Michael Bierut: Maverick Brander
When companies need help refining or defining their identity, they call Michael Bierut.
Michael Bierut is an award-winning graphic designer and author. A lecturer at Yale University and former president of the American Institute of Graphic Arts, he designed the ubiquitous “H” logo for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Born in Cleveland, he studied graphic design at the University of Cincinnati and moved to New York to work for Massimo Vignelli, famed designer of the NYC subway map. After ten years at Vignelli Associates, he became a partner at Pentagram design firm. Known for his accessible, witty style, his clients have included Benetton, Disney, Harley-Davidson, Mastercard, Motorola, the New York Jets, The New York Times, United Airlines, and Verizon. His work is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Library of Congress, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, among other institutions.
Michael Bierut is responsible for bringing some of the most recognizable brand identities around into the 21st century. As a young boy growing up in suburban Cleveland in the 1960s, Bierut came to the concept of creativity quietly. It started with Jon Gnagy’s TV show, which taught him not only how to draw, but also, how to see the world.
Bierut: Every episode, just like Bob Ross, would start with a blank canvas, and then he would patiently take you through, “We’re gonna add some of this, a little of this here, just like that there”, and to watch it happen was just sort of unearthly in a way that was unlike anything around me. And then, of course, the trick is that you realize that everything around you was created through a similar process. Every car on the road, every house on the street, every sign on every street pole, cover of every magazine in the drugstore, someone sat with a blank something and someone was the first one to say I think I’m gonna make an octagon and make it red, and it’s gotta say S-T-O-P on it, gimme one of them.
In the five decades since, Beirut has become one of the most well-regarded graphic designers around, winning hundreds of awards, and having his work added to the permanent collections of prestigious art institutions, among them, the Museum of Modern Art and the Library of Congress. For a long time, Bierut believed that it was wrong that graphic designers didn’t enjoy the same kind of public acclaim accorded to other creatives. He says that’s changed in recent years, thanks to a marked increase and awareness of, and interest in design among the general public. But, becoming the focus of countless blogs, comments, and social media posts has been a two-edged sword.
Bierut: I started out thinking, wow, it’d be great if everyone knew what I did and it would be great if people talked about new logos the way they talk about new restaurants or the way they talk about new movies. And so, now they do, sort of, to a degree that’s actually kind of distressing, but, I forgot that second part where if people start talking about things, they can say whatever they want. I think I secretly wanted them just to simply be impressed I had done these things and praise me for my skill, but instead they have their own reactions.
Their own sometimes harsh reactions. Perhaps none more so than the deluge of vitriol heaped on Bierut’s intentionally simple logo for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential bid. Happily, though, Bierut has, over time, developed quite a thick skin. He says he’s learned not how to resist criticism, but how to embrace it.
Bierut: If I had one thing that I did wrong at the beginning, it was the minute someone started objecting to something I designed, I started mounting a masterful defense of it from every possible angle. Now, if someone doesn’t like my design, I just draw it out of them in every loving detail. What else don’t you like about it? How much do you hate it? What do you hate more, the color or the shape? I mean, I really try, partly because I think people are frightened they’re not gonna be listened to, and you learn things by listening to them, you really do, you really do.
AJC: How old were you when you knew you had developed that simpatico? ‘Cause that sounds like a great formula for any relationship. That you can be with somebody and go, oh, I did that? Tell me everything I need to know about what was wrong with that.
Beirut: This is after I was grown up and working as a designer a few years, but still defending my work all the time, really trying to sell it. And my brother, who’s a civil engineer, asked me to do a logo for his civil engineering company. So, I sent him some drawings, and he didn’t like the first few, and I just thought that was funny, I was like, what don’t you like about them? And he told me, then I said oh, I get it, okay so, what do you want? You want something more like this? And then I tried some other things. There was just something so open and pleasant about that relationship that I remember I literally thought, shoot, if I could do that every time I’d really, that’d be so much fun to work for people, if I could give everyone just plain old unvarnished advice.
AJC: It removes so much anxiety out of your work.
Bierut: Absolutely, I mean the worst outcome is someone just nodding and saying, well, you’ve given us a lot to think about, and then they go away and you have no idea what happened, what moaning happens after the door closes behind you, and then you get some memo with a thousand bullet points on it, where it’s just picked at from every direction. I mean, just sort of someone looking you in the eye and say I love it or I hate it is really bracing, but in both those cases, what’s great is that they’re participating in the moment and actually to a certain degree, permitting themselves to enjoy the same creative process that I’ve been enjoying.
Michael Beirut continues to strive to maintain a delicate balance in his practice of design. Harmony between the joy of creation, dedication to craft, and serving the ideals and visions of those his work represents.