• Conversation with Michael Bierut – Part 3 (of 3!)

    And here we end my conversation with Michael Bierut. It has been very informative, gratifying to see it picked up throughout the blogosphere. Michael will be speaking on Day 2 of our User Experience Week, and it’s worth noting, single-day registration is possible. Michael gave me a teaser of what he plans to present:

    “I’ll be talking about a single project, a pro-bono job I got into as a favor which ended up overwhelming me in every possible way, both good and bad.

    Along the way, I made almost every possible mistake, including misinterpreting the brief, ignoring the client, failing to identify the end-user, attempting to control what I couldn’t control, and failing to influence what I could.

    It is to this day my favorite project.”

    And now, the completion of our conversation.

    Peter Merholz: From 1998-2001 you were president of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (now known as “AIGA, the professional association for design”). As such, you had broad exposure to what was being done in graphic design. What did that role help you realize about the field and practice of design that you could not have found out any other way? What insight or wisdom did it provide that can aid others in their day-to-day practice of design?

    Michael Bierut: I’ve been involved with AIGA for a long time. I did a mix tape for the very first event of the New York chapter back in the early 80s. I met my future partners at Pentagram — Paula Scher, Woody Pirtle, Colin Forbes — through the AIGA. I met Bill Drenttel and Jessica Helfand through the AIGA, and we announced the founding of our blog, Design Observer, at an AIGA conference. I’ve been inspired by countless other people I could have only known through AIGA. I always thought that AIGA was fantastic at this aspect of the profession.

    On the other hand, when I was President of the organization, I always had the sense that people felt vaguely guilty about this social aspect of AIGA. I think the attitude tended to be “I don’t need help making friends.” Instead, what our members always wanted was something else: they wanted AIGA to increase the respect that design gets from the general public, especially from the business community. Now, this is really a challenge. The fantasy was that there could be a kind of invisible gas that could be discharged into the air of every boardroom in America, and all those clients out there would just somehow become mysteriously receptive to suggestions from designers, more inclined to obey us, and of course pay us more. It’s a nice dream, but it’s only a dream. There is no such invisible gas.

    The only way design gets more respect is when an individual designer creates a great design for a single client. It’s a war that’s fought one little battle at a time, and with each victory, things get — in some ways at least — a little bit better. The best thing AIGA has done for me, then, is exposed me to people and ideas who have made me a better designer, and a more effective fighter for design.

    PM: You mentioned Design Observer and being exposed to people and ideas. You’ve been writing for Design Observer for almost 3 years now. How has blogging effected the way you work? What effect has it had on how you approach design?

    MB: I’ve always liked writing, but I didn’t take it seriously until we started Design Observer. There are many things I like about blogging. Selfishly, it gives me a way to think through issues with the discipline that happens when you put things in writing. To the extent that people read the pieces, particularly from outside the profession, I hope it gives them a little more insight into what the world of design is all about. If you’re reading a long comment thread, the really interesting contributions can seem few and far between.

    It’s the offline contacts and conversations that have been more rewarding for me. A few times I’ve walked into a meeting and I’ll be surprised by someone who brings up something from the blog. More often than not, this person isn’t even a designer. To me, this means that design is becoming something that normal people are getting more and more curious about.

    Has writing a blog effected the way I work? At first I was going to say no, but when I think about it, I realize that it’s helped me get more confident that the issues that we designers deal with are relevant in the outside world. This in turn has helped me think less as a designer faithfully sticking to the task I’ve been assigned, to a person who’s willing and eager to broaden the context for the work. Like I’ve said before, this is the only way I know to make my work better.

    PM: Michael, I want to thank you for the time you’ve taken in speaking (well, writing) with me on these various subjects of design, strategy, politics, and practice. I’ve seen your thoughtful comments make their way all around the blogosphere, and I’m thankful to have had a small hand in that!

    Your statement about evolving into a “person who’s willing and eager to broaden the context for the work,” resonates very strongly with what we’re trying to achieve with our User Experience Week event. In prior years, we focused on issues of web design; whereas this year, alongside our web design material, are discussions of product strategy and design, design of services, cross-cultural research, mobile devices, museum design, comics, and information visualization.

    So, I guess what I’d like you to expand a bit on “the issues that we designers deal with [that] are relevant in the outside world.” Is it that these designers’ issues have actually always been relevant, and the outside world only now realizes it? Or is it that designers are only now addressing these issues relevant in the outside world. Whichever, what has lead to this change? Any examples from your work you could share?

    MB: Back in 1975, I was relatively precocious. I knew what graphic design was (most 17-year-olds didn’t), and I entered a university program in graphic design that started teaching graphic design studio classes in its freshman year (many such courses didn’t). I was really into graphic design so I couldn’t have been happier.

    It took me a while to discover that graphic design was a fairly new profession, and that many of the designers who did work that I admired had received a more general education than I was getting. This included not just early heroes of mine like Paul Rand, but mentors I’d meet later like Massimo Vignelli and Tibor Kalman. I got a great education in the skills a designer needs. But I slowly learned that mastering the skills of design was only one element to being successful and effective as a designer.

    To this day, I’m not even sure it’s the most important skill. I don’t think I’m a great natural designer compared to most of my partners. I probably wasn’t even the best designer in my class at school. But what I discovered was that design — and this is particularly true with graphic design — is a way to engage with real content, real experience. The key to the whole thing is your ability to learn about that stuff — what I called the “outside world” stuff — and if you can do that, your work will resonate in a way that it can’t if your goal is simply resolving the formal “design” issues.

    Making room for the real world is even harder today than it was 30 years ago. The amount of technical skills a young designer needs is vast, and the degree of professional specialization is staggering. All of this helps to foster an atmosphere that seems to reward tunnel vision. But in the end, the designers who are doing the most exciting work — and in some cases it coincidentally happens to be the most beautiful work — are the ones who don’t hesitate to claim the whole world as their subject matter.

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