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Michael Bierut
Modest Master

by Allan Haley

Not everyone is equally impressed by Michael Bierut’s typographic expertise. He likes to tell the story of explaining to his daughter how he intended to handle a complicated new design project. After his detailed description, she quipped, “Oh, you mean you’re going to handle it like the Saks logo? Just cut things up and shuffle them around?”

It’s true, Bierut did cut up an old Saks Fifth Avenue logo and shuffle the pieces to make the new one—but it took virtuosity to create a design that is striking, memorable and immediately identifiable. The logo being replaced was a word mark set in a nondescript sans serif typeface. When Bierut looked back at other Saks logos used over the years, however, he saw that many were variations on the same theme: script handwriting. Of these, one stood out, a logo drawn by Tom Carnese in 1973.

But simply reprising a 30-year-old logo wouldn’t be enough. While Saks was proud to emphasize its heritage, it was more interested in conveying that it was looking to the future with a consistent dedication to quality.

The design solution was typical Bierut brilliance. He took the cursive logo, redrew it with the help of typeface designer Joe Finocchiaro and placed it in a black square. Bierut then subdivided that square into a grid of 64 smaller squares, each containing a piece of the logo. The 64 tiles could then be shuffled and rotated to form an almost infinite number of logo variations—each different, yet each enforcing the brand. “Shuffling,” yes, but inspired shuffling.

Identity for Saks Fifth Avenue.

OK, so his daughter is among a tiny minority who know Michael Bierut and does not stand in awe of his design skills. But just about everybody agrees that his work has the grace and force of a Waikiki wave.

Bierut became the designer he is, partly because of his love of reading. “I like the way words look,” he says. “The right words are really important. Written words don’t exist beyond their visual representation and somebody has to pick the typeface that words are set in. There are no default typefaces—the choice always means something. Really good typography is design that aids the reading process, whether a single word or a thousand-page book. Good typography is about developing a voice.”

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1957, Bierut’s love of fine art, music, drawing and reading led him—as a teen—to two books on graphic design: the Graphic Design Manual by Armin Hofmann and Milton Glaser: Graphic Design. He needed little more to affirm that graphic design was to be an important part of his life. Bierut’s early passion for design led to study at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning and then to an internship at Boston public television station WGBH.

In 1980, Bierut landed a job at Vignelli Associates, one of the most important design firms in the world, working for Massimo and Lella Vignelli in New York City. Collaborating with the legendary duo, eventually as vice president of design, sharpened Bierut’s skills and gave him a perspective that would provide the hallmark that characterizes his work. He strives to create designs that are not only easy to read but that people want to read.

The act of making things digestible is where Bierut excels. It is this democratization of design that he has championed as a partner at Pentagram, where he’s been since 1990. Bierut brings this visual dexterity to a list of clients ranging from sophisticated, fashionable Benetton to a small quirky snack food company in New Jersey. Others include the likes of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, Alfred A. Knopf, the Walt Disney Company, Mohawk Fine Papers, MillerCoors, the Toy Industry Association, Princeton University, Yale School of Architecture, New York University, the New York Department of Transportation, the Fashion Institute of Technology, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Library of Congress, the Museum of Sex and the New York Jets.

One of Bierut’s most enduring clients is the Yale School of Architecture. He has closely collaborated with Robert A.M. Stern, dean of the school, to produce a series of posters that are deep, rich and wide in their range of design. “We agreed upon a set of self-imposed restrictions to contrast with what I thought was the best example in this particular field: Willi Kunz’s posters for Columbia University’s School of Architecture.” Bierut elaborates. “Kunz had produced a very long-running, accomplished series of posters for Columbia, done with just one typeface: Univers, in only a couple of weights. He had designed these posters for years and years, and even if you saw one from far away, you would know that this was a Columbia poster. So when the Yale opportunity came along I first thought, ‘Well, I could just use a different typeface.’ Robert Stern, the new dean at Yale, was from Columbia, so he would be familiar with Kunz’s work.”

Upon meeting Stern, however, Bierut quickly revised his concept. “When Stern hired me,” Bierut recalls, “he simply said, ‘I want to surprise people.’ When I heard this, I immediately changed my idea from using just one typeface to the idea of ‘one and you’re out.’ I would only use a typeface once. 

“We use lots of different display faces on the various posters,” says Bierut. “Sometimes lots of faces on a single poster. At the very start of the program, we decided that the main thing we wanted to signal to Yale’s audience was that the architecture program was eclectic and unpredictable. So it was natural for the posters to be constantly changing. There is one constant, however: the supporting typeface is almost always Franklin Gothic Light. It’s no fun to change everything every time.

“I like trying new typefaces,” Bierut digresses. “Thirty-eight years ago, I married the first girl I ever kissed, and I’ve been in the same job for 21 years. Trying new typefaces is one of the few sources of true excitement in my life.”

Left to right: “Lectures, Exhibitions and Symposia Spring 2004” poster, “Open House Fall 2000” poster and “Lectures, Exhibitions and Symposia Spring 2005” poster, all for the Yale School of Architecture.

The unifying parameters Bierut set for the poster designs were: a standard size (22 × 34 inches, folding to 8.5 × 11 inches for mailing); a single color of ink (black, printed on white paper); a purely typographic treatment (no images); and each would be distinctively different. The collection of now over 65 posters is a typographic tour de force. Bierut, however, describes them as “simple” typographic solutions. “Each symposium is a poster. The ‘Open House’ posters are the simplest; the ‘Lecture’ posters are basically a quarterly calendar for the spring and fall; and we create a two-day calendar for most of the ‘Symposiums.’ The posters are not meant to endure.” Haley
Allan Haley ( is a storyteller and a consultant with expertise in fonts, font technology, type and typographic communication. He held the position of director of words and letters at Monotype for fifteen years and has six books and hundreds of articles to his credit. He is a past president of the Type Directors Club and was executive vice president of International Typeface Corporation.