Michael is giving the opening plenary on Day 2 of our User Experience Week 2006, August 14-17 in Washington, DC.
Peter Merholz: Okay, I’m going to pick up a different thread here, though I think it’s related to your comment on an ideal life in design.
My colleague Dan Saffer has just finished writing a book on interaction design and the last chapter of his book concerns ethics. Many of us at Adaptive Path are admirers of Tibor Kalman, as well as the book you helped put together about him. What is your sense of the role ethics played in Kalman’s work? Was it explicit, or is it just that he couldn’t imagine how to work any other way? How do ethics inform your design work?
Michael Bierut: One of the sad aspects of Tibor’s early death is that it puts other people in the unhappy position of having to speak for him, which I really can’t. Working on his book with him, I came to know Tibor as a person who, simply put, was uncomfortable being comfortable. His intuitive reaction to any status quo situation was first to disrupt it. This is an interesting characteristic to bring to the world of commercial graphic design, where you’re constantly being asked to accomodate yourself to your clients’ goals, very few of which will correspondend perfectly to your own. Tibor’s genius was that he didn’t attempt to separate his work and his life as working designers do. Ethics played a big part of that with Tibor, I guess, but it seemed to me to be a larger attempt to fully integrate your values as a person with your values as a designer. After his death, this has all boiled down to an image of “Saint Tibor” that I’m guessing he would have found pretty aggrevating, to tell you the truth. He was more complicated, and more interesting, and just plain more fun than that.
I think that designers who are interested in ethics tend to focus on specific issues of dramatic conflict: Would you work for a cigarette company? is a favorite. That implies we can all pick and choose those special moments where we “have to be ethical.” I also sometimes hear that, for instance, design and politics don’t mix. Sure they mix. Everything mixes. The goal is to seek an integrated life, which is what I think Tibor did. You may be a designer with special expertise, and certainly that’s why a client would retain your advice. But try not to answer as a designer. Try to answer as a citizen, as a human being and as a designer.
It helps, of course, if you’re in a situation where you think you have a sense of agency, where you think you can walk away from situations that you don’t feel are right. And of course, you always do: the only question is what it takes for your to exercise it. My biggest failings as a designer is that I’m very polite, adverse to conflict and eager to please. As a result, as I’ve gotten older I’ve tried to get better at choosing my clients. I find that when I work for people whom I personally like and who are doing something that I admire or find interesting, I’m happier, the people I work with are happier, and we all do better work.
Peter Merholz: You mention the mix of design and politics. A colleague of mine pointed me to your contribution for Partisan Project. Apart from some ethical stands (which, as you so pointedly demonstrated, mostly relate to the type of clients we would not take), we at Adaptive Path have been careful not to get too political with our design work, mostly out of respect of the array of viewpoints / prospectives within our organization.
How political a designer are you? I’m only familiar with the Partisan work—are there other examples out there of your political design? Have your politics ever made it… awkward in your client work? Also, what politically-oriented design work of late has most impressed you? What seems to be having an impact?
Michael Bierut: During the Republican convention, Pentagram New York hung a NO BUSH banner outside our building, so I guess we don’t hesitate to take political positions as an office or as individuals.
The Partisan Project image was, in fact, an earlier design for the banner that was rejected by my partners for being “too subtle.” Hmm!
I’ve found that any reluctance I’ve had to doing more of this “political design” has to do with my own fear that things like T-shirts and posters are usually feeble tools to address the enormous problems we face as a society today. Sometimes, of course, something really clicks, but in my own work I dread the sense that I’m using something bad in the world as an excuse to make a clever design. Often, it just makes more sense to me to simply support a candidate or donate money to a cause.
I’ve seen some propagandistic design work that I’ve liked—I’m thinking of the campaign that Number Seventeen did to launch Air America (I did a DO post on this called “Catharsis and the Limits of Empire”)—but what I really admire is clear information design. Nigel Holmes did a piece in Harpers several months ago (tragically unavailable online) on America’s addiction to debt that was really amazing. Similarly, I admire the way that Mgmt. translated Al Gore’s Powerpoint show on global warming into the book that accompanies the movie “An Inconvenient Truth.”
Speaking of Harpers, Art Spiegleman also did a great article last month in which he analyzed—rated, really—the notorious Danish Mohammed cartoons. Absolutely fascinating. Not available online either!
Peter Merholz: Okay. I’m going to switch gears here. Another Adaptive Pather, Ryan Freitas, has mentioned you a couple times on his blog, and I wanted to follow up his thoughts. His first post came after your appearance at SFMOMA, where you spoke about Pentagram’s work with United on developing the identity for Ted. He was struck by how effective the Wall Street Journal articles from the future were at communicating your vision.
Over the years, I came to realize that my best work has always involved subjects that interested me, or—even better—subjects about which I’ve become interested, and even passionate about, through the very process of doing design work. …To me, the conclusion is inescapable: the more things you’re interested in, the better your work will be.
What I was wondering, re-reading Ryan’s posts, was how these two notions might be connected. How your work for United was influenced by your multifarious passions. And, perhaps related (you tell me), how you hit upon the Wall Street Journal mockups as a tool to communicate your concept. Have you used such “tangible futures” in your work before?
Michael Bierut: Being able to make vivid counterfeits is one of the joys of being a graphic designer, and one that we don’t take enough pleasure in. One of my partners in London once mocked up a whole issue of Fortune to help a client see his business differently.
One of the hard lessons I had to learn as a designer starting out was that good design is not a self-evident imperative for most people. I tell students that they are spending time and money in design school acquiring an abnormal sensitivity to design that most regular people should not be expected to share. Yet various groups of these “regular people” are usually the ones who initiate our work, fund and approve it, and ultimately are the audiences for it. So the biggest challenge we face is figuring out how to meet people on their terms, not ours.
I never talk about “educating the client.” I hate that phrase. Almost always it’s the designers who need the education, not the client, not the audience. Yet designers and clients both tend to recede into their areas of expertise, and it takes work for us to wrench each other out of it. Making prototypes that help people imagine the effects that design decisions will have in the real world can be a very potent tool. Those fake Wall Street Journal articles were supposed to do exactly that: remind a client who had spent six months showing themselves Powerpoint presentations that there was a real world out there filled with people who didn’t share their fascination with their business strategy or, actually, care at all whether they succeeded at all. It’s a good reality check, and it helps to shift the design work from an internal exercise that’s done for management approval, to work that’s done because you’re seeking results with real people in the real world.
So of course—to get to the other part of your question—dealing with the real world means being as interested as possible in stuff that’s not about design. All of the work I’ve done that I’m proud of somehow emerged from the fact that I’ve gotten really interested in that other part: the subject matter of a book, the business of a client, the content of an exhibition. Luckily I can get interested in nearly anything. And I have learned the hard way that there are a few things I’m just not interested in, and can’t seem to do good design for: I avoid these projects now.