How to think like Michael Bierut

We present an excerpt from Pentagram partner Michael Bierut’s monograph – which is both a “How to” of graphic design and a personal manifesto.

michael-bierut-decode-la-puissance-des-logos

In his first monograph, Pentagram partner Michael Bierut sets out his “How to” manifesto, which shows the power of graphic design to effect change.

The story is told in his typically personable, straight-forward and entertaining style.

By taking a retrospective look at his own work and by revealing how he got there he shares the process behind it – sketches, models and rejected ideas – as well as the final piece.

He boldly sets out his intentions on the front cover: “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.”

Bierut joined the New York office of Pentagram 25 years ago after learning his trade under the great Massimo Vignelli.

“How to” cherry picks 35 key projects from throughout his career so far, which has led him to work with American football teams, newspapers, airlines, research scientists and arts institutions such as the The Museum of Arts and Design.

In this excerpt from the book Bierut looks at his 2008 rebrand of The Museum of Arts and Design in New York and how he solved its “identity crisis”.

Museum of Arts and Design

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Michael Bierut: “The Museum of Arts and Design had a long-running identity crisis. Founded in 1956 as the Museum of Contemporary Crafts, it renamed itself the American Craft Museum in 1986. In 2002, it changed its name yet again, to the Museum of Arts and Design, MAD for short. Despite the nifty acronym, five years later most people still hadn’t heard of it.

But that was about to change. On Columbus Circle, where Broadway, 59th Street, and Central Park West intersect to form an awkward square, stood a peculiar structure.

Completed in 1964 and designed by Edward Durell Stone as a museum for the collection of grocery-store heir Huntington Hartford, it was described by critic Ada Louise Huxtable as a “die-cut Venetian palazzo on lollipops.” Hartford’s museum lasted only five years. The orphaned building reverted to the city. In 2002, it was offered to the Museum of Arts and Design.

I was mesmerised by Cloefil's diagram showing a continuous slot working its way through the building and used it for my first design concept. Later, determined to make a logo that echoed the architecture, and finding that it would not work with the letters in MAD, I proposed an unlikely name change to A+D. The client didn't buy it
I was mesmerised by Cloefil’s diagram showing a continuous slot working its way through the building and used it for my first design concept. Later, determined to make a logo that echoed the architecture, and finding that it would not work with the letters in MAD, I proposed an unlikely name change to A+D. The client didn’t buy it

It needed work. Architect Brad Cloepfil proposed a deft transformation, cutting a continuous slot that snaked through its floors, ceilings, and walls. We were asked to create a new graphic identity to mark the rebirth. Inspired by Cloepfil’s design, I proposed a logo similarly made of a single line. It was one of the best ideas I ever had.

There was only one problem: it didn’t work, at least not with the name MAD. Luckily, I had heard that some people thought the acronym was undignified. I seized on this and proposed a name change to A+D, which emphasized the institution’s areas of focus and, conveniently, could be made to work with my idea. I presented this in a series of meetings, armed with ever more elaborate prototypes. But I could not make the sale. If you have a great idea but can’t make it work, it isn’t a great idea.

That night, I stared at the site. MAD would face the only complete traffic circle in Manhattan. Squares and circles. I looked at the three letters in the name. Could squares and circles be found there as well? The answer was yes. The simplest geometry solved the problem. No longer necessary were straining machinations and feverish salesmanship. Here was that rare thing: a solution that sold itself. It was approved unanimously at the next meeting.

By using MADface, we created a brand that merged logo and message
By using MADface, we created a brand that merged logo and message
The graphic language was perfect for repeat patterns for retail shop packaging
The graphic language was perfect for repeat patterns for retail shop packaging
Unlike the original design idea which required special handling, the new logo was easily adapted to almost any use.
Unlike the original design idea which required special handling, the new logo was easily adapted to almost any use.

How To is published by Thames & Hudson, 28 September, priced £30

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