A Backstage Interview with Michael Bierut

Michael Bierut is a partner at Pentagram and a leading voice in the world of design.

Michael studied graphic design at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning, worked at Vignelli Associates for ten years and, as I learned from watching him host Command X: Season 3 at the AIGA Pivot Conference, has a charming stage presence and warm sense of humor.

He’s also an absolute delight to sit down and speak with.

We met with Michael at Pivot and, working under some tight time constraints, scrambled to find a quiet place to interview him in between his hosting duties. Luckily, we found a cozy dressing room backstage at the conference venue, set up our video equipment, and sat down and asked him to share with us his thoughts on design thinking.

Michael’s take on design thinking was thoughtfully laid out. He responded by highlighting two trends he was seeing in design.

ONE:

there’s something that is of interest to designers that really compels them, that I’m not sure is actually what’s being rolled up as design thinking.  And I think in a way it might be excluded by a lot of descriptions of designing processes

 

And, TWO:

And then there’s also I think…the danger with a phrase like design thinking, as it gets greater traction in the world, is that it kind of just becomes this empty sort of signifier of progressive and interesting thought, just like a lot of words like innovation or Six Sigma or all this bullsh*t

 

Michael described the role of designers in making artifacts, and the personal joy of the designer in indulging in her/his own craft…Or, as he puts it: making something new from nothing. This individualized craft and creation process, it seems, is what is underappreciated and perhaps even neglected in today’s notions of design thinking. Rather, design thinking tends to privilege a group-based approach to design (or co-design) in order to pursue some pretty ambitious goals like ‘changing the world’. Michael approaches the concept of design thinking with some caution as, according to him, it has the effect of reducing the design experience into a process that can be collaborative, managed, generalized, scaled, and made to dampen the ‘dangers’ and uncertainties of design.

In his own words, he explains these concepts further, beginning with the former trend:

 

Michael also spoke about his personal interest and motivation in design, and what he feels he contributes to projects in his role as the “designer”. To him, meeting different people and being put into new, diverse, and unfamiliar situations is incredibly stimulating. As he points out, designers are brought into situations to create beauty, surprise and imagination:

 

As we wrapped up our backstage interview, Michael made one final comment about how a deep and genuine passion for design is what ultimately leads to meaningful solutions. That is, with good intentions and care comes good design:

 

With that, our time with Michael came to a close. And before he stepped out, he left us with some kind and encouraging words:

The questions are really great, they’re really –When I first heard the subject [of the project] I thought oh, I don’t have much to say about that.  But I think you guys got something useful.

Thank you!

3 thoughts on “A Backstage Interview with Michael Bierut

  1. This is a huge point. In fact, the description here of design thinking smacks entirely of a system to either -best case – spread that joy of creating something from nothing throughout a bigger group of people with a bigger mission or -worst case – negate it entirely, as if to say that the thing that makes the designer different, the thing that makes the design good, isn’t so special or doesn’t exist at all, so we can get rid of the designer and use design thinking to get the same result ourselves without having to put up with this pesky person who actually knows how to do that fun thing we want to do instead of our real jobs.

  2. Having watched through these videos twice, I’m still unsure exactly how I’d summarise what Michael is saying here. Taken at face value it seems he’s claiming that the essence (and joy) of design lies in the art of creating something from nothing.

    Could design not happen through reduction? Could the simple removal of something to solve a problem not be considered valid design process?

  3. Thanks for your comments. With regards to Micheal’s perspective, he is coming from the graphic design world where things are generated from nothing and rarely ‘undone’ like another type of designer who may try to take a product and re-shape it and edit it from a current form to another.

    I think design could happen through reduction as a well as generation, although I don’t believe that they need to live apart. — Cameron

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