Revisiting a classic Michael Bierut essay
Last year, when I was preparing a syllabus for my students at the School of Visual Arts, I came across a paint-covered folder that I’d kept from my college days but hadn’t touched in nearly ten years. In it was a robust variety of classic design writing: Wassily Kandinsky on color, Beatrice Warde on invisible typography, and Steven Heller on pretty much everything else, along with excerpts from Baudrillard and Barthes, to confuse and upset, respectively. I also found a heavily worn second-generation scan of a third-generation photocopy of a 24-year-old essay titled “Why Designers Can’t Think,”
by a then-rising designer named Michael Bierut
I first saw the essay as an undergraduate, and it practically became required reading for employees of Pentagram (where I now work) when it was republished in Seventy-Nine Essays on Design. Rereading it here was difficult—I’d forgotten that some of my professors had the habit of typesetting handouts in Linotype Syntax at a bracing 6.5 points on canary-yellow paper. Luckily,
I had decorated the pages with some doodles.
Bierut’s essay, which distinguishes between process- and portfolio-based schools (“Swiss” versus “slick”), remains a sobering plea to designers and teachers to improve design education through cultural literacy. Many themes still hold true, and a few others are in desperate need of updating.
What’s the same: The schools still hate each other.
Bierut writes: “To the portfolio schools, the ‘Swiss’ method is hermetic, arcane, and meaningless to the general public. To the process schools, the ‘slick’ method is distastefully commercial, shallow, and derivative.”
I was lucky to have gone to a process school (the Rhode Island School of Design), and I’m happy to teach at a portfolio school, but my loyalties are to neither. Students from process schools are trained in the meticulous iteration of formal issues. Josef Albers, Wolfgang Weingart, and various contributors to Dot Dot Dot
are their heroes. Assignments are most often cultural or pro-bono projects that deal with complex structures—a poster for a Steve Reich performance, an Amtrak schedule, a logo for the architect Mario Botta. Projects like these may yield a career in planning, crafting, and deploying identity, environmental, or digital programs—all in happy, ascetic isolation for so-so wages. These students are picky about typefaces and kerning, and scorn lowbrow commercial clients unless absolutely necessary.
“Educators deserve a noogie and a raise. In addition to their previous
responsibilities, they now must also act as traffic directors,
conductors, and filters.”
On the other side, portfolio schools pressure students to attend to the realities of commercial practice by building a thick and pretty portfolio. Students are pushed into “hot” apprenticeships at name-brand agencies and design firms, and count Milton Glaser and George Lois as their idols. Their portfolios show a dizzying array of theater posters, organic-tea packaging, and fast-food-chain websites. These clean-cut, linked-in young guns can jump in at any agency; deploy ideas, trends, and clip art; play Foosball; network; drink beer; work; drink more beer; and repeat. They can jam out ads that any half-awake subway rider will understand and snicker at. Their portfolio websites are updated daily, while the process-school students are busy choosing a content-management system.
What has changed: The best graduates don’t want full-time employment, which is hard to find.
Bierut writes that “the best graduates of either camp are equally sought after by employers.” The new reality is that there are fewer traditional graphic design jobs than there are graduates. The smartest students know this and are more likely to be entrepreneurs, finding their own niche. The best-trained graduates are their own designers, illustrators, photographers, project managers, writers, editors, social-media strategists, and typographers, and they need to be able to work with anyone.
Like me, most of my students grew up in the 1980s and ’90s and witnessed the internet boom and bust. They know that being adaptable and collaborative is crucial to their survival, and they’ve plotted out careers around their interests with self-initiated enterprises and projects. UnderConsideration, the Feltron Annual Report, and Airbnb
are just a few models.
What’s the same: Designers still talk to themselves.
In the second part of his essay, Bierut criticizes both camps for giving too much attention to design at the expense of meaning: “Programs will pay lip service to meaning in design with references to ‘semiotics’ (Swiss) or ‘conceptual problem solving’ (slick), but these nuances are applied in a cultural vacuum. In many programs, if not most, it’s possible to study graphic design for four years without any meaningful exposure to the fine arts, literature, science, history, politics, or any of the other disciplines that unite us in a common culture.”
Learning the language of design and the technical practice in four years is hard enough. It’s implausible to expect a designer to accumulate multiple degrees in that time. And while half-hearted attempts at integrating the liberal arts into the design-school vacuum exist, they’re rarely applied in the design classroom.
Instead of engaging with the larger world, many students “worship at the altar of the visual,” as Bierut writes. One new culprit is the tools that aggregate visual “inspiration.” Ffffound, Tumblr, and the other design-porn galleries are addicting but tacitly encourage sameness and self-referential practice in lieu of meaningful communication.
(Trendlist.org has collected most of these.) A positive side effect is peer-to-peer bonding around mutually agreeable work, but who wants to see diagonal hairlines or black-and-white pictures of outer space on everything?
Bierut writes: “Until educators find a way to expose their students to a meaningful range of culture, graduates will continue to speak in languages that only their classmates understand. And designers, more and more, will end up talking to themselves.”
Even when a valuable site like Brand New attempts to host an intelligent dialogue about a well-executed identity project, the comments devolve into snipes over superficial qualities at the expense of critical thinking about the work in a broader cultural context. The conversation tends to end in naive arguments over good taste. I wince every time an outsider (or a client) stumbles onto one of these blogs and posts a comment like “You guys are a bunch of arrogant jerks.”
What has changed: Cultural literacy is only as strong as the weakest internet signal (or educator).
It’s the subject of all search-
engine commercials: Everyone is an expert or can quickly fake it. Whether my client makes forklifts, forks, or foghorns, I can quickly get up to speed in the ten-
minute cab ride to the meeting. What you can’t fake is breadth of knowledge. It’s easy to use quick searches to plug holes and spout facts, but it’s certainly not enriching, and it seems as though it’s making us stupid.
I had a professor who always hammered at us: “You have to read The New York Times every day. It’s good for you.” (I didn’t then, but I do now.) I’ve tried this tactic on my students, and it didn’t work. One protested, “We’re really busy.” The rest of them just lied about reading it. Rather than accept defeat, I send my students articles related to their projects and interests. I don’t know if they read them, but I cross my fingers that they do.
But it’s rare to find a design student, Swiss or slick, whose only interest is design. They tend to be pack rats of idiosyncratic topics, from thermodynamics to the art of Ukrainian Easter-egg decoration. There is a huge opportunity to build on students’ esoteric interests while also building self-reliant designers.
Educators should encourage curiosity and direct students away from the navel of design, toward broader topics. Design Observer, Kottke.org, and Brain Pickings are exquisite portals to both design and nondesign content. They are easy gateways to cultural literacy, and I don’t know what I’d do without them. Besides collecting books at the Strand to fill in the gaps, I’ve also been lucky to find accidental paths to enlightenment through projects, coworkers, and even clients.
Educators deserve a noogie and a raise. In addition to their previous responsibilities, they now must also act as traffic directors, conductors, and filters. Content is cheap and there is too much of it. Employable designers are everywhere, but no one necessarily needs them. Given the new economic realities and lack of traditional employment, design schools are responsible for producing culturally engaged graduates who
are resourceful, open-minded citizens of the world and who also happen to be designers. Until then, we still won’t be able to think.
Line illustrations by Joe Marianek
Joe Marianek is an Ohio-born designer based in New York City and Providence, Rhode Island. A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, he has worked with Pentagram, Landor Associates, and other firms on a variety of interdisciplinary projects ranging from institutional identity to book design. His work has been recognized by the AIGA, Art Directors Club, Type Directors Club, the Society of Publication Designers,
Communication Arts, and
I.D. He is a faculty member at the School of Visual Arts, where he teaches typography and senior thesis.