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Warning: May Contain Non-Design Content
On what is design, isn't design, and why it's not what you think
Today is an incredibly special edition of WITI for me. Michael Bierut (MB), whose bio is far too long to try to summarize here, is a designer, writer, and thinker of the highest degree. In 2006, Michael wrote an essay that has stayed burrowed in the back of my brain (in some ways, its ethos is the spiritual inspiration for WITI). It’s one of a small handful of links that I keep on hand and have sent to people nearly monthly for almost twenty years. Last week, when I went to send it to a friend, I noticed how slow it was to load and emailed Michael, who had previously done an MMD for us, to see if he’d be up for us re-running it so it had a snappier server to call home. He immediately replied and even offered to update it. So, without any further ado, I share with you one of my favorite essays about what makes work: whether you’re a designer, marketer, or just about anything else. - Noah (NRB)
Michael here. In an earlier era of the internet, I was the co-editor of a blog called Design Observer. My colleagues and I wrote about design in the broadest possible sense, with pieces that would touch on everything from pop culture to politics. The reaction was mixed. After one such piece — an essay by Jessica Helfand about the possible introduction of a national identification card here in the United States — the first comment came within an hour: "What does this have to do with design? If you have a political agenda please keep it to other pages. I am not sure of your leaning but I come here for design."
I come here for design. Another article published around that time, by no less than guest contributor Lawrence Weschler, got some similar responses. ("Obscure references...trying to impress each other...please, can we start talking some sense?") In these cases, our visitors reacted like diners who just got served penne alla vodka in a Mexican restaurant: it's not the kind of dish they came for, and they doubt the proprietors have the expertise required to serve it up.
Guys, I know how you feel. I used to feel the same way.
Almost forty years ago, I served on a committee that had been formed to explore the possibilities of setting up a New York chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Arts. Almost all of the other committee members were older, well-known — and in some cases, legendary — designers. I was there to be a worker bee.
I had only been in New York for a year or so. Back in design school in 1970s Cincinnati, I had been starved for design. It would be hard for a student today to imagine a world so isolated. No email, no blogs. The only design conference I had ever heard of was in Aspen, Colorado, and no one I knew had ever attended it. Because there were no AIGA chapters, there were no AIGA student groups. Few of us could afford subscriptions to the only design magazines I knew about, CA, Print and Graphis. Those few copies we got our hands on were passed around with the fervor of girlie magazines after lights out at a Boy Scout jamboree. No How, no Step, and of course no Emigre or dot dot dot. We studied the theory of graphic design day in and day out, but the real practice of graphic design was something mysterious that happened somewhere else. It wasn't even a subject for the history books: Phil Meggs wouldn't publish his monumental History of Graphic Design until 1983.
In New York, I was suddenly in — what seemed to me then, at least — the center of the design universe. There was already so much to see and do, but I wanted more. I was ravenous. Establishing a New York chapter for the AIGA would mean more lectures, more events, more graphic design. For the committee's first meeting, I had made a list of all designers I would love to see speak, and I volunteered to share it with the group.
A few names in, one of the well-known designers in the group cut me off with a bored wave. "Oh God, not more show and tell portfolio crap." To my surprise, the others began nodding in agreement. "Yeah, instead of wallowing in graphic design stuff, we should have something like...a Betty Boop film festival." A Betty Boop film festival? I wanted to hear a lecture from Josef Muller-Brockmann, not watch cartoons. I assumed my senior committee members were pretentious and jaded, considering themselves — bizarrely — too sophisticated to admit they cared about the one thing I cared about most: design. I was confused and crestfallen. Please, I wanted to say, can we start talking some sense?
I thought I was a pretty darned good designer back then. A few years before, in my senior year, I had designed something I was still quite proud of: a catalog for Cincinnati's Contemporary Arts Center on the work of visionary theater designer Robert Wilson. The CAC didn't hire me because I knew anything about Robert Wilson. I had never heard of him. More likely they liked my price: $1,000, all in, for a 112-page book, cheap even by 1980 standards.
The CAC's director, Robert Stearns, invited me to his house one evening to see the material that needed to be included in the catalog: about 75 photographs, captions, and a major essay by New York Times critic John Rockwell. I had never heard of John Rockwell. To get us in the mood, Stearns put on some music that he said had been composed by Wilson's latest collaborator. It was called Einstein on the Beach and it was weird and repetitive. The composer was Philip Glass. I had never heard of Einstein on the Beach or Philip Glass. Stearns gave me the album cover to look at. I noticed with almost tearful relief that it had been designed by Milton Glaser. I had heard of Milton Glaser.
I was completely unfazed by the fact I knew nothing about Robert Wilson, John Rockwell, Einstein on the Beach, or Philip Glass. In my mind, they were all tangential to the real work ahead, which would simply be to lay out 75 photographs and 8,000 words of text over 112 pages in a way that would impress the likes of Milton Glaser. With single-minded obliviousness, I plunged ahead, got the job done, and was quite pleased with the results.
About a year after my disappointing meeting with the planners of the AIGA New York chapter, I finally saw my first Robert Wilson production. It was the Brooklyn Academy of Music's 1984 revival of Einstein on the Beach. And sitting there in the audience, utterly transported, it came crashing down on me: I had completely screwed up that catalog. Seen live, Wilson's work was epic, miraculous, hypnotic, transcendent. My stupid layouts were none of those things. They weren't even pale, dim echoes of any of those things. They were simply no more and no less than a whole lot of empty-headed graphic design. And graphic design wasn't enough. It never is.
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. I believe I'm still passionate about graphic design. But the great thing about graphic design is that it is almost always about something else. Corporate law. Professional football. Art. Politics. Robert Wilson. And if I can't get excited about whatever that something else is, I really have trouble doing good work as a designer. To me, the conclusion is inescapable: the more things you're interested in, the better your work will be.
In that spirit, I like to think that our blog was a place for people to read and talk about graphic design. But I also like to think that it was a place where someone might accidentally discover some other things, things that seem to have nothing to do with design: Ethiopian grave markers, Passover tales, 50-year-old experimental novels, cold war diplomacy. Hell, I wouldn't even mind a post on Betty Boop.
Not everything is design. But design is about everything. So do yourself a favor: be ready for anything.
Thanks for reading,
Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Michael (MB)
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