Jan 10, 2011
Zelda Harrison

Lessons Learned from Michael Bierut @ Pentagram

XCD caught up with Pentagram partner Michael Bierut in South Africa and picked his brain about Design. Here is a lively discussion about his experiences with New York City’s Library project.

XCD: During your presentation, you described yourself as an advocate of  “DesignThinking” What does this mean specifically to you at Pentagram and with your clients? Has Design Thinking  changed your relationship with your clients?

MB: Basically, what I learned during the Library project was that you should never forget about the larger context for our work, especially the people who will be exposed to it. It’s very easy to be distracted by other things when you’re working on a project. What am I good at doing? What do I like to do? How do I usually solve this kind of problem? What usually works? What do I think the client will accept? And so forth. These are all good questions, but they’re not the most important questions. They’re all just about the prerequisites to doing the work, the kinds of things that any professional has to worry about, no matter what the project. The important questions are harder, because they require you to pay attention. They’re things like: what really needs to be done here? Who’s going to be affected by this work? What would be the best possible outcome for this audience? And: how can I make a unique contribution?

I’ve been working as a designer for nearly thirty years and the longer I work, oddly enough, the easier it is to fall into the trap represented by the first set of concerns. You’re rewarded if you think that way, at least in the short term. You work fast and efficiently, and your client is satisfied. But the client is usually different than the audience. And the audience — the end user, whoever it is — requires time and attention to be truly engaged. So that requires attention to the second set of questions. You can call this design thinking, or you can call this just plain thinking. The worst kind of design is thoughtless design. The best kind is thoughtful.

L!Brary !

XCD: Please tell us more about the L!brary Initiative.

MB: The L!brary Initiative, a partnership of the Robin Hood Foundation and the New York City Department of Education, with support from the Mayor, corporate donors, and a team of architects, seeks to reverse these patterns of low literacy skills and underachievement by working with community school districts and public elementary schools to design, build, equip, and staff new elementary school libraries. Working with schools in high poverty neighborhoods that have low academic achievement, the partners are committed to fundamentally transforming school libraries into vital resources for the whole school community — students, teachers, and parents — that will impact and contribute to improved student performance.

An alarming 60 percent of New York City’s public school students in grades 3 through 8 are reading below grade level. Their inability to read and understand limits their opportunities for success in school and in life. To make matters worse, often these students come from homes and attend schools that lack the capacity and resources to help them develop their ability to read, to comprehend, and to explore the world.

XCD: What were your “Lessons Learned” on the L!brary Initative?

MB: The lessons I learned were, first, don’t try to be so clever all the time. I think that designers, myself included, start by trying to impress each other with our ingenuity. I was impressed with something that another speaker at Design Indaba, Chilean architect Alejandra Aravena, said. He said that creativity was only necessary when you didn’t have enough information to solve a problem using other means. The implication was that we should “be creative” as a last resort, only when we were sure that there was nothing more to be learned from the situation at hand. I love that idea. In the case of the Library Initiative project, I didn’t spend enough time at the outset understanding the audience. I just tried to solve everything with a clever logo.

The second lesson is that you get power by giving away power. The more people I involved in the project, and the more freedom we gave them to do their work, the more effective the result was.

The third lesson is that the real opportunity to do something amazing may not be in the official scope of work. As I was saying before, the efficient and professional approach is to execute what’s required and not do a single thing more. But what you’ve been asked to do and what actually needs to be done may be two radically different things, and that difference is what changes the world sometimes.

The fourth lesson is that sameness and consistency are two different things. This is hard for designers to remember, and even harder for some clients to remember. If you’re a control freak, it’s tempting to overestimate the need to control everything: that’s what control freaks do, obviously, and that’s what a lot of designers are. But letting differences come through is an acknowledgement of what makes us human. Design at its best lets those differences be expressed at a high level.

XCD: In particular, on your notion of “overestimating the need for control”; how were you able to strike a balance in dealing with a public agency with numerous decision-makers and several collaborators?

MB: What worked well was to give everyone very specific parameters, and then allow them a great deal of freedom within those parameters. I find it frustrating as a designer when it works the other way. You often have clients who say “the sky’s the limit,” but that’s only because they haven’t properly thought through the limits first. The organizers of the L!brary Initiative were really smart about defining the project clearly for all the participants. As we started bringing in collaborators, we tried to give them the same combination of rules and license.

XCD:How successful have you been in tempering the audience’s needs for the visceral and emotional with your own need to bring your extensive experience and skill to play?

MB: Sometimes I think that the audience’s emotional needs are so titanic and my own skills are so limited that it’s not really a fair fight. All I can hope is to choose the right tools to even the playing field a little bit.

The “Post-Design” factor

XCD: Have you felt the need to develop a feedback loop with the audience after your project? In other words, is audience response necessary to consider a project successful?

MB: Of course it’s nice when the audience loves what you do, but I would say this is secondary to the sense that they’ve come to take on the work as their own, and that it’s acquired some kind of life beyond what we gave them. Sometimes this happens because they really like it; sometimes it happens when they’re challenged by it. Just the other day, I visited a client’s website and they had done this terrific animation of the identity we designed. It was done in a way I never would have imagined, and it was just great. I was just so happy to see the seed we had planted turn into this surprising blossom.

Michael Bierut: Prior to joining Pentagram as a partner, Bierut worked at Vignelli Associates, ultimately as graphic design vice president. He is the winner of countless awards, and a member of the Alliance Graphique Internationale and Art Directors Club Hall of Fame. Awarded the AIGA Medal in 2006, and named winner in the Design Mind category of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Awards in 2008, he’s a senior critic in graphic design at Yale School of Art and cofounder of the world’s biggest design blog, DesignObserver.com.

1 Comment

  • Great article.

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