can afford to print it on shiny paper in a sec­ond col­or. Could we have a pic­ture for the front?”

She actu­al­ly had some advice, I learned, from the graph­ic design direc­tor at the Con­tain­er Cor­po­ra­tion of Amer­i­ca – this guy named Egbert Jacob­son – who told her to project a vague, very metaphoric and indi­rect sense of fore­bod­ing. “Clock is tick­ing.” But it didn’t  mean any­thing speci­fic.

Then he said, why don’t you just do this every time except keep the art the same and just change the col­or? And that was a pro­to-mod­ernist approach – so they did that. They got rep­e­ti­tion on their side and then a lit­tle bit lat­er had the inspi­ra­tion to take this thing that they’d been putting out there and decide that it meant some­thing.

So how does this relate to design happening around political movements now?

Michael Bierut: Adbusters does all kinds of stuff all the time. They’re always buy­ing. They’re try­ing to cre­ate the­se big glob­al move­ments and then they did this thing that start­ed with this poster that few peo­ple have seen, and those few who’ve seen or heard about it don’t quite get it, but it actu­al­ly had those words “occu­py wall street.”

And even­tu­al­ly it got tweet­ed out with a date and that tapped into a move­ment that was already some­how hap­pen­ing, and that gave the image a focus. So all of those things are gueril­la move­ments in way. They’re lead­er­less, they don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly have believ­ably clear goals at the begin­ning, and they grow in an organ­ic sort of way. I think part of the prob­lem is that we live in a time that’s built per­fect­ly to accom­mo­date gueril­la move­ments and the world still has tons of Napoleons.

Napoleon thought the way a prop­er bat­tle gets fought is you get every­one in uni­form matched up per­fect­ly, then you line them all up row after row after row after row. You’re all wait­ing on the top of the hill, the sun starts to come up, and at dawn the bat­tle begins and they all march in the row again­st oth­er guys march­ing in a row, and they just shoot at each oth­er. Even­tu­al­ly the battle’s over and a lot of peo­ple are dead and may­be the bat­tle line has moved, you know, a mile one way or twen­ty feet the oth­er way.

Apple is Napoleon­ic in the way they admin­is­ter their brand. It’s not like that doesn’t work; it can change hearts and minds even if the goal is to make every­one con­vinced that there’s one best kind of phone to buy. You can make it work in the com­mand and con­trol way. But even Apple has depend­ed a lot on the abil­i­ty of inde­pen­dent peo­ple devel­op­ing apps for them. Their sort of cen­tral­ized con­trol mod­el isn’t real­ly the whole sto­ry with them.

Gueril­las just sneak up and think, “lets go around behind that tree and shoot that thing.” It’s much more oppor­tunis­tic, it’s much more incre­men­tal, it’s much more insid­i­ous, much more relent­less. I think good incre­men­tal­ism and relent­less­ness and insid­i­ous­ness – ubiq­ui­ty, let’s say – are all traits that could serve com­mu­ni­ca­tions real­ly well.

Cities are where it’s always worked best just because peo­ple live in close prox­im­i­ty to each oth­er — plugged into net­works that were there just to make the city work. Now those net­works are all mir­rored dig­i­tal­ly, so peo­ple can feel that they’re parts of com­mu­ni­ties even if they’re real­ly liv­ing in dis­parate places. So there’s a whole inter­est­ing con­ver­sa­tion you can have there from the com­mu­ni­ca­tions point of view too.

What interests you about City Atlas?

Michael Bierut: One of the rea­sons City Atlas is inter­est­ing to me is that I think that New York is a work­ing mod­el of a sus­tain­able com­mu­ni­ty, and because den­si­ty and effi­cien­cy has a lot of lessons for the future. Every city is dif­fer­ent and every com­mu­ni­ty is dif­fer­ent — every place has its own set of con­di­tions that have formed it and par­tic­u­lar influ­en­tial peo­ple with­in it or just sort of every­day peo­ple that affect its future. But I think New York is real­ly spe­cial in that regard.

I grew up in the sub­urbs of Cleve­land, Ohio in a tra­di­tion­al sub­ur­ban cul-de-sac devel­op­ment that was built in the ‘60s, with all its short­com­ings, with the ride across the superblocks to the near­est shop­ping mall, that was brand new when we moved there.

It sort of went through its life cycle of aging and qua­si-renewal. We saw the whole thing. And at large, we saw all the prob­lems with sub­ur­ban life and sprawl and every­thing.

I think it’s good, the sort of the den­si­ty, effi­cien­cy of the kinds of inter­ac­tions we can have here in New York. And pub­lic trans­porta­tion – all those things, and so I moved here imme­di­ate­ly after I grad­u­at­ed from col­lege.

As much as design­ers are flat­tered to think that they are equipped to have spe­cial insights into the world, I don’t think that they’re that much more equipped than den­tists are to tell you the truth – quote me on that – but I do think that I real­ly, I per­son­al­ly just have a pas­sion for New York – not an absolute monogamist sort of pas­sion – I live in Tar­ry­town, in Westch­ester. I live back in the sub­urbs now.

Do you drive?

Michael Bierut: Once every three months. I get in cars every once in a while, but I live 90 sec­onds from Metro North. When [my wife and I] moved, and this was a long time ago, we sort of deter­mined we need­ed to be close to Grand Cen­tral as opposed to Penn Sta­tion, just because of my admi­ra­tion for Grand Cen­tral. And then I take the bus to work every morn­ing. I walk over to the bus stop.

I don’t know many peo­ple my age who ride the bus. There’s one design­er who’s lived here since the ‘70s and claims he’s nev­er been on a bus.

On a trip in 1974 we took to New York in high school, we were given a mini hand-out of tips about New York, and one of them was ways to get around the city, and they list­ed walk­ing — ‘most inter­est­ing,’ sub­way – ‘fastest,’ and then there were bus­es – ‘see the most.’

And I still remem­ber that real­ly clear­ly.

And so, speak­ing of the MTA and Metro North, the big break through in my life was when my Metro North pass start­ed being paired with a metro card – an unlim­it­ed metro card. Now I will walk out of a meet­ing at the Muse­um of the City of New York and if there is a num­ber 2 bus going by, I’ll just think “oh, free ride!” A free ride in this giant char­i­ot — and it’s fan­tas­tic.


Michael Bierut stud­ied graph­ic design at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cincinnati’s Col­lege of Design, Archi­tec­ture, Art, and Plan­ning. Pri­or to join­ing the inter­na­tion­al design con­sul­tan­cy Pen­ta­gram as a part­ner in 1990, he was vice pres­i­dent of graph­ic design at Vignel­li Asso­ciates. His work is rep­re­sent­ed in the per­ma­nent col­lec­tions of the Muse­um of Mod­ern Art and the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art in New York and the Musée des Arts Déco­rat­ifs in Mon­tre­al. He has served as pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Insti­tute of Graph­ic Arts (AIGA) and as a direc­tor of the Archi­tec­tural League of New York, and is a mem­ber of the Art Direc­tors Club Hall of Fame. He is a co-edi­tor of the Look­ing Closer series of design crit­i­cism antholo­gies and a found­ing con­trib­u­tor to the online jour­nal Desig​nOb​server​.com, and the author of Sev­en­ty-Nine Short Essays on Design (Prince­ton Archi­tec­tural Press, 2007). In 2008 he received the Design Mind award from the Coop­er-Hewitt Nation­al Design Muse­um, and he is cur­rent­ly a senior crit­ic in graph­ic design at the Yale School of Art. Michael Bierut’s father served in the U.S. Army dur­ing the occu­pa­tion of Japan, and was sta­tioned in the city of Nagasaki.

Top pho­to: Mau­reen Dren­nan

Inset image: Design Observer

City Atlas/Creative Voic­es Inter­views made pos­si­ble by: Irv­in Stern Foun­da­tion