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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.”

Top to bottom: “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.”

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 Nuts.com 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

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. 


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