Somewhere between manual and memoir, designer extraordinaire Michael Bierut’s new How to book begins with a chapter on “how to be a graphic designer in the middle of nowhere.” The answer, smuggled between stories of growing up in Ohio, taking art classes, and looking closely at record sleeves and posters in his local shopping mall, is:
“No one can tell you what to do… the real fun is figuring out how to do it.”
There then follows a succinct selection of other “How to’” chapters, each neatly detailing anecdotes and design solutions from Bierut’s 10 years at Vignelli Associates and his last 25 years as a partner at Pentagram.
To answer the problem of how to write a book, Bierut tells me that he first decided that he needed to create chapters to make the load more manageable. The “how to” approach simply made the most sense to him. Ever since he was a child, Bierut has been drawn to design because it has a distinct purpose. “Art seemed weird to me. I couldn’t figure out what made painters or sculptors go off into a room and just make things… Design was creativity and art, but with a means to an end.”
And a solution. So it follows that chapters like “How to avoid the obvious,” “How to make the news,” and “How to investigate a murder” are indicative of just a few of the design problems Bierut has come up against.
One of the things that surprised Bierut most about organizing his entire life works into a book was how long and enduring many of his relationships have been, especially with clients like the New York League of Architecture and Yale School of Architecture. “When I began it last year I didn’t feel that old, or that I’ve been doing this for a very long time,” says Bierut. “But there are half a dozen clients where my first work for them was back in the ’80s, and I continue working with them today.”
What strikes me when reading the book is the extent to which the face of New York City has been marked by Bierut’s visuals, from the dynamic, typographic Saks shopping bags to the immense, block-long New York Times building sign. It’s hard to imagine the city without them. The book details Bierut’s relationships with these clients in an honest, down-to-earth way, getting into the nitty-gritty of where an idea comes from and the push-and-pull of relationships.
“Designers tend to downplay how critical clients are to the work we do,” he explains. “They ruin the design hero story a bit, this idea of clients being one of the obstacles towards the path to ultimate victory. All of the good work I’ve done is because I’ve worked for people who I’m comfortable with.”
To trace where his ideas first come from, Bierut has included pages from 108 notebooks that he’s kept since 1982. The books are mostly filled with words, but sometimes there’s a scribbled diagram that becomes the seed of a design solution. Bierut has only ever used notebooks with blank pages and black-and-white patterned covers—he’s fascinated by the design. “People always get me leather notebooks with nice paper and ribbons, but I find those oppressively intimidating,” he tells me.
The notebooks have been crucial for retracing thoughts and ideas when making How to, and Bierut calls them his “memory aid or security blanket.” As an homage to these meaningful notebooks, a speckled black-and-white pattern wraps round the board cover of How to—a subtle reminder of how a great idea often has humble beginnings.
The release of Bierut’s book coincides with a retrospective of his work, opening at SVA’s Chelsea Gallery in New York City on Tuesday, October 6, where there’ll be a chance to see all of his 108 notebooks. There’s a room dedicated to Bierut’s New York City-related designs, a room about ideas, a room for his architectural work, and a room for logos. It’s a spatial re-imagining of the book’s contents, celebrating 35 years of his design work.
Having spent these years finding solutions to all of the “How’s” thrown at him, Bierut tells me he’s begun to think of himself as a doctor. “Some designers have a personal signature, and if you hire them it’s because you want to make it look their way, but for you. I’m not like that. I use the metaphor of a doctor. I want sick patients that I can diagnose and give a prescription to.” And when you think about it in this light, How to is really a book of Bierut’s design remedies and visual cures.