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Michael Bierut
Modest Master

by Allan Haley

Robert Stern is far less matter-of-fact. He writes glowingly in his introduction to Forty Posters for the Yale School of Architecture, a book published by Mohawk Fine Papers: “It has been said of movie theater design in the 1920s and 1930s that the show began at the sidewalk, that the minute you saw the marquee, the dazzling lights, the box office and the posters, you were already in the thrall of the entertainment which would occur in the darkened room beyond. This graphic program has done much the same for our lectures, symposia and exhibitions. Our shows, as it were, begin with [Bierut’s] graphics, which are so appealing and so vivid that they not only encourage people to attend our events, but also help define them.” Stern ends his essay with this compliment: “Very often these posters have been key players in the events themselves.”

Not all of Bierut’s clients are as erudite or sophisticated. On the brink of the Great Depression, Poppy Sol started a nut business in the open-air market on Mulberry Street in Newark. Three generations later, the family’s online store was still selling nuts and providing the same personal service. However, the family wanted a brand update that would reflect their fun-loving spirit and, at times, zany attitude. “They’re a quirky company and they did not want to lose that quality,” recalls Bierut. “They have a lot of heart and soul and they didn’t want to get too slick with the new design. We showed them a couple of directions. One used Cooper Black. Actually, a special version of Cooper Black that we modified to be sort of blobby and ‘nut-like.’

Packaging and custom typeface for the rebrand.

“The other was a hand-drawn typeface,” he continues. “I drew the letters myself, and then Jeremy Mickel digitized the alphabet. The family loved it! The whole identity program revolves around this naive and fun typeface.” The lighthearted lettering is another example of Bierut's keen ability to use absolutely the right typeface for any occasion.

Bierut also knows how powerful typographic subtlety can be. As a shining example, he tells a story about the typeface Matthew Carter drew for Yale University. “John Gambell, the university printer at Yale, commissioned Carter to draw a serif typeface just for the school. It’s called ‘Yale,’ and it looks like Sabon—but it’s not. The beauty of this design solution is that now everyone has to use this particular typeface. If the University had chosen Sabon, some people might have used Garamond instead, and there are scores of different Garamond typefaces. They even use a serif typeface that just looked like Sabon—and there goes the brand. With Carter’s design, it’s binary. You are either right or you are wrong. You are either using Yale or you're using the wrong typeface.”

Bierut applied this same concept to the new signage system he and his team at Pentagram are designing for New York City’s Department of Transportation. “We are using Neue Helvetica,” says Bierut, “it’s a great typeface for signage and to me it really embodies the personality of the city. The problem with it is that there are so many ‘Helvetica-like’ designs available.”

He continues, “The city’s Department of Transportation will be working with outside vendors to produce the necessary signage. These suppliers may not have Neue Helvetica and might revert to the older version of the face—or Arial, or even Frutiger—if they think it is close enough.” Bierut’s solution was to commission a “special” design of Neue Helvetica, one with a few custom characters to distinguish it from all possible substitutions. He chose to replace the square dots over the lowercase i and j, and in all the punctuation, with round ones. Subtle, sure, but at the same time a definite differentiator from the standard Neue Helvetica design. Like the typeface Matthew Carter drew for Yale, the custom Department of Transportation typeface is binary: either the correct one is being used, or it’s not.

Proposed use of DOT Neue Helvetica for New York City.

Bierut also wanted to give the modified design a new name, so that it would stand out in the font list on a computer. He named it “DOT Neue Helvetica.” That’s “DOT” as in Department of Transportation and “DOT” as in round dot.

Type is almost always at the heart of Bierut’s design solutions. He has been honing these skills since his childhood. “I’ve loved type from the time I was a kid,” Bierut acknowledges. “Before the days of personal computing and desktop publishing, there was a real mystery to anything set in type. Messages automatically looked more authoritative. The tone of voice of a set of words would change depending on which typeface was used. And no one I knew understood what these different typefaces were called, or even if they had names at all, or where they came from, or by what process words actually became ‘typography.’ So I spent a lot of time as a kid drawing letters, copying them from magazines and books, and just trying to understand how they worked.”

Bierut has won scores of awards, and his work is represented in the permanent collections of the world’s most important art museums, among them, the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), the Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum. He has served as president of the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) from 1988 to 1990 and is president emeritus of AIGA National. He is also a prolific writer and design critic; he has appeared in films and on television as an advocate. And yet, he does not see himself as a trendsetter. 

“I'm a trend observer,” says Bierut. “My reflexes are not fast enough to follow a trend."”He does, however, see a tendency toward design simplicity. “If you went back many years, I think you’d find an almost tidal shift between complexity and simplicity. It’s usually associated with a technology that easily enables some kind of complexity. Sometimes simplicity arises as a reaction to too much complexity. There is, however, no standard for either. David Carson’s version of complexity is different from Charles Spencer Anderson’s or Joe Duffy’s or April Greiman’s. Simplicity can be classicism with centered heads and a rigorous three-column grid. It can be Paul Rand’s version of simplicity or Massimo Vignelli's or Michael Rock’s. It feels to me like we are in a simpler phase right now. I see a trend where people are trying to make design go away to some degree.”

While Bierut believes that there are no unrelenting definitions or guidelines for graphic communicators, he offers designers his maxim: “Not everything is design. But design is about everything. Do yourself a favor: be ready for anything.” CA 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.