From the Designer’s Desk: Michael Bierut

Today’s edition of From the Designer’s Desk features insight and humor from Michael Bierut, a partner at design firm Pentagram whose numerous, genius designs we encounter daily — whose inimitable designs make the physical world more interesting and beautiful every day.

  1. Why did you pursue design, rather than, say, painting or architecture or sculpture?

Rightly or wrongly, at a very young age I perceived fine art — painting and sculpture — as being lonely and thankless experiences, and architecture as requiring too much patience (and math). Graphic design, on the other hand, seemed easy and fun and allowed me to hang out with the cool kids. Plus I always loved reading and writing, and graphic design is intimately connected to those activities.

  1. Have you ever completed a project and only after the book was printed did the perfect (or, at least, a better) design solution occur to you?

Sometimes. The worst is when I’ve been hired to solve a problem, say the design of a book cover, and been unable to bring it to completion. Seeing the final product, usually at the hands of another designer, is like seeing the answer to a crossword puzzle you just gave up on — so blindingly obvious you can’t believe you missed it.

  1. Is your work on a book project usually more of a slow, progressive effort, or is it moved forward by unpredictable moments of inspiration?

Designing a book involves some big decisions at the very beginning that seem to go very quickly: the typefaces, the format, the structural grid that defines the page layouts. This is followed by a slow, deliberative process of ever-increasing subtlety, refining detail after detail. What is certain is that these small decisions are just as important as the big ones. The combination of big and small gestures is what makes book design so special.

  1. Do you feel that a book’s design can, or even should, play an assertive role in how a reader experiences the book, or do you feel the best book design is a kind of behind-the-scenes art – where the reader isn’t even always aware of the influence of the design?

Every book design plays a role in shaping how a reader experiences a book, even when the designer is desperately trying not to be noticed. All of us decode graphic messages all day long. In fact, you’re doing that as you read these words. Every detail contributes to the act of reading: the typeface, the paper, the binding, the size, the weight, the layout. The words, in a way, are just the script of the play. The details of book design give those words a voice.

  1. What is your favorite font?

I change my mind about this every day. Today I might say it’s a typeface we just redrew and digitized called Schmalfette Grotesk. It is very bold and very condensed, and particularly popular in Europe in the 60s. It is one of those few typefaces — Helvetica is another one — that practically tell you how to design with them.

  1. Do you design books in other genres and categories than art and architecture? If so, what are some primary differences between designing, say, a novel versus a large, glossy book on architecture?

Most large format books on subjects like art and architecture — what the world calls “coffee table books” — reward looking as well as reading, with multiple ways to engage the subject. You can just look at the pictures, you can look at the pictures and read the captions, you can start at the end and work your way to the middle, you can just read the essays and ignore the text. With a conventional novel, you basically have one option: start at the beginning and read to the end. Naturally, you design it differently. A picture book is like a ten-speed bicycle; a novel is like a comfortable easy chair.

  1. How can an author make a book designer’s job easier?

The obvious things that help are being organized, sticking to schedules, having complete information to work from, stuff like that. The more subtle thing, however, comes before: to have a real point of view about your subject matter, to be passionate about it, and to make the designer your conspirator in making that passion contagious. This is what makes a book truly great to design.

  1. Who are your favorite book designers?

From the old days, Alexey Brodovitch, Bradbury Thompson, and my old boss Massimo Vignelli. The book designers I admire most today are Irma Boom, Lorraine Wild, Julia Hasting, and my partner Abbott Miller. My list could go on forever.

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