Graphic designer Michael Bierut on logos and emojis

“FORTY YEARS AGO, graphic arts were a form of dark magic – only a handful of people even knew the names of fonts, ”said Michael Bierut, partner in the New York office of international design consultancy Pentagram, which designed identities visuals for clients as diverse as Saks Fifth Avenue and the Manhattan Sex Museum. Today, while any 10-year-old with a computer can design personalized letterhead, Mr Bierut said, “If Google changes its logo, everyone should have an opinion. this subject “.

As admired for his design expertise as he was for his packaging for Billboard magazine, Mohawk Paper and the New York Jets, Mr. Bierut entered the political fray this year with a bold social media-friendly design for Hillary Clinton: a blue H pierced with a red arrow. “Every act of visual communication, back to cave paintings, is designed to convey a message,” said the 58-year-old, whose new monograph, “How to Use Graphic Design to Sell Things, Explain Things, make things better, Make people laugh, make people cry and (once in a while) change the world “(Harper Design) was recently published.” Graphic design is the set of decisions made to shape this message. ”

In a recent conversation, the Westchester, NY resident, who is also a senior graphic design critic at the Yale School of Art, analyzed the elements of good commercial stationery, a wardrobe that impresses, and the epicurean perfection that is Fudgie the whale.

Clockwise from left: ‘Graphic Design’, by Milton Glaser; Pilot Precise V5 Black Rollerball Pen; a bottle of McIlhenny Tabasco sauce; a Gene Meyer tie; the Sir John Soane Museum in London; Volkswagen Beetle A3; Saks Fifth Avenue bags designed by Bierut


F. Martin Ramin / The Wall Street Journal (pen, sauce, book); Mark Roskams (tie); Alamy (museum)

My day begins with: the same routine: I brush my teeth and shave with products from If it’s 10 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, I run 3 miles in New Balance 990v3s shoes, then walk my West Highland Terrier, Gladiator, water the flowers in the planter, and get on the train to New York.

The most important tools on my desktop are: Pilot Precise V5 black roller pens and these standard composition notebooks with the black and white pattern. This is my 108th and currently receiving them from Gramco School Supplies, Inc. in Brooklyn.

The low-tech device that I can’t leave is:my Motorola flip phone, which is so old I can’t even pretend it’s chic inside out. I fantasize people see me as a drug lord using a burner, but I actually look like a baffled old person.

The design books I keep coming back to are: “The Medium Is the Massage” by Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore (1967), “Graphic Design” by Milton Glaser (1973) and “Thoughts on Design” by Paul Rand (1947).

To learn about graphics: go to a flea market in Paris, Marrakech, Tokyo or elsewhere. Almost any matchbook, record sleeve, or drugged paperback you see is likely to have more interesting graphics than what you find in a museum.

If you update your CV:Avoid the Comic Sans font. It sounds nice but it’s the equivalent of Porky Pig reading the Gettysburg speech. I worked with documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, who conducted an online survey and found that people are more likely to believe something in print in Baskerville. It has astonishing refinement and credibility.

On business cards: less is more. Your name or email address will suffice, like an old-fashioned business card you would present to the butler. When I was younger the tiny print was cool and exuded confidence, but as I get older I appreciate the big print – at least 12 points.

I advise people that: if you are curious about everything, you will work better.

As a child, I was obsessed with: the Titanic, the subject of my big sixth report. There is something so fascinating about this magnificent and giant ship that left on her first voyage and never reached her destination.

The architecture that I admire the most is: Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, which communicates something complicated in such a simple, intimate and memorable way. It’s shaped like a giant V for Vietnam and built into the earth like a metaphorical scar. As you descend, the wall rises and, since it is polished marble, you see your face reflected among the names of the dead soldiers engraved on it.

I drive: a 2012 Volkswagen Beetle A3 This is my fifth, and after trying light blue and red, I turned yellow again. What I love about VW is the promise of simplicity. It actually looks like what a car would look like if it had been reduced to a logo. It’s so depressing that this great company has been compromised by a scandal that is anything but simple.

The most beautifully designed hotel is: Savoy. It was the essence of cutting edge modernity, circa 1890, the first hotel in London to have electric lights. Bathrooms have all kinds of brass nozzles, taps, and fittings – like in a Jules Verne novel – and you’ll never feel so pampered.

In the kitchen, I excel at: wash the dishes. The restoration of order really appeals to me.

My idea for a memorable hostess gift: will mortify my wife, who always selects them, because I would take a Carvel ice cream. Everyone loves Fudgie the Whale.

My mouth watering the logo for: McIlhenny tabasco sauce. It has such fascinating geometries and it looks like it has never been changed.

Every man’s wardrobe should include: a dark blue blazer with gold buttons. When I moved to New York, I read that was all you needed to fit in, and since then I’ve had two. And I always wear a tie at work. I didn’t come all the way from Ohio just to dress like a farmer. I’ve often thought of shirts as wallpaper and ties as posters, so I have quite a few colorful ties by Gene Meyer, which remind me of paintings by Josef Albers, Stuart Davis and Ellsworth Kelly.

For leisure I will: to a small museum. The Sir John Soane Museum in London is intense – one person’s vision taken to extremes. It’s amazing how many minimalist architects are obsessed with it.

I dream of approaching: standardization of public sanitary equipment. It’s so confusing having to know whether to wave your hand or press a button to flush the toilet, run the water, get soap and towels. Everyone struggles so much that I would volunteer to fix this for free.

Free download of emoji designed by Bierut

As a graphic designer, I find emojis: terrifying – a soulless reductive endpoint. If Shakespeare is on one end, an emoji is on the other. At least if someone puts a smiley face on the “i” in their name, there’s a gesture of personalization, not a mass-produced symbol that seems to come off the Amalgamated Widgets assembly line. That said, I designed one for the Wall Street Journal that communicates ironic Ambrose Bierce-style skepticism that is an antidote to the googly-eyed kitsch of typical sentimental emoji.

My favorite cartoon character is Wile E. Coyote. He had this endless faith and brand loyalty and never thought of trying the competition, even though Acme products failed him time and time again.

—Edited from an interview with David A. Keeps

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Clifton L. Boyd

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