October 27, 2017
He spoke on "How to Change the World (a Little) with Graphic Design"
By Karen Sandstrom
In a 90-minute talk that swung from refreshing the “brand” of a venerable cathedral to his controversial logo for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, designer Michael Bierut presented an eloquent argument for the joys and challenges of graphic design to a crowd in the Peter B. Lewis Theater at the Cleveland Institute of Art Wednesday night.
A few family members and Bierut’s art teacher from his years at Normandy High School in Parma, Ohio, were among about 300 visitors to the October 25 presentation. The talk capped a day that included studio visits by Beirut with CIA Graphic Design majors.
A partner at the international design collaborative Pentagram, Bierut has a wide-ranging portfolio representing business and publishing, sports and retail, and arts and the non-profit sectors. His affable communication style comes across in published essays, books and the podcast he cohosts with Jessica Helfand, “The Design of Business/The Business of Design.” His most recent book, Now You See It (and Other Essays on Design), will be published November 7.
Bierut started his talk with a description of discovering his passion during childhood. “I liked to draw, but I couldn’t figure out what drawing was for,” he said. He was riding in a car with his father one day when he saw a truck emblazoned with the logo for the Clark forklift company. When he saw that the letter L in the name was positioned under the front of the A, mimicking the action of a forklift, the light went on. “Who does this?” he thought. “That’s what I want to do.”
Bierut earned his degree at the University of Cincinnati, then went to work for Vignelli Associates, learning under the leadership of Italian designers Massimo and Lella Vignelli.
There he learned that great design was not only about “things lining up” and adhering to the rules of the craft; it had to spark emotion, too. “Those two lessons, of passion and discipline, I got from them,” he said. He joined Pentagram as a partner in 1990. There, his projects have included creating a logo for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists — a problem solved by updating the original “doomsday clock” design that artist Martyl Langsdorf made for the first edition of the bulletin in 1947. The logo, an abstracted depiction of the fourth quarter of a clock face, allows the clock hands to be moved to reflect how close to “midnight” the proliferation of nuclear holocaust has taken humanity. He and his team injected new life into the Saks Fifth Avenue logo, borrowing a looping script from earlier in the luxury retailer’s history, then dividing it into squares that could be rearranged into bold, abstract designs.
The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine on the Upper West Side of Manhattan also has enlisted his help.
“They have Episcopal services there, but they also do all kinds of other things — theatrical performances, art exhibitions, community outreach, all sorts of things that bring in members of the public,” Bierut said. “They function like a cultural center. What they really were shy about was that they looked old and intimidating.”
Bierut’s team suggested a contemporary, sans serif typeface for most of their materials, but also created a font that riffs on ornate Gothic text, which the church now uses in select, witty ways. Thus, its outdoor green spaces are adorned with signs for the local dog walkers: “Thou Shalt Not Poop.”
Bierut’s presentation included the backstory on one of his most famous and controversial projects.
“I’m sure there are people here who voted for Donald Trump, some of perhaps voted for Jill Stein or perhaps Gary Johnson, but I voted for Hillary Clinton, and early in the process I was asked if I would help design her campaign logo,” Bierut told the crowd. “This was done in secret, not as part of Pentagram, and I did it as a volunteer.”
Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign introduced the idea of using a designed mark for a political campaign. The ubiquitous O with a striped horizon was immediately recognizable and translated quickly to digital platforms. But Bierut said he thought the Obama logo was “too complicated, you needed software and French curves to duplicate it. I wanted a logo that a 4-year-old with construction paper could do it.”
In February 2015, Clinton approved his simple sans serif H, with a right-facing arrow as the crossbar. He didn’t see it used until it was unveiled with the official announcement of her candidacy months later. He had built in many color options, and ways the logo could be used; the team chose to launch with the version containing two blue vertical bars and the arrow in red. “There was my logo, and it was for someone who was running for president, and I thought that was really cool,” Bierut said.
Almost immediately, social media lit up with withering critiques. The logo was too simple, or clumsy. Some thought it was strange that the left-leaning, “blue” candidate’s logo featured a right-pointing red arrow. Someone on Twitter connected its vertical lines to the burning towers of the World Trade Center. Arguments broke out on Facebook and design blogs.
“It’s not fun to be trashed by design experts,” Bierut said. “I’d be brushing my teeth and [my wife] would say, ‘Jimmy Fallon just mentioned your logo.’”
Over time, though, creativity turned the tide. Someone made an entire alphabet using the same design motif, and the campaign started using it. “I called them up and said, ‘Do more like this, that’s owning it,’ ” Bierut said.
A friend sent him a photo of the logo done in shells on the sand of the Jersey Shore, and the campaign shared it on Memorial Day.
Then the Supreme Court upheld gay marriage in June 2016, Clinton’s campaign issued a version featuring the rainbow colors of LGBT pride.
"That’s what showed that this logo is designed to do different things, and then finally they realized that it was actually perfect,” he quipped. “So thank you for realizing it’s actually a perfect logo, not a horrible one."
In the end, though, his message was that design has the potential to make life just a little bit better. “Any one of us can’t really use our skills … to all by ourselves change the world,” he said. “What you learn is how you can make a contribution to the larger community — to the friends around you, to the people you work with, or to people you may never meet — and have an effect on their lives, so that they in turn can have a real effect on other people’s lives.”