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Michael Bierut Shows Us How to Design the Perfect City

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Seminal graphic designer and Pentagram partner Michael Bierut doesn't believe in design as an esoteric pursuit. Sure, he's designed scores of posters for the Yale Graduate School of Architecture, and he can talk about Umberto Eco as well as legible street signs, but consider some of the lessons present in his 2015 book How To. How to make a museum mad, how to squash a vote, how to travel through time, how to investigate a murder (!). The subtext running through all of these somewhat tongue-in-cheek chapters is that almost anything can be accomplished through good design. A lofty promise in anyone else's words, perhaps, but one that famously-down-to-earth Bierut fleshed out in earnest on the occasion of his own design retrospective this fall, at SVA's Chelsea Gallery.

Opening the show was a graphic reminder aimed at getting distracted New Yorkers to pay attention to their surroundings—part of a campaign the city's DOT commissioned from Pentagram. (Appropriate.) Here we're broken down Bierut's bon mots with chapter headings from his book.

A photo posted by kelseykeith (@kelseykeith) on

How to avoid the obvious
"We customized version of Helvetica for New York City's Department of Transportation. If you guys know or care, the only difference between this Helvetica and regular Helvetica is that all the dots, the dots over the i's [Ed. note: and under the exclamation point], the tittles as they're called, are all circles, all round. The comma, the semi-colons, the colons, and the umlauts are the [square] German version."

How to transcend style
"I wanted it to be square. I thought what if, instead of trying to come up with some subversive overlay on the whole idea of writing, what if I just wrote the book first and figured out some way to subvert it afterward. So that's what I did, except I left off the subversive part: Basically what you see is what you get. I tried to give it a nice bland title like "How To" and each of the chapters just describes a problem and how I took it on. It's inspired by Umberto Eco: only in Italy could a professor of semiotics conduct an advice column in the newspaper."

How to survive on an island
"I grew up in Ohio—and not like a worldly part of Ohio, like Shaker Heights or Gates Mills—but a south suburb of Cleveland where few people got out alive. I took a field trip to New York City in 1974, and the only souvenir I brought back was the Massimo Vignelli subway map. My high school friends had pictures of rock stars and Farrah Fawcett, and I had this subway map to a city that I'd been to once. It just had this talismanic quality. When I moved here, through a series of amazing coincidences my first job was working for Vignelli, and I worked for him for ten years. He was another one who settled in New York and made it his own, and partly based on his example I followed suit."

How to disorient an architect
"The challenge with the New York Times building was all the glass: The Times Square signage district requires that we have large applied signs to keep the character of Times Square. The Times being who they are, we had to stay a little bit off the standard, so the sign is not animated or flashy, but still it had to be applied onto the building. There are something like 800 little pieces that, all put together, make the logo. I think on the obituary floor, you [can see the sign up close] from the other direction."

How to make a mark
"I have this habit of keeping notebooks; I have a hundred plus of them. They're all in the exhibition along with curiosities from my very early days that I'm told is entertaining. Some juvenilia, I guess."

How to convince people

"Logos and corporate identity is a field that I used to think was the most obscure, obtuse, and esoteric thing in the world. Now it's become something that normal people find fascinating. I used to yearn for normal people to find what I did fascinating! And now I'm not sure that I welcome the attention to the degree that I get it."

How to avoid doomsday
"We did the typographic standards for the parking signs in New York. Making them all one size, all flush left, just two colors, all sort of under control. If you find an old parking sign, they're centered and they have as many type sizes as a Victorian playbill. And so we just tried to get them all rationalized. I'm told that none of these signs have over 140 characters on them, which has somehow been established by Twitter as the amount that human beings now are capable of kind of taking in in one gulp!"

How to design two dozen logos at once
"I've kind of lost count, but I think I've done upwards of 90 posters [for the Yale School of Architecture]. [Dean] Bob Stern had just come from Columbia, which uses the same typeface over and over; it's always in Univers. So if you saw it pinned up in some bathroom, you know it was Columbia immediately. I thought, I'm not going to pick another typeface, instead I'm going to pick all the other typefaces. So we never used a typeface twice--it changes every time. The posters are always the same size, they're always black and white.

The last time I saw Massimo before he died, he actually mentioned the posters, and said, 'You know, you did those posters, and I think they are okay.' Sort of a back-handed compliment, you know?"

How to shut up and listen
"A lot of graphic design is pure luck: You can't negotiate shapes of letters, and you can't negotiate the way letters spell words. Those are just the things you're given. [For the Architectural League's Light Years poster], the L has to be super-imposed on the Y and the E has to be super-imposed on the I, right? It wouldn't work if two of the letters were the same; it wouldn't work if those two super-imposing letters were an L and an E. And right in the middle to have the round G and the triangular A... It's all very lucky."

How to travel through time
"There used to be an ecosystem of people that enabled graphic design. Typesetters and pre-press people... I remember in the '80s there were some guys I talked to as much as my wife. Earl from Type and Set! He'd call me up and say, 'All the other subtexts are in italic, but you didn't mark the one on page 42. Do you want that one italic too?' Nowadays you just have to hope that whoever is sitting in your studio doing that task will have a flash of insight [and catch the error]. Those days are gone, but it's better now anyway; I was no fan of all the cutting and pasting.

There's something exhilarating about working fast when you feel like you're in a groove and what you're doing is good. But there was a time when it just took longer, and the time it took was actually kind of a luxury."

Michael Bierut bio
The Masters Series at SVA Chelsea Gallery: Michael Bierut