Books, beaches and Bierut

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It’s that time of the year when summer reading lists cram the culture pages of the quality Sundays and in the Johnson house it was no different. The children clutched the latest Voldermort-fest and dipped tweenage toes into Dan Brown. The wife packed masses of intelligent chick-lit.

I, as ever, couldn’t decide. Would it be a mauling by Monbiot or a slow wade through Alistair Campbell’s diaries? Back copies of The Economist or stealing the Potter from small ones when they weren’t looking?

But then my imported copy arrived just in time and it was decided: I was going on holiday with Michael Bierut.

The wife of course lifted her eyes to the heavens, probably remembering the many holidays I’d spent glued to Mr Poynor’s collections or the consecutive holidays that were spent (with small children) with daddy ‘˜trying to write his book’. And on the surface, taking a design textbook on holiday is a strange thing to do. I certainly got some odd looks on the beach, but that was probably because I was laughing, a lot, turning over page corners and scribbling in margins like some demented fool cramming for a design exam.

Some disclosure is required here, because the author and I go back. In fact we go back further than he may realise because once, at the end of the eighties, I rather naively dropped off my folio of poorly presented glass slides at the then high temple of minimalism that was Vignelli. I duly returned a day later to find my folio, unscathed, with one of the most polite form letters I had ever received which thanked me for dropping it off, the presentation was interesting, there weren’t any opportunities but thanks anyway, yada yada, yours Michael Bierut.

I kept that letter for some time, because it contained the only words of encouragement from that trip. (It was a trip full of criticism for the way I looked, the length of my hair, my lack of a tie, my slightly dodgy teeth, you name it really). I then watched the design output, the move to a little-known global branding outfit, the growing portfolio, the writing and the advent of Design Observer. When we finally met in the early nineties we realised we both shared various similar traits: the ability to bore anyone near us senseless about the minutiae of our chosen business; a geeky love of the ‘˜name that typeface’ game; an encyclopedic love of design history; the determination to be the first people to bring the typeface Souvenir crashing back into fashion, and an interest in words.

Through various journals, collections then websites it became clear that Mr B was a good writer. No, hang on, a really good writer. One of his partners once confessed to me that they got him to write their proposals because he was so much better at them.

Perhaps a bit of context is needed here because there still aren’t that many designers who can write. It’s not a great surprise that primarily visual people should feel a little word shy – designers have often gathered around them good suits to help them communicate, whether through proposals, powerpoint or presentations. The incidence of mild dyslexia amongst designers rockets to around 30%, apparently, so once the college dissertation is done and dusted most are happy to leave it at that.

On my bookshelves I have a small collection of Ken Garland’s writing. Paul Rand, of course, was well known for penning the occasional block-busting essay. Chip Kidd even wrote a great novel, The Cheese Monkeys (albeit about graphic design, it’s true). The bookshelves of Magma in London groan primarily with picture books and the writing collections are multi-authored (like the Looking Closer series that also involves Bierut) or are from proper bona fide critics like Poynor and Heller. Attempts by designers to write are either limited to introductions to their own glossy monographs (sometimes not even that), or overview/how to books like Quentin Newark’s What is Graphic Design?, Adrian Shaughnessy’s How to be a graphic designer: Without losing your soul, or my own offering. All are books content to balance words and pictures in the knowledge that designers need pictures to get them through to the finish line, if they’re to get there at all.

Bierut’s collection is different. 79 essays, consisting (I’d guess) of between 600 and 1200 words each. So about 80,000 words in total, spread over two decades of writing. No pictures. To give some sense of scale of this achievement, when I set about writing the 18 chapters of my own book, Problem Solved, the only way I could mentally get myself through the pain of it all was to mutter to myself ‘˜think of it as writing 18 articles’. But, 79? Now, that’s a lot.

There’s a strong chance that you will have read some of it before, especially as many were first aired on Design Observer. It’s very nice to re-read them in a good old-fashioned analogue environment. There’s a subtle running gag that he and his partner Abbott Miller have developed of setting each essay in a different font so you can divert yourself with the type gags. A story on the branding of the town Celebration is set in the project’s typeface Cheltenham, an essay on script-writing in American Typewriter, an essay bemoaning the prevalence of ITC Garamond set in the hated specimen, and so on.

I noticed that I had inadvertently used the language of several of the essays myself by some sort of osmosis. I’ve developed a weird mental image of the teenage Bierut geekily burying his head in a pile of books whilst mentally critiquing their covers. I now know a lot more about architecture. I’ve learned that he’s as interesting writing about all sorts of subjects and regularly ‘˜plays away’ from his home subject of design – there’s even an engaging piece about the perils of going to the gym. It was great to re-read an early piece that he had grandly titled ‘˜How to become famous’ and to realise that I’d taken one of the pieces of tongue-in-cheek advice (always make sure your awards entry is physically bigger than everyone else’s) slightly too literally on more than one occasion.

In essence the main writing tips I’ve gleaned from the essays are as follows:

Don’t be afraid to write in the first person. Sometimes the blogosphere is criticised (rightly) for devoting too many pixels to narcissistic word-jockeys juggling bad grammar, but Beirut’s writing seems to rise above it. He regularly reveals his own vanity and you still can’t hate him for it, dammit.

Don’t be afraid to side-track yourself or try a different topic. Hey, if a graphic designer can write an entertaining essay about falling off a treadmill’¦

Don’t worry about revealing the subject of your article until the first or second (or sometimes third paragraph). This article, technically a book review, is masked in a discussion about holiday reading matter, if you think about it.

Do be afraid to hand out advice. This only works if you’re well respected, preferably world-wide. Cyberspace is now sagging with would-be experts endlessly writing ‘˜how-to’ lists with one eye on their RSS feeds, but Beirut is one of the few that can get away with it.

Do worry about how you start, and crucially, end, a piece. One of the best copywriters I ever worked with would constantly quiz me, when writing long copy – ‘˜have you got your end-line yet?’ Beirut is a master. Read and learn.

Oh, and don’t be afraid to write a list.

It’s clear is that this book confirms him as one of our living design treasures. If he and I were in ever in any kind of design race he’s many, many laps ahead. I thought, for a while, that I probably had more yellow pencils than him, until it was quietly revealed to me than Pentagram New York didn’t enter D&AD to spare the London office’s blushes. I have a couple of those ADC cube things but I fear he has cupboards full of those. Sure, I was a president once of a big design organisation but he’s been president forever of about 4 million over there. I bet he has trillions more Google hits than me, and that’s even if I include M Johnson the runner in my search. Look, he has his own Wikipedia entry, for goodness sake’¦

Sometimes I would console myself with the private thought that perhaps the work wasn’t scorchingly-brilliantly-incredible all of the time and then this Saks project turned up so that theory crumbled too. I even found myself smiling when I found a typo in his book, but my book had thousands of those on its first run and an embarrassing research error to boot, so that’s no good either.

But hang on, by some quiet detailed scouring of the small print, I’ve realised two important things. That a) he didn’t manage to set any of the book in Souvenir (talk about a wasted opportunity) and b) Michael Bierut is 7 years older than me. Yes! Hurrah! Finally, I have something on him.

I’ve been playing this great news through my mind ever since. When I discovered it I turned to my wife and said – ‘˜if I haven’t got a book of writing out by the time I’m fifty will you shoot me?’ ‘˜Yes’, she said, with a strange look in her eye.

Michael Johnson

Seventy-nine Short Essays on Design is available now from Princeton Architectural Press