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You've been at Pentagram since 1990. What is unique about the firm that has kept you there? I am too lonely and insecure to work on my own. I love having people around, especially when the people are as smart, funny and talented as my partners. Because the makeup of Pentagram is constantly changing, it’s an exciting place to be. It’s a completely different place now than when I joined as a partner 24 years ago. At the same time, being there has changed me, as well.

How do you manage your relationships with your large corporate clients and convince them to champion your designs? It took me a while to understand that doing the design work was only one step in a process, and that the crucial step was persuading clients to accept our solution. I used to think the work was self-evident. I’ve since learned that almost everyone who goes through the design process with you has to take a leap of faith. You have to earn people’s trust, and the best way to do that is to listen to them. This sounds simple, but is actually quite hard for designers, because we tend to be distracted by the voices in our own heads telling us what the design should look like and how great the design looks. But our clients can’t hear that voice. If they could, they probably wouldn’t understand its heavy design accent. This is true for large corporate clients and small individual clients. The antidote is simple: just stop listening to yourself talk, and start listening to others.

What drew you to write about design? When I agreed to join Bill Drenttel, Jessica Helfand and Rick Poynor in starting Design Observer over ten years ago, it was, as much as anything else, a way to force myself to write about design.

I write about design for three reasons. First, I love reading about design. Often I just write something that I think would be fun to read. Second, I think that design is something that should be interesting and engaging to a broad audience. Figuring out ways to make design as interesting to our readers as it is to us is fun. Finally, writing about design helps me think more clearly about what I design, how I design and why. It has made me a better designer, and it’s certainly helped me appreciate writers more.

How do you juggle your many projects with teaching at Yale? I am one of those people who gets more done when he has more to do. I respond well to pressure, and I have a short attention span. I much prefer juggling something than simply letting it sit in my lap while I pet it like a cat. I don’t think this is a good way to be, but it seems to be the way I am.

What excites you most about the future of design? I am excited by the fact that technology has put the making of design in so many more hands, and that there are so many talented people emerging who are using new tools in new—and old—ways.

What makes good design good? Good design connects with its audience, provokes curiosity and makes the world a better place, even ever so slightly.

Would you say that you have an identifiable design style? I think most of my work, at least my best work, is deceptively simple. I love color and complexity, but even after 35 years, I feel insecure every time I move beyond black and white.

Since you’ve been at Pentagram, which projects have you taken the most pride in? I like things that are out on the street, like the sign at the New York Times building, or our WalkNYC wayfinding program and parking signs for the Department of Transportation, or the shopping bags for Saks Fifth Avenue. It is very satisfying to think that people are trying to decide if it’s legal to park somewhere in Brooklyn because of something we designed. It is also scary.

What advice would you give to an aspiring designer? To be optimistic, curious and never stop learning.

What would you tell a designer looking to get hired by Pentagram? All of the above, and be lucky on top of that.
Michael Bierut graduated from the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning, and worked for ten years at Vignelli Associates, ultimately as vice president for graphic design. In 1990, he joined Pentagram as a partner in the firm’s New York office, where he leads a team that designs everything from books and posters to corporate identities and environmental graphics. He is a senior critic at the Yale School of Art and a co-founder of the online publication designobserver.com. A collection of his writings, 79 Short Essays on Design, was published in 2007, and a monograph on his work will debut next year.
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