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.

[pul­lquote align=“right”]The pub­lic won’t ever tell you, “this is how you change our mind.“[/pullquote]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?

[pul­lquote align=“left”]Both the dooms­day clock and Occupy were very organic and they weren’t nec­es­sar­ily con­ceived to be the thing that they turned into.[/pullquote]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