How to Design like Michael Bierut

‘How To,’ by Michael Beirut. HOW TO DESIGN LOGO LIKE MICHAEL BIERUT? Read this!

Who wrote this book

Michael Bierut is one of the most famous designers in the world of design today.

When he was fresh out of University of Cincinatti’s College of Design, Architecture, and Art in 1976, Michael first worked at Massimo and Lella Vignelli’s studio in New York. After 10 years there, he moved on to world-famous Pentagram and has been there for the last 30 years.

Over that time, his clients have included some reasonably large names such as The New York Times, Michigan Institute of Technology, Billboard Magazine, The New York Jets and Hilary Clinton.

What’s this book about?

This book is a monograph on his work.

‘What the devil is a monograph?’ I hear you ask.

It’s a detailed written study of a single subject, usually in the form of a short book.

The book covers his discovery of graphic design when he was 6 years old right up until the present day.

The book takes the reader through Michael’s most formative projects, and explains the trials and tribulations that came with each project.

This book has 592 illustrations and covers 36 projects.

He notes that ‘knowing how to read is more important than knowing how to draw,’ and then shows his messy sketches at the start of the design process.

Michael explains how some of the most iconic designs really came about by accident or serendipity. Saks Fifth Avenue re-design, for example, was only conceived because a colleague had the font zoomed in on her computer. Michael saw this and used this concept of a fragment of the original logo to design a fresh and dramatic new identity for Saks.

I also love the way there are examples of projects that are only big-name brands. It would be easy for Michael Beirut to only focus on projects that are huge – the type of projects he typically works on with Pentagram appear to normally be big budget ones, but he also affectionately talks the reader through smaller projects such as, a family nut company and The Good Diner, a diner in New York City. SHOW PICS.

What I love most about this book is how visually appealing the book is – huge pages printed on glossy paper. Really makes each campaign vivid because you can see all the detail by poring over the images. Show, don’t tell.

This book is a designer’s dream with an epic emporium of ingenious examples from the big man himself.

The book is full of little gems from someone who has been in the industry for as long as he has. Little gems. Gold dust.

‘Content is more important than form.’ P41.

‘The most important characteristic of a great brand is consistency.’ P48

‘You’re best chance to grow us to do something you don’t know how to do.’ P67

‘The antidote to stereotype is experience.’ P101

‘Sometimes, avoiding the obvious means embracing it – and wrestling it to the ground.’ P101

Convincing clients. ‘the correctness of a design decision can seldom be checked with a calculator.’ P225.

Top 3 take aways

1) Even Michael Beirut struggles both with both the designing, and dealing with clients even after 35 years.

i) I find it’s satisfying and comforting to know that he has the same problems with clients that I do – they don’t know what they want often and your job is to try and decipher the clues to lead you to that answer.

That’s part of the magic of graphic design though – it is understanding what someone is really saying. Not the words that they are saying but the meaning behind them. And sometimes, the words they are not saying.

Sometimes, what clients wants and needs are totally different.

‘Organizations seeking an identity often think what they need is a logo. But this is like acquiring a personality by buying a hat.’ P131.

Michael Bierut quotes his old boss, Massimo Vignelli who says ‘Qui lo dico, e qui lo nego.’ This means ‘here I say it, here I deny it.’ People are complex. It’s nice know that even Michael Bierut still struggles to deal with clients even after 40 years of dealing with them.

ii) Designing for the New World Symphony. He was asked to design a logo that ‘flowed.’

However, his first attempt was a collage of curvy typography that he was told made people nauseous.

Struggling. He was then sent sketches by the client which had flow. Michael explains how he was initially infuriated by being told how to design the logo, but realised his client was simply trying to visually explain what Michael’s own designs were lacking – this idea of ‘flow.’ Even the best designers in the world may not create logos that clients appreciate. And also, sometimes the answer is right in front of you!

2) A logo is ‘an empty vessel.’

This is an interesting concept. A logo ‘is an empty vessel awaiting the meaning that will be poured in to it by history and experience. The best thing a designer can do is make that vessel the right shape for what it’s going to hold.’

Whether it is a wordmark (FACEBOOK), a symbol (APPLE), the logo is simply a signature to say this is me.

That is not to devalue the importance of a logo. However, it is important to clarify that whether a company has a million-pound logo or a free logo, a bad company is a bad company and will fail.

3) Make it different. But not too different.

MICHAEL BEIRUT QUOTE: ‘In design school, we’re taught that the goal of design is to create something new. But not entirely new… Every graphic design solution, then, must navigate between comfort and cliché.’ P101

You want to make a product stand out from competitors, but not alienate customers or make a familiar product or service foreign to them just because of a re-design.

To illustrate the point, Michael talks about creating a brand identity for Minnesota children’s museum. Rather than using cliched ideas such as crayons, bright primary colours and smiley faces, the Pentagram team focussed on the children who were playing.

‘The antidote to stereotype is experience.’ P101

After watching children play, it became obvious the Children’s hands should be the design direction. They were the tools children used to play with everything.

‘Sometimes, avoiding the obvious means embracing it – and wrestling it to the ground.’ P101


So, if you want to design like Michael Bierut, a great first step is reading this book. If you understand how great designers think, you can incorporate their way of thinking in to your way of thinking and who knows – maybe you will be designing fortune 500 companies like Michael Bierut in the future.

Here are plenty of other resources if you are intrigued by Michael Bierut and want to know more, below is a link to a fascinating presentation he did at Google, and other bits and bobs.

Interested in buying this book? Click the link below!

Hope this helps!

Posted in: Books

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