Michael Bierut on the Art of the Logo

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Graphic designer Michael Bierut. Photo by Jake Chessum

Last week, Los Angeles officials unveiled a logo to accompany their bid against Rome, Paris and Budapest to host the 2024 Summer Olympics.

LA 2024’s Olympics bid logo (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

“That new logo centers around what makes LA famous, what it is so well known for, sunshine,” ABC news reporter Leanne Suter reported. “It shows a soaring figure illuminated and lifted by the rays of the sun.”

The logo of the soaring angel was developed by design agency 72andSunny with Bruce Mau Design and the team says it is meant to symbolize athletes reaching for their dreams.

Reaction swiftly followed. Some online commenters called it “beautiful” and “graceful,” while others said it makes them think of a Disney fairy or a Lisa Frank sticker from the 90s.

The LA2024 logo has been received relatively calmly however compared with some logo launches.

In New York there was an outcry last week at the redesign of the mark for “The Met.”

The Metropolitan Museum of Art's new logo designed by British-American branding firm Wolff Olins
The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new logo designed by British-American branding firm Wolff Olins (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

New York magazine’s Justin Davidson wrote that serif face letters leaning together — in a way that was meant to evoke tapering walls of the Temple of Dendur — “looks like a red double-decker bus that has stopped short, shoving the passengers into each other’s backs. Worse, the entire top half of the new logo consists of the word the.”

You may also remember the fuss about the makeover of the marks for Gap or Tropicana orange juice, or the Google and Yahoo logo changes.

There’s one graphic designer who knows about controversy surrounding logos.

Michael Bierut is a partner at Pentagram. He is author of a new book, “How to Use Graphic Design to Sell Things, Explain Things, Make Things Look Better, Make People Laugh, Make People Cry, and (Every Once in a While) Change the World.”

He designed Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign logo pro-bono, and independently of Pentagram.

That design caused an outcry when it appeared. Critics argued it was too corporate and too bland. Graphic designer David Carson said the logo “feels distant, cold, non-inviting and possibly too much like the perception of the candidate herself.” In a cartoon in The New Yorker, one observer says, “I’m just not entirely sure a big red arrow pointing right is the best logo for a Democratic candidate, is all.”

Others disagreed, finding the logo young, modern, colorful and, most importantly in our multi-platform era, flexible.

DnA host Frances Anderton asked Michael Bierut about the ideas behind the Clinton campaign logo and why graphic design matters.

His response to the strong reactions both for and against the Hillary logo:

I was actually quite disoriented by it and surprised. We worked hard on it and I was proud of it and we collaborated with a lot of people within the campaign, up to including the candidate. But I said all along that this is just a device that was like a signature or just like a mark you would put on things just to identify the source and wasn’t really meant to be subjected to the kind of critique, if you want to call it that, and some of it rose to the level of critique and some of it didn’t quite. But I like learned once again that these days this once esoteric profession, this trade, this craft that I practice is no longer something that is baffling to people but it’s something that people are increasingly curious about.

daily-cartoon-150413-hillary-1200Some of the more surprising criticisms that Michael encountered:

There were a lot of people who really thought there was some symbolism to the arrow pointing to the right, meaning that the candidate would be tending towards the right. To me it was only just, in the Western world at least we associate moving from left to right as signifying progress, because it’s the way we read, and superimposed on a letter I thought that would be clear enough. What pleased me about it secretly was that people were able to take it as their own. There’s tons of enthusiastic supporters out there who have drawn it by hand, woven it into outrageous sweaters, painted it on their fingernails, done things like that. And of course as happens in a campaign where people have strong feelings either way, there are many people who have turned it upside down, inverted it, made ghastly patterns out of it. It functions exactly the way a symbol is meant to. Drawing someone’s likeness with their nose and their eyes and their mouth and their hair is difficult, and describing a big idea can be difficult and complex, What these sort of logos do when they work well is they really become the placeholder for a much larger idea.

The criticism that you get all the time, and I’ve gotten it not just for that mark but for others that I’ve done is, ‘oh, my five year old could draw that.’ I actually love that because five year olds can draw peace signs, they can draw hearts, they can draw smiley faces, five year olds can draw the simplest logos. They can’t draw complex telecom company logos because they have curves and shapes and overlapping things and highlights and modeling and sparkles and things. But you know a simple thing that just is 90 degree angles, 45 degree angles, two primary colors, we were trying to do something that felt as simple as a flag. You could cut it out of paper in a minute and do it. And so, to the degree that geometry looks corporate to people, maybe yes, but to the degree that simplicity was meant to be the watchword, I think we were trying to “decorporatize” it to a certain degree.

Why he thinks the debate over political logos is misplaced:

Every once in a while issues get discussed. But there can be hours of debates between candidates on stage where nothing really gets discussed. Logos are the ultimate kind of cosmetic distractor. If people are talking about that, they’re purposefully trying to evade actually wrestling with real issues. It’s just meant to be a tool that actually does its job, but at its best returns the focus to the thing it symbolizes.

Why he thinks people get so passionate about corporate logo changes:

People who care about logos are actually reacting to them exactly the way that their creators and commissioners intend them to relate to it. They’ve kind of formed a personal bond in some way with the thing, and the thing that is used to symbolize that thing. And the passions can run high when it’s something that you have a really strong personal loyalty to. So when sports teams change their logos, the fans often are the first ones who are outraged.

The University of California system changed their logo and the outcry about that was so intense that they in fact rescinded the change and returned to the previous logo that was a traditional seal. And as a graphic designer, you can just criticize it as ignorant recidivism, people resisting necessary change, the way that unsophisticated people always do. But actually what’s happening, and what you have to acknowledge, is that every single person who has a diploma on their walls from one of the schools in the UC system, they bought a part of that brand. And the part of their brand that they’ve bought and paid for with not just money but four or how ever many years they spent getting their degree, and all personal loyalty that they’ve given to the place and the sense of personal identification they’ve derived from that relationship, all of a sudden that’s been altered without anyone asking their permission.

Posters for the MIT Media Lab, designed by Michael Bierut
Posters for the MIT Media Lab, designed by Michael Bierut (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

We have to do these introductions really carefully, respecting the fact that you’ve asked people, you’ve begged people to identify with your brand, whether it’s a sports team, college or university, fashion brand, orange juice brand. And then suddenly having won that loyalty and attention, then you just start messing with it. It can be done and it’s necessary, change is necessary in the world and people have a natural tendency to resist change a little bit, but I don’t think you can just dismiss people as being stupid for not liking this great new thing. I think you have to really respect the fact that they’re partners in developing what that brand is.

Why graphic design is important:

The work that I do can be seen, among many design disciplines, as one of the more inconsequential ones, one of the more cosmetic ones. It doesn’t keep rain from falling on your head the way architecture does. It doesn’t keep you clothed and warm the way fashion design does. It doesn’t get you from here to there, or brush your teeth, or provide dialysis to your kidneys the way a product designer’s work might. It has to be in some typeface so which one’s it going to be? it has to be in some color which ones are going to be.

But the reason I take it seriously is because it’s the one design discipline that actually is about the way we communicate with each other. The way a single person can communicate with a mass audience. The way a corporation or an organization or an institution can communicate with the people who are buying their product or who they want to have buy their product. The way an author can communicate with the reader. The way a city can be made legible to the people who dwell within it. All these things are actually about graphic design: the sign that tells you where you are, the thing on the outside of the package that tells you what’s inside and how to open it. I personally take it very seriously.

I’m very clear with people about what I think it can do and what it can’t do. If you’ve got a flawed product, having a fabulous logo doesn’t make it good. And if you’ve got a great product, people will take the attributes of whatever it is you’re selling and say, “I love that brand.” That’s why a lot of times beloved brands that try to change actually run into the most outrage.

How logos are given meaning by their users:

The Christian cross is a logo. The Star of David is a logo. The peace sign is a logo. The swastika is a logo. These things are all symbols that have the power to move people, the power to outrage people, the power to stand for larger ideas. I find that to be a really exciting challenge. When I was in design school forty years ago, I really thought the challenge began when I got an assignment, and it was completed when I applied the last finishing touch to it and let the ink dry and said, tada, it’s done. If you actually think about it longer — and I spent all these decades since thinking about it and watching how it really works — what you really realize is that these things are completed when they’re out in the world.

There’s nothing inherently good or bad about the swastika. Prior to its use by the Nazis it was a good luck symbol. It was a motif that appears in many cultures and patterns all over the place and sometimes even today you’ll see a 19th century thing that has a repeating swastika. It’s just some lines basically, but the association with the barbarism of the Nazi movement and everything that happened in the mid-20th century indelibly associated it with that single idea. And it shows how powerful that is. And people who use it carelessly, people who scrawl it on a door or choose to tattoo it on their forehead, they’re manipulating the power of some lines to frighten people, to shock people, to cause distress. To me, that’s a really remarkable thing.

How to use graphic design to sell things, explain things, make things look better, make people laugh, make people cry and (every once in a while) change the world by Michael Bierut, published in 2015 by Harper Collins
How to use graphic design to sell things, explain things, make things look better, make people laugh, make people cry and (every once in a while) change the world by Michael Bierut, published in 2015 by Harper Collins (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

You don’t start out every logo hoping it’ll become the peace sign, which was a logo designed by a designer in the early ’60s. And you don’t do one dreading it’s going to become a swastika. You just try to focus on the task at hand and realize that the real answer will be completed by lots and lots of people who won’t have the benefit of your explanation, who aren’t going to be there while you’re doing it and will make it their own on whatever terms they choose.

Why his book title says that graphic design can change the world:

The very last project I show in the book is a volunteer project I did for a foundation in New York that decided to undertake this project where they would create new libraries in elementary schools all over New York City, focused on the most at risk neighborhoods and the most at risk student populations of New York City. This was the Robin Hood Foundation. They reasoned that renovating whole schools from top to bottom would be really difficult to do, and expensive. But if you could change one room, if you went in and did a really great library in each of those schools, it would be like implanting a heart and soul and special brain in each of those schools. And they asked me if I can just do the graphic design to contribute to this project.

At first I thought I was just doing a logo for this initiative, so I did a logo, and then I thought well that’s all done. And then each of the libraries had a different architect. They asked all these great young architects to contribute their talents to it. One of them came to me and said, you’re the graphic designer, right? And I said yeah, where do you want the logo and any other signs you need? And he said, No, no, I have this other problem. It’s because the building my school’s in, the ceiling’s really high. The shelves only go up to the height a child can reach, then I have a six foot space between the ceiling and the top shelf. I just need something to go there. And I remember thinking, whoa, I’m not Diego Rivera, I didn’t sign up to do murals all over the place. This is something different. I’m just a humble graphic designer.

So I suppressed that urge and I said, ok, what can we do. And we came up with this idea where we would take photographs of the kids in the school and just do a photo mural tribute to the kids and put them between the shelf and the ceiling.I remember saying, somewhat pretentiously, this would be like a triumphal frieze that would run along the top of the room just the same way those friezes of the heroes of the antique world would run along the pediments of temples. I didn’t press the point too much but I was sort of enthusiastic about that idea.

And so we installed that there and it turned out that the librarians who all knew each other in the system, all of them suddenly wanted a mural like that. So then we started doing these murals in all these different schools. And it turned out that once we started going, I could ask almost anyone I could think of, do you want to contribute a mural, and they would do it. So by the end we had done like 50 of these schools. And I remember thinking, it seemed like a little job but now it’s really inspiring to kids and isn’t that nice. And so I could warm myself with the idea that I had inspired a generation of school children. But if I was really honest with myself I was just decorating a wall.

So one time we were in one of these libraries after it was finished, taking a look at the finished work, and it was the end of the day. And the librarian who was the person in charge of that particular library, was shutting it down. It was winter and it was getting dark early. And she said, wait, let me show you the way I turn out the lights. And I said, what? And she said, I do it a special way, I’ll show you. And then went to the bank of switches and turned them off one by one. The last one she turned off was the one that illuminated the portraits of the kids. And she said I leave that one on last because I want to remind myself why I come to work every day.

So with that moment, I sort of realized, oh shoot, I had it wrong all along. It was for the librarians that we did it. They were the magnifying device. I’m not there to teach the kids. I’m not there to inspire them to read. I’m not there to teach them that learning is great. The librarians do that. And I can’t make the librarians do that either. But what we can do, and it’s pure symbolism, it’s like providing a great set for actors to work on, it’s like giving them great props to manipulate, when they’re in the middle of a scene. It just helps them play their role with more conviction and more enthusiasm and give them a symbolic moment, a little bit of ritual in their lives. So when I heard that I thought, well, you know, that’s how you change the world. You don’t do it all at once. You just do it incrementally, one librarian at a time, one student at a time, and eventually some impact is felt.