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79 Short Essays On Graphic Design

Michael Bierut

Graphic designer Michael Bierut: Pentagram (New York)

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Graphic designer Michael Bierut takes a look at his Seventy-nine Short Essays on Design on the occasion of its release in paperback by Princeton Architectural Press (March 2012). The book was originally published in hardcover in 2007.

Designers & Books: What were the circumstances that led you to bring the essays together in a book in the first place?

Michael Bierut: At the time the book was conceived, I had been writing for almost 15 years for magazines and websites. I wondered if it would be possible to pull together the best pieces to see if they made a coherent statement as a group.

D&B: In which publications did the essays mostly appear in originally?

MB: Most of the essays appeared on Design Observer. Others appeared in Eye, ID, and a few other publications.

D&B: How was the order of the essays in the book determined? It doesn’t appear to be strictly chronological. And you have probably written more than 79 essays. How did you determine that 79 was the proper number to include?

MB: I went back and forth with the order quite a bit. I didn't want to divide the essays up into formal groups, but instead arranged them so their subjects seemed to flow naturally from one to the next. From the very beginning I wanted to number each essay. I had a fantasy that students would talk about them by the numbers: “Well, as Bierut says in essay 53 . . .” To my knowledge this has never happened. There is no significance to the number 79, but I do think it is a very nice number. I think 81 is a weird number.

D&B: Abbott Miller designed your book. How would you rate yourself as a client?

MB: I think Abbott would say I am the best client in the world. I asked him for direction and I followed his instructions unquestioningly. On the other hand, I didn't pay him anything, so maybe I'm not the best client in the world.

D&B: Whose idea was it to use 79 different fonts—and what were the criteria for selecting the fonts that were chosen?

MB: It was Abbott’s suggestion that we use a different font for every essay. This was really important since we decided at the outset that the book—which is about design—would have no illustrations. I was actually happy about this since I always tried to write in a way that was less about design images and more about design ideas. However, simply making a handsomely laid-out book would be boring. Changing the typeface for every essay introduces a design attitude to the presentation while making it clear that it's still meant to be read, not looked at. This was a genius idea and it was all Abbott’s.

Picking the typefaces was fun and maddening. Sometimes the choices mean nothing. Sometimes they have some obvious significance. For instance, the essay about the identity of AT&T is set in Bell Gothic, the typeface created by C. H. Griffith for use in telephone books. The essay about National Lampoon is set in Oswald Cooper’s Cooper Black, the font that was used in the magazine's logo. And the essay titled “I Hate ITC Garamond” is set, of course, in ITC Garamond. We learned, though, that it’s hard to come up with 79 different typefaces that will all work well.

D&B: Essay #11—“Howard Roark Lives”—is about the main character in Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead. And The Fountainhead is on your Designers & Books book list. Do you think (present company excluded, of course) that uncontrollable egos and making a dent in the design universe tend to go hand in hand?

MB: Even the best designers have to persuade people all the time. They have to persuade people to hire them; then they have to persuade people to go with the recommended solution; then they have to persuade people to realize that solution in the best possible way. Simply showing someone a nice design is almost never enough. This constant effort—and all the rejection that inevitably ensues—obviously requires healthy confidence and nerves of steel, if not a strong ego.

D&B: “First Things First” was a design manifesto that circulated through the design community in the year 2000—and, in brief, called for design professionals to work only for what the signatories termed “ethical” clients. You, at that time and in response, in brief defended your work for commercial clients. Now that we are more than a decade out from the appearance of that document and your reply to it—do you have any more “footnotes” to add?

MB: I felt very strongly then that design can be a way of engaging with the world on as many levels as possible. To suggest that the most talented and thoughtful designers focus exclusively on nonprofit and cultural clients—which was, as far as I could tell, what the manifesto was advocating—meant abdicating 99 percent of the world of communication to designers who would by definition be untalented and thoughtless. I can't see how this is really a path to making the world a better place.

A dozen years on, I feel much the same way. But “First Things First” was a wake-up call that crystallized a lot of opinions about ethics in design and started a conversation about it among students and practitioners that is still going on.

D&B: Other than the color of the cover (yellow for the hardcover and blue for the paperback), are there any differences between the two editions?

MB: No, they're the same, expect that the paperback is less expensive and lighter.

D&B: Will there be an e-book version?

MB: Yes, Princeton Architectural Press decided to make the book available on both Kindle and Nook.

D&B: If you had the chance to pick one essay from the book that would become your legacy, which one would you choose?

MB: “Legacy” is a bit of a strong word. The one that tends to get quoted the most is “Warning: May Contain Non-Design Content.” The ones that were the most fun to write were “Innovation is the New Black” and “On (Design) Bullshit.”

D&B: Do you have any interest in writing a book that is one sustained work rather than a compilation of shorter works?

MB: I have the interest but I lack the stamina.

D&B: Are you working on a new book now?

MB: I’m just starting to think about a second collection of a different number of essays (but just as nice a number as 79). I also vowed that this year I would start to see if there was a different, interesting way to do an illustrated monograph. I regret this process has yet to begin.

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I've always felt that name recognition must be far preferable to the sort of fame found in Us Magazine. Somehow the hordes of paparazzi chasing Paris Hilton in the hope of catching her at her worst moments never seemed to have an appeal for me, but I've still always assumed that Bill Gates or Salman Rushdie could probably reap some modest benefit from fame and grab a previously unavailable table at Masa or Jean Georges by the virtue of their names alone. In his piece "How to Become Famous" in the collection Seventy-nine Short Essays on Design, Michael Bierut, among the most famous living graphic designers on the planet, humorously recounts the sorts of benefits those of us in the design community can expect to reach at the pinnacle of our success: His sister-in-law, who's a dental hygienist in Ohio, once had a client who recognized her last name as that of a "famous" graphic designer.

Seventy-nine Short Essays collects an assortment of rants, morality tales, observations and thoughts on the culture of graphic design that, while rarely epoch shaking, candidly explores the benefits and pitfalls of running a successful design practice (and, more importantly, getting there). Bierut founded and writes for the respected design blog Design Observer and serves as a partner in the esteemed offices of Pentagram. Seventy-nine Short Essays collects his writings from Design Observer as well as pieces from a scattering of other industry periodicals.

Consequently, the collection gives the reader indirect insight into Michael Bierut's mind and daily thoughts without directly presenting the reader with a central thesis or takeaway, but its subtext makes his philosophical bent rather clear. As a human (artistic?) endeavor, design itself is a comment on the human condition, and any design aficionado will still find a lot to learn from the pages within. As he notes in the first chapter of the book, "Warning: May Contain Non-Design Content," Bierut's essays are not simply explorations of grids, fonts and serifs. Instead, he tends to concentrate on the moral or political implications of being involved in a discipline that has blossomed from the pages of rare illuminated manuscripts to the visual clutter of what's euphemistically referred to as "urban sprawl".

Not surprisingly, however, Seventy-nine Short Essays bucks the trend with it's elegant and artful design. Each chapter is set in a different typeface. Indeed, the Appendix, which includes notes on the type, the designer and the date of inception for the font used in each chapter, may just be the most interesting part of the book. I found myself wondering about font choices throughout my reading and was pleasantly surprised by the fifteen pages at the end thoughtfully included for those of us actually curious about that sort of thing.As someone in the early phase of my design career I found a valuable lesson in virtually every chapter, and I suspect that Seventy-nine Short Essays on Design will become even more resonant later in my career when I'm given the opportunity to reflect back on the impact of my decisions and the philosophical implications of designing the surfaces of our modern world.

The colorful animals drawn on the walls of the Lascaux caves in southwestern France are among the oldest remnants of human existence, and the compulsion to create compelling images and visuals is clearly somehow primal to human nature. While comparing the design of our post-industrial world to the wonders of antiquity may seem absurd without the weight of history, we decorate and write to give our world meaning, and it would all be for naught without a few souls to offer careful observation. The coming digital world will likely leave fewer marks, so we should treasure them while they last.

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