Michael Bierut: Personal Book Project-Case Study
I faced the same challenge, shortly after Abbott finished his book, I sort of, in fact comically, we sit right next to each other at Pentagram, he literally sits as close to me as Jessica is sitting, to me now. And, I sort of refused to look inside his book till my book was designed, I was like so scared to look at it, that I thought it would just like mess me up real bad, if I saw the inside of his book. Everyone said it was real good though, and that was like intimidating and disturbing. So, when I undertook the design of my book, it began when a publisher, with whom I've been talking about other projects for a long time, just started saying, you know, "Have you ever thought about doing a book on your own work?" And, for some reason I thought, that's something that old people do. And then I sort of noticed that I was old, and thought, yeah, sure I'll design a book of my own work. And so, it was actually a really difficult thing to do, and difficult on a lot of different levels. I thi...
nk I realized, for the first time, how much I rely on cues from other people, to kind of help guide my decisions. I felt just completely helpless. I felt like I was trying to, you know, sing in harmony with my own voice, in a way, I'm used to singing in duets and choirs, and suddenly, I'm just kind of standing in the middle of nowhere, with no score, just trying to make up something right out of my head. It was difficult, and examples of other such things that my peers had done, were more frightening and discouraging to me, than inspiring, hence, my reluctance to look at Abbott's book. But what finally was the breakthrough for me, was I started actually imagining who my reader was. And I remembered how I reacted, when I was just leaving high school and entering college, to study design, and my parents gave me a copy of a book that was brand new, newly published, called "Graphic Design," by Milton Glaser. So, some of you may know that book, it's the one that has the Bob Dylan image on the front cover. It's an amazing book, and I went back and looked at it for the first time in years, and I was struck at how it was both extremely generous, he really showed lots of work, and he was generous in the way he described that work. He didn't make it sound mystifying, he talked about it in this very straightforward way. The work was beyond reproach, but his explanations and comments about the work, in the captions, were actually really illuminating, and positioned that work, as part of everyday life to a certain degree. You didn't get the impression he was writing it for museum directors or other famous designers. You got the impression he was writing it for a 19 year old kid in Ohio, who was becoming interested in design. So, I thought, okay, I'm just going to try to do it the same way that Milton Glaser did. And so I sort of pictured, what would a 19 year old design student, what would he or she like to give his or her parents, to explain what it was they were getting into. And so that sort of ended up being how I decided to kind of organize the book. There's another spread I think?
(Jessica) There is.
So, what I ended up doing was, I did nearly everything that Jessica and I have described to you along the way. I came up with the structure, which was about three dozen chapters, each one of which is just a self-contained history. I tried to choose them, so they were describing different aspects of design practice, so they weren't necessarily, "then I did this, then I did that," each one of them has a different sort of point, I think, about what it's like to have the same client, for nearly over 30 years, as I've had one of my clients. What it's like to have to persuade a lot of skeptical people to do a certain kind of, or how to persuade a lot of people to do something they might not fully understand, or believe in. How to kind of take a complicated idea and make it simple. And the title of the book ends up being, "How to," because I sort of like was trying to go under the hood a little bit, and explain how design works, and how designers could actually use those tools to do their own things. I came up with a 12 column grid, that would permit me to do those really thin, little columns that I said before I liked so much, there and there, just inspired by that Muller-Brockman book. I laid out every page, I wrote every word, and the hardest part of it was the very beginning, when I was still experimenting with what the tone of voice would be, but when I sort of just started trying to be as straight forward as possible, not pretentious, not mystifying, not overly complicated, but just explain sort of these things, how they happen and what I was thinking when I did them, it sort of started becoming a little bit easier. And it was very satisfying to sort of see it all done.
So, Michael, I have a million questions about this book. It is a luscious thing to behold, this tome, your monograph, which came out last year. I have many questions, but I wanted to ask you, when did you come up with the idea for the title?
I sort of wanted, I like books that have very long titles. There is something about a book, it's called "How to," but then has a very long sub-head, as you can hear, you know, "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. And what I wanted to do was kind of make it, like put a headline on the story, to kind of completely explain the contents, actually. My conviction that graphic design in fact can do a lot of different things, it isn't just about one thing, it's about all sorts of things. And the, it's not really a self-help book, but every chapter, sort of is framed as a how to do this thing.
Has a how to, right.
How to do that, and sometimes they're very specific and esoteric, sometimes they're a little bit elliptical and off-hand.
But it's such brilliant editorial conceit, and so I guess the question is, every book I write, I joke but it's not really a joke, I think I spend as much time coming up with the table of contents, as I do writing the book. But that is such a huge thing, for anybody who authors anything, is to understand what the organizational idea is, so did that come first, or did you start laying out the work and that came later?
Oh, no, no, no the organization came first, and I think in fact whenever I design any book, and I think this is true for a lot of designers, I expect, is that your given this mass of material, and you're faced with a challenge. How do I organize it, and how do I organize it in a way that will kind of be intelligible to readers, and in this case, I knew there would be, potentially a lot of material, and I wanted people to find it engaging and interesting as they went through it, but at the same time I wanted to have it be something that kind of gave me a framework for executing it too.
Right, it's that framework that I'm talking about. And so, in your case, I think it's an idea, but it's also a visual idea, so you're repeating the pattern of the how to, it's very action oriented, it's engagement oriented, you start with these great notebooks, I love this, of course everybody who knows you, Michael, knows that you carry this notebook everywhere, you did this great thing with the binding of the book, and then you know you have this wonderful tower of books, and then you go in and you actually see the drawings. And, I mean, all designers have notebooks, and I think the fact that your construction of this book begins with this kind of, you know, and some of these pages are just, you know I'm taking the seven o'clock shuttle.
Phone numbers, phone numbers and stuff like that.
(Jessica) Phone numbers, for a good time call Michael. Grids, which is my next question, the grid for the book, did that just evolve, or was that something that you jettisoned millions of ideas before cementing one that stuck.
No, we worked out the grid, really carefully, and in fact, you know, the book is, after 35 years of work, I had an invitation to do a monograph that showed work over the course of those 35 years. And so there's all sorts of different editing things you have to do, you also have to sort of overcome, at least in my case, I had to overcome this sense of, I had never done anything like this before, and I found it vaguely sort of show-offy and sort of repellent, and it kind of gave me the creeps a little bit, to sort of just kind of have page after page of my own work, but on the other hand it was a very familiar experience, and I think it would be to almost any designer, because we're always being asked to sort of like show, you know, "Can I see what your work looks like?" If anyone's getting hired, for a commercial project, their potential client will say, "Can you send me some samples of your work?" So part of it is trying to understand how to take a series of projects, and make them intelligible, both in terms of words and pictures, so that a, so that someone unfamiliar with them, can understand what happens.
Right, so now you're not talking about the grid, although I'm still stuck on the grid, because I love these narrow columns of type.
So then, I think we worked out this fairly fine 12 column grid, for every page, that let us sort of have some very small images, some very big ones, some full bleed ones.
Show things in sequence, show things big, so what you were talking about, when I came back to the question on the grid, was something else, which was selecting the images, right? So a lot of editing, a lot of things, obviously, I mean, 30 years of work, a lot is not in here, but every project is represented, all the seminal projects are represented.
Yes, I mean I chose projects that I thought were interesting, I ended up, when I did it, I ended up fixing it so that I picked projects, that were not just nice looking, but as I was writing, I wrote the whole thing myself too.
Yes, I know that.
My publisher said, "Do you want to have someone work with you on the writing?" And I sort of said, "No, I'll just do this myself." but what I noticed was, with each project being it's own chapter, this danger started looming, that each of the chapters, would sort of have the same rhythm and the same cadence.
(Jessica) But it doesn't.
I was asked to do this, and then I add a lot of things, and ta-da, it came out really good, next. And instead, each one, I ended up trying to deliberately choose projects so that they illustrated different aspects of the kinds of challenges that we designers face, right?
But my imaginary reader wasn't just other designers, but it was design students, and even better than that, the parents of design students, who sort of could have this book to sort of explain what it was their kids, the field their kids wanted to enter and why it was worth supporting them, in a way. So I think I sort of write it really carefully, so you didn't have to be a designer to understand and appreciate it, that you could just flip through it and look at the pictures, as people do sometimes.
As I'm doing right now.
As you're doing right now. But you can also read it all the way through, and I think it's kind of, it ends up sort of having a kind of arc from my childhood in fact all the way through to the--
You know it does, and that's very you, and I mean I remember when you first started writing it in earnest, which was a couple of summers ago, and you told me, at that time, you really were getting into it, and people that don't know you, as I have been blessed to know you, don't know that you're a really serious runner, that you bank miles, and if you miss a day, you have to go back, so there's a kind of a rigor to the way you live anyway, that I think is playfully referenced in this book. You talk about your wonderful association with Massimo Vignelli, you have these great pictures of your kids, and I think, you know, really what comes across in this book, in addition to this prolific amount of work, is it's more for you, obviously than a job, this is your career, this is your life, and there's something really, there's a joy in the work.
Well, thank you.
And there's a feeling of, you want to read it, it's legible, there's a lot of white space. What was the hardest thing?
The hardest thing was actually just getting started and agreeing to do it. I didn't have a client really.
(Jessica) Is that the first time?
I'm not good at, I'm actually one of these, I'm not one of these designers who longs for a world without clients, I find if I have no clients, I just simply don't do any work, the reason I became a designer as opposed to a fine artist, is because I really need--
You like having clients.
Someone to provoke me into action, and it can be a deadline, it can just be a really interesting challenge, it can be, "No one can figure out how to solve this, can you?" And, I think in this case, I manufactured in my own mind as much as anywhere else, this idea that I wanted to have this book be done by a certain time, and then I sort of promised it to the publisher, and once I did that I just had to work the whole thing out. So indeed, every morning, I got up at the same time, and I wrote for the same amount of time, and I kind of had a checklist of everything I was doing, and I just got really, completely--
If you were gonna start again today, to do volume two, or do it all over again, would you have done anything differently?
Oh, I think, I look at the design now, and there are things about every aspect of a page, designs I would have changed, production aspects that I would have thought about differently. But, I really was, the process which I had never really undertaken in quite the same way before, it was really surprising to me, I don't consider myself a writer, although I've written a lot of things, I'm really a designer, and I find writing really unpleasant, and something I like to procrastinate about doing, it's not a relaxing, pleasant thing for me, it's hard work. And I also don't, I like to do things perfectly,
But, it's actually, it's not go to sort of want to do things perfectly, because a lot of times, it freezes you, it paralyzes you, because you sort of think, "I can't see the whole thing, clearly in my mind, therefor I can't take the first step to have it, undertaken."
Does being an inveterate notebook keeper, and sketchbook maker, make that process any less onerous for you?
For design, it does, yes.
But not for writing.
But writing is different. And, every writer I talked to said, "No, the way you do it is you just start writing, and you write something terrible, and then you go back and you look at it."
Well, which is like, you always throw out your first thing.
And I do that when I design, I can do that real easy, I can sort of like say, I can say okay here are six things you can do, none of them are any good, but at least we sort of see them here.
There's a writing critic at Yale, named Anne Fadiman, wonderful writer, and she says there's two kinds of writers, there's apple polishers-- diamond polishers, diamond polishers and vomiters. (laughs) So a diamond polisher is a person, you write a sentence and then you write a second sentence, and you go back and rewrite the first sentence. And a vomiter, it's all there. I am a diamond polisher, what are you?
Up till this book, I was really a diamond polisher, I would almost have the whole thing, honestly, I'd have the whole thing written in my mind.
In your mind.
Then I just would build this thing, that I'd pictured really clearly. When I did this book, because I really needed to deliver it, and it wasn't like the pressure of the deadline, it was just a lot of writing to do, and if I kind of kept waiting to be inspired, or have it all in my mind, I would have like, skipped a day here, a day there, a week there. Instead, I sat down and I thought, look, I'm gonna write the most faithful account I can come up with of this particular project, this particular thing that I want to say, and I'm just going to write it, and write it, and write it until it's all out there. Then, I'm gonna look at it, and if it's backwards, I'll turn it around and reverse. If the first half is terrible, but second half is good, I'll throw out the first half, and I'll make the second half the first half and I'll come up with a new ending. And I ended up, I swear to God, that's what I ended up doing.
That's really interesting. So, designers talk a lot about how sometimes you have to think through making. So the work, going in with a preconceived notion, doesn't always result in the most successful outcome.
No, on the contrary I would say.
Right, and so sometimes when we sketch, when we lay things out, when we use tracing paper, when we work in teams, all of these things are kind of gestational, evolutionary. But writing is a really solitary act, and so I think in this particular case, you have so many things, you've got an aerial view as the editor of your own work, you're looking at the trajectory of 30 years of work, but you're also moving forward, with trying to kind of tell a story as you pace it. So you're looking backwards while you looking forward.
(Michael) Yeah, yeah, yeah.
When does the movie come out.
(laughs) You know, in the contract, it says, there is sort of a thing, about movie rights, that's in all my publisher's contracts.
(Jessica) Who's gonna play Massimo Vignelli?
I don't know, that's easy, there's lots of very handsome guys around, there aren't that many guys who look like me. So, I think it's a-- it's also an interesting experience in, sort of just assessing the kind of work you've done, up to a certain point in your career, and figuring out what happens after that, right?
And so can you talk a little bit about, how your career has a relationship now to this book? Like, does it make you want to do more books like this? Do you have a different sense of, like could you do a book just of the sketchbooks?
I actually don't think my sketchbooks are that, I don't even call them sketchbooks, I call them notebooks, there's lots of pages of phone numbers, and only some pages that have design drawings on them.
But you had a lot of fun with the titles of them, the covers of them.
Sometimes, I go through decades where I don't. I have these sketchbooks that go back to 1982 actually, that one way or another, have things in them, that I can sort of like say, "Look, this is the first conversation I had about this project." "Here's like an early sketch of how that came out to be." And in fact, those pages at the beginning, all have design work later on in the book, that relates to the things that are shown in the notebooks at the start. So, there's a little bit of a glimpse, into how process works when you look at something like that.
And for people who might be thinking about making their own books, because of course you can, we're gonna talk about that in our class, is there something about being a meticulous chronicler of each project, putting everything in high res on a disk, managing and alphabetizing your list, so that when you go back to actually assemble that portfolio into a book, there's actually, you're not freaking out about the fact that it's on nine different drives. Were you as methodical about keep the work as you are about running?
I think we're very methodical here, however this is a 35 year period, is difficult to sort of have a common methodology--
Particularly since you're only 37, oh my God, it's really impressive.
But the problem is, there's projects in this book that began, you know the earliest project that somebody did in the ninth grade, where the you know, it was done with a felt tip pen and a piece of cardboard, then a friend of mine silk-screened it in the basement of my high school. That was art caught in the form of a big hunk of cardboard that has pinholes in the corner, cause it sort of went around from place to place.
But you've got pretty good stuff in here, you've got pictures of yourself when you were in high school.
But I do think what you, the only advice I'd give to people, and it sounds egotistical, is really just save everything, and respect your own work, and really keep it orderly and keep it organized, I think it's a good way to actually keep track of your own development as a designer, it's a good way to kind of remind yourself of--
Your humble origins, or not so humble, in your case.
Your good habits and bad habits. You look back and you can sort of see what made something successful, made something a little less successful. And I think if you are careless with all that stuff, you know, you forget your past, even as you're creating it in a way.
That would be my situation.
(Michael) Really, you think so?
Yeah, I think it's too late for me. I think think I was not, I envy you that, I think that's a really good way, you really need to get into a rhythm and a kind of system.
And I know other designers that are far more, kind of methodical and crazy than I am, in terms of saving every sketch, saving every memo, every email.
Lance Wyman for example.
Yeah, Lance Wyman, Marian Bantjes, these are people who really have--
(Jessica) Yeah, Sean Adams
Perfect records of everything, I wouldn't compete with them, as far as that goes.
I think you did okay then.