Michael Bierut: ‘Design is a Sacred Calling’

By Robert Half on December 8, 2015 at 4:00pm

Page through the new book from Michael Bierut and you’ll quickly see why he’s a graphic design legend. Bierut chatted with us about his remarkable career and offered tips on how to thrive in the competitive world of design.  

In addition to being one of the world’s most respected graphic designers, Michael Bierut is also pretty good at titling books. His recently released monograph How to Use Graphic Design to Sell Things, Explain Things, Make Things Look Better, Make People Laugh, Make People Cry, and (Every Once in a While) Change the World (Harper Design) is a compelling collection of works from his storied 35-year career in graphic design.

Few people have accomplished more in the creative industry, and even fewer have advocated so effectively for graphic design and design thinking. Bierut, a partner at Pentagram in New York for 25 years, got his start working for the famed Massimo and Lella Vignelli at Vignelli Associates. He’s a past president of AIGA, an AIGA medalist, and a cofounder of the influential Design Observer blog. His work appears in permanent collections of some of the world’s top museums and he has received hundreds of design awards.

Bierut spoke to us about the skills, abilities, habits and traits that graphic designers need to succeed.

TCG: What skills do you believe are most pivotal to graphic designers today? 

Michael Bierut: I’ll just assume you know all the necessary software programs. The most important trait is curiosity. Can you get interested in the subject matter behind what you’re designing? Can that interest sustain you over the course of the project? Most importantly, can you tap into your enthusiasm as you search for design solutions?

When it comes to working with clients, how would you advise someone starting out in the design field?

Be patient. Remember that normal people didn’t go to design school. Avoid jargon. And never forget that your clients know way more about their business than you ever will. You learn more by listening than by talking. If you wait long enough, they’ll tell you everything you need to know.

You note that knowing how to read is more important to a graphic designer than knowing how to draw. What do you mean by this? 

Graphic design is about communication, and words — not always, but frequently — are the main ingredients we have to work with. There are many shortcuts now about how to draw. There are not many about how to read. Reading — deep, attentive, profound reading — is the starting point of so many great design projects. And don’t be surprised when the quality of the prose doesn’t meet your expectations. Speak up, loudly.

Your book title includes both the words laugh and cry. How can designers truly pull emotion out of people with their work?

Getting an emotional response out of an audience depends on one thing: How well you understand that audience. Anodyne messages, generated by default processes, for one-size-fits-all situations almost never connect with anyone. Know your audience, and tailor your work to connect with that audience as precisely as humanly possible.

Your first job out of design school was at Vignelli Associates. You stayed there for 10 years. What was the most important lesson you learned while working with Massimo and Lella Vignelli? 

That design is a sacred calling, worth taking seriously, and worth devoting your life to.

What is the biggest design trend you’ve seen come and go (and maybe come back again) in your 35 years as a designer? And is it something you’d admit to doing yourself? 

They all come and go! Gradations. Drop shadows. Souvenir Bold. There is no such thing as a “bad” design style. There are only trends and passing fashions. And at one time or another, I’ve done them all. 

What are your recommendations for staying creatively sharp? 

My best advice is to surround yourself with bright, energetic, curious people — of all ages.

Photo credit for image of Michael Bierut: Jake Chessum

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