Esteemed graphic designer Michael Bierut will speak at our User Experience Week 2006. Michael is a partner at the design firm Pentagram, and a former president of the AIGA. Though we at Adaptive Path love him for his impassioned contributions to the Design Observer blog.
To help us set the stage for his talk, he agreed to join me in a conversation. I will post the discussion in parts. I encourage readers to pose questions for Michael in the comments section.
And now, the discussion!
Peter Merholz: One of the reasons we’re excited to have you speak at our User
Experience Week event is because you’re willing to publicly challenge design orthodoxy. Two of your Design Observer posts stand out in this regard: “Innovation is the New Black” and “The Obvious, Shunned by So Many, Is Successfully Avoided Once Again.”
What has led you to take such stances that are not widely held? What experiences have shaped these design philosophies?
Michael Bierut: If it’s true, there may be several reasons. One is that my wife Dorothy isn’t a designer, she’s an MBA. We started dating when we were in high school in Ohio, and now we’ve been married for 26 years. Dorothy has always been the first to roll her eyes at some particularly choice design affectation, and she certainly won’t let me get away with any herself. I often find myself wondering what a “normal” person would think about my work. By normal I usually mean Dorothy.
All that said, I don’t really try to be argumentative or confrontational. I think there are a lot of ways to practice our craft, and almost all of them have some kind of merit. Some people have said that rather than challenging orthdoxy I’m more likely to be a defender of the status quo. It may be because, for designers at least, self-conscious difference for its own sake creates its own kind of orthodoxy.
PM: You mention that your wife has an MBA. As I’m sure you’re aware, there’s a lot of activity in the “business and design” space. The Institute of Design’s Strategy Conference took place last week, AIGA’s Gain conference is coming in October, BusinessWeek and CondeNast are planning “design and business” publications, business schools are preaching “design thinking” as a new way of solving old problems, et cetera et cetera.
In your practice, how do you bridge between “business” and “design”? In your client work, how do you demonstrate business impact?
MB: Too many designers enter the field spouting design jargon and, predictably, meet resistence or indifference from their clients. So they switch to business jargon, which is usually worse. I did this for a while, got good at it, and then got disgusted with myself.
I’ve come to believe strongly that one of the roles of design is to bring humanity, intelligence and beauty to the world of business, and indeed to everyday life. In my experience, good clients and good designers don’t see this goal as being opposed to—or even separate from—achieving business goals, but rather an integral part of it. It’s a dirty secret that much of what we admire in the design world is a byproduct not of “strategy” but of common sense, taste and luck. Some clients are too unnerved by ambiguity to accept this, and create garganuan superstructures of bullshit to provide a sense of security. Not only do designers enthusiastically collude in this process, but many have found ways to bill for it.
I measure success the same way anyone does: increased sales, better response rates, higher profit margins. At the same time, I’m painfully aware that design—especially graphic design—can only make a partial contribution to these outcomes, even at its most effective. This, of course, is useful to remember when the numbers don’t go your way.
PM: I agree that we have a responsibility to bring “humanity, intelligence and beauty” into these practices. But, and I’m going to beat this horse just a little bit longer, how do you hold yourself accountable? How do your clients hold you accountable? How do you
justify (what I assume to be) your high rates? The top designers seem to command their position through the development of an aura of brilliance. Is cultivating an aura what it’s about?
Before you answer, I want to posit an assertion—from what I see, graphic design is becoming something of a commodity practice. Adaptive Path doesn’t promote graphic design services (though we offer them) because competing in that space means battling over ever-shrinking margins. Graphic design seems to have two huge forces working against its viability:
1) an immense supply-side, with so many designers offering virtually indistinguishable services, and
2) an almost allergic reaction to demonstrating explicit business value, so that pricing graphic design is something of a voodoo art.
MB: Peter, it’s funny when you talk about graphic design’s commodity-based supply-side, with so many designers offering the same services: that’s what many of my partners have said for years about web consulting.
Your questions combine issues that have to do with providing value to clients’ businesses, and running one’s own successful design business. To address the first question about accountability, I’d like to know the answer to that one myself. Has anyone ever proven, really proven, a connection between good design and a client’s business success? “Good design,” first of all, is hard to define: for instance, I find most of the examples of work in Design Management Journal pretty mundane. Second, I think you can argue that good design can make a good business even better, good design alone can’t make a bad company good. IBM and Enron didn’t succeed or fail because of their logos, both of which were designed by the same guy, by the way. So if a client asks me if I can prove that my work has had an effect on my clients’ bottom lines, I have a short answer: no.
Instead, I tell them that the best thing design can do for a company is to express that company’s personality accurately and compellingly, and in so doing permit that organization’s inherent strengths to prevail. This can be through graphics, product, environments, or experiences. The way Pentagram is set up creates a bias for this answer, of course. We’re owned by partners who are all working designers, and whose practices span the disciplines I mentioned above. The clients who hire us work directly with those partners: we have no account executives or client handlers. Each partner has a pretty distinct point of view and doesn’t attempt to conceal it. Our clients are people who want to work with smart, talented, committed designers who they like spending time with. Clients who don’t value that go elsewhere.
This is also a pretty efficient and stable model financially. Each partner runs a pretty small, autonomous team. The overhead is low. I write my own proposals and negotiate my own agreements. I can ask for whatever fees I want, but we basically try to cover our time and expenses plus a 20% profit margin. So much for the the voodoo art of pricing.
So it’s efficient and stable, yes. But I suspect it wouldn’t be of much interest to, say, an ad agency holding company. They would look for growth, which we really don’t care that much about. And they’d get exasperated by the idiosyncracies of the designer / owners, and try to replace them with people who could deliver a more reliable product with less muss and fuss. That’s what you mean by a commodity, right? I think we might make more money this way, but we’d give up what is a pretty ideal life in design.