Interview with Michael Bierut

Oct 27th, 2010 | By | Category: Artists, Feature, News

Today, is happy to speak with Michael Bierut. Michael Bierut is a partner at Pentagram, joining the firm’s NYC office in 1990. Prior to becoming a partner at Pentagram, he worked at Vignelli Associates, also located in NYC. Michael’s clients over the years included Yale School of Architecture, New York University, Library Of Congress, Saks Fifth Avenue,and many others. He has won multiple awards for his work and his designs grace the walls and collections at MoMA, The Met, Cooper-Hewitt, and other museums, both nationally and internationally. Please click here to read Michael’s complete biography. In the meantime, let’s get on with the interview! (Please note that all images used in this articles are property of their individual designers/authors and cannot be reproduced or used without their permission.) Hello Michael, and thank you for speaking with Let me start off with a predictable, albeit relevant question. Have you heard of ambigrams, and if you have, what was your first encounter with them?

Michael Bierut An early one I remember is the NEW MAN logo designed by Herb Lubalin, and the VISTA logo designed by Paul Davis. A good one is like magic. At its core, ambigram design is still pure typographic manipulation that adheres to some traditional typographic principles. If a project you’re working on calls for a non-standard typeface, would you rather use an existing typeface and manipulate it, or would you call on a type designer to create a custom typeface?

Michael Bierut I have done both. I actually have a bit of an aversion to inventing or changing things for no reason when there’s a perfectly good alternative already available, so I probably (slightly) favor the former. In your mind, is there a difference between the term ‘typographer’ and ‘type designer’, or are those terms use interchangeably in an erroneous manner, much like ‘font’ and ‘typeface’? If there is a difference between a ‘typographer’ and a ‘type designer’, what would you say it is?

Michael Bierut Typographers, in my mind, do design work using typography as an element. Type designers actually, you know, design typefaces. You’re known as a very hands-on designer who works closely with his designers. Have you taken on the task of designing your own typeface or hand-lettering type, or ever ask any of your designers to perform that task?

Michael Bierut’s sketches for the MAD face. Image is property of

Michael Bierut Yes, I’ve asked designers to do handlettered or custom-designed type. Like other designers, I’ve also used my own handwriting on occasion. Speaking of hand-lettered typography, I’d like to discuss a specific project. The “Want It!” campaign from 2007 is one of my favorite advertising campaigns for its design as much as for its typography, which was created by Marian Bantjes. What was the reasoning behind using an altered typeface rather than use an existing script typeface?

Michael Bierut There were three reasons. First, the script is based on the Saks handlettered logo invented originally by Tom Carnese and then redrawn for us by Joe Finocchiaro. We wanted the basic Want It! logo that year to go with the Saks logo. Second, I had this vision of obsessiveness and imagined an overelaborate graphic language with almost too many curlicues and flourishes, as if the artist almost couldn’t help herself.

This is Marian’s specialty, so we brought her in. Finally, Saks’s creative director Terron Schaefer had an additional idea to have the script flourishes turn into illustrations of product. Marian and I both thought this would be impossible to do, but she pulled it off! Let’s continue the Saks theme and touch base on the new “Think about…” campaign. The typography for that campaign is more traditional, while highlighted by the black/white illustrations of the various products from the Saks line. In contrast with the previous campaign, why was the typographic element of this campaign relatively subtle?

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Michael Bierut Each campaign at Saks is different, with a few things connecting them. The “Think About…” campaign started with our discovery that it had to unite 10 different catalogues, and that there happened to be ten letters in the theme “Think About.” We assigned each catalogue a letter. The logo is basically the catalogues all put together. Although it is very simple, it’s still very typographic. The identity for the Museum of Arts and Design uses a beautiful custom typeface that was created specifically for this project. After seeing it in person and applied to various mediums, it’s hard to imagine another typeface working just as well in its place. How often do you find yourself in a position where an existing typeface just won’t do and you have to create an original typeface for a client?

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Michael Bierut With MAD, we started with the three-letter logo and then Joe Marianek drew out an entire alphabet based on those three letters.  Because the Museum had a new name and a new location, we wanted something pretty aggressive to make sure they’d get the attention they deserve. In other cases we custom design a typeface because we want to blend in. For the restoration of Lever House, a 1952 skyscaper office building on Park Avenue by SOM’s Gordon Bunshaft, we wanted to match the building and the mid-century era perfectly. Typefaces like Futura and Neutra would not do. So we commissioned Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones to do one based on the original signs. Choosing a typeface for an identity project is one of the most difficult parts of a project, and it’s something I see students and new designers struggle with. Does that process become easier with time and experience, and what advice would you give to designers that are struggling with this problem?

Michael Bierut I wrote a piece for Design Observer called something like “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Typeface” that pretty much sums up my advice. What is your favorite project you’ve worked on that was focused on typography? (if you can tell me which project you would like to use for this answer, I will find images of it and include them with the final interview.)

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Michael Bierut I would say the ten-year-old poster series we’ve been doing for the Yale School of Architiecture. It is a highly visual subject and a highly visual audience, but I would say that most of the posters are all type. There are several current typefaces that have achieved a negative cult status because they are so misused and overused: Papyrus and Comic Sans are the first two that come to mind. Do you feel that they are poorly designed typefaces from the get go, or is that only our perception of them since they’re so overused, and they’re actually well-designed typefaces?

Michael Bierut I think they are badly designed, not misused or overused. Sorry, Comic Sans and Papyrus! Michael, I have one last question for you. I’ve heard you and other designers discuss their feelings about this typeface…but how do you truly feel about Helvetica?

Michael Bierut I think Helvetica is a truly beautiful typeface. Along the lines of your last question, it’s been so overused through the years that it seems to be about everything and about nothing. I seem to find it really hard to use now.


Michael, thank you for the interview, advice and insight!

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  1. Nice and interesting interview! The “Want It!” campaign was really amazing. I saw it at that time on the web. An amazing project! Just beautiful!

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