Success Secrets from Michael Bierut:
- Clients are most afraid that you’re going to go off and design something without really listening first.
- Just keep asking questions: the more you ask, the more you’ll understand what the client is looking for in a designer.
- Life’s too short to spend your time talking on the phone with people who make your knuckles white during the course of the conversation.
Michael Bierut is a partner in the New York office of the international consultancy Pentagram. His graphic design work has been collected by major museums around the world. He has served as the president of the AIGA’s New York chapter and of its national organization. He was elected to the Art Directors Hall of Fame in 2003, received the AIGA Medal in 2006, and received the Design Mind award from the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in 2008. He is a co-founder of the world’s biggest design blog, DesignObserver.com, the author of 79 Short Essays on Design from Princeton Architectural Press, and on the faculty of Yale University’s School of Art and School of Management.
I decided when I was in high school that I wanted to become a graphic designer without ever having met one or really knowing that much about what they did. I liked art, and I particularly liked commercial art.
I’m from Ohio, and in my state the University of Cincinnati had a program in graphic design at their school of design. I got my degree there. And right after I graduated, I moved to New York and got my first job working with Massimo and Lella Vignelli at Vignelli Associates.
I worked there for over ten years and then joined Pentagram. That was my second, and last job.
The business structure at Pentagram:
Pentagram currently has 17 partners and probably just as many retired partners or ex-partners. So there’s an enormous body of work that’s been done on Pentagram’s behalf by people working at Pentagram for the past 35 or so years.
And because of that, our name is fairly well known, and a great deal of business comes from referrals.
But also, because of the way we’re structured, we actually don’t need that much work to stay busy and to run a good business. Our overhead is really low. We don’t have account executives or new business people.
Every one of those 17 partners is a working designer with clients. Each of the partners hires his or her own design team to support the work that they do.
Each team runs its own profit and loss. So each team is financially accountable, and tends to be very careful about how it uses money and how many people it hires to be as efficient as possible. As a result, each of those 17 studios within Pentagram really doesn’t need that much work to keep busy. It’s not like a typical multi-national firm that has a pyramid structure, where they need constant new business activity just to feed a big monster that consists of a lot of non-billing overhead people.
People who’ve influenced Michael’s work:
I could name thousands and thousands and thousands. While I was in school I interned for a guy in Cincinnati named Dan Bittman. He’s a star in Cincinnati, but isn’t as well known anywhere else, but he had a real influence on me. I also worked as an intern in Boston with Chris Pullman at WGBH. That had some influence on me I’d say. And then, I’ve been working in these two jobs, my first job for ten years with Lella and Massimo, and my second job, here at Pentagram, for 18 years and counting.
When I was younger I had dozens of heroes who ranged from the obvious people, like Paul Rand and Milton Glaser, to less obvious ones like Corita Kent and Don Trousdell. From classic designers like Armin Hofmann and Josef Müller-Brockman, all the way to great MAD magazine illustrators like Don Martin or Mort Drucker.
You can see I’ve always had very eclectic tastes and have admired lots of different people. And now at Pentagram, I have six partners that I work with side-by-side. They’re just as influential on me today as anyone else.
About 15 years ago, I was having a conversation with one of my partners, Paula Scher, and we were talking about our clients and our work and I remember saying back then, “If I only had a half dozen clients that I really liked, that I really liked talking to and who I really respected for the way that they made their money, and I really felt I was making a contribution through my talents, and that I could give the best of what I do, if I could just have six of those people, that would be all I’d ask for.”
I sort of dreamt about that for a while, and a few years ago, around seven years or so, I just decided life’s to short to spend my time talking on the phone to people who make my knuckles white while I’m having a conversation. I decided that I was not going to do that anymore.
I think I’m a very polite guy. I don’t have it in me to actually fire clients outright. You can probably tell that from the fact that I’ve only had two jobs and I’ve been married to the same woman for 28 years, and she’s the first girl I ever kissed. So I’m not much for breaking up with careers or with women or with clients.
I can’t say I went out and fired all of them. But one by one, I managed to trail off from doing things that I didn’t like. So if I’m proud of anything now, it’s that I have clients that I work with where the client is someone who I first met as long ago as 1981 or 1982, and I’ve done every single thing that they’ve ever commissioned a graphic designer to do between then and now.
When one of them comes back and they have some new project they think might be interesting for me, it’s always really, really nice to feel that I have those kind of relationships over the long term. I end up learning a lot from people like that who are smart and do interesting things and who introduce me to worlds that I wouldn’t have access to having just gone to design school.
Michael’s thoughts on the keys to success:
Most of the stuff we work with in our profession has some kind of text that goes along with it. Graphic design is about putting together words and pictures, and I’ve always sensed, even in design school, that a lot of designers weren’t into the words. To them, the words were just areas of gray space to be manipulated, moved around, and dispensed with.
I’ve always been a very faithful reader, even a compulsive reader, and I’ve found that if I read and try to understand what I’m working on, that the words gave me a surprising edge in the situation. At first I thought it was just other designers who weren’t reading the text, but then it turns out, a lot of times, that the clients haven’t read the text either.
It’s amazing how many people don’t take the time to actually read the stuff that they’re saying, the stuff that is so important and has to be designed and mass-produced and distributed to the public.
And a lot of times, if you engage with the content, you find out ways to design more precisely for the assignment. You find out ways to improve it. And sometimes you can make the suggestion to throw it out all together and replace it with something better.
The designers that I’ve always liked, the ones that I’ve always hired, the ones that I’ve liked working with, the ones that I respect, always seem to be ones that are very attuned to the content of what they’re working with, and connected to whom the audience is for that content.
I think there are plenty of designers out there who are good at resolving a formal composition. I’m not even sure I’m really that good at that to tell you the truth. But I’ve found that if you sort out the substance of the message, you end up getting a result that’s not just more effective, but actually might have more resonance with the people it’s intended to reach.
On doing things differently:
I have three kids, and if any of them proposed to me that they want to go directly after an MFA in design, I probably would try to stop them from doing it, to tell you the truth.
Instead, I would recommend that they get some general knowledge first. For example, right now my daughter’s about to graduate from a four-year liberal arts college, and she’s spent four years reading books and learning about everything. When I was her age, I was spending hours and hours and hours doing the kind of things one did in design school: hand lettering type, cutting things up with Xacto knives, hand painting color swatches, and cutting them out and combining them, things that people don’t do at all today in the computer world.
I spent literally months on end doing that sort of stuff and my daughter meanwhile has been reading the great books and communing with really intelligent professors and engaging in stimulating discussions with fellow students.
Throughout my adult life, I’ve been imagining that a time will come when I’ll be able to go back and do all that. And then you start to realize that point may never come. That would be my greatest regret I’d say.
The toughest thing Michael’s ever had to do:
The hardest thing to do is to own up to making a mistake. A few times in my life I’ve made big mistakes that, in some cases, have ended up costing me a lot of money. If I’ve gotten inspiration from where in these situations, I think it would be from the story of a structural engineer named William LeMessurier. He was the engineer for the Citicorp Tower in Manhattan. After it was finished and occupied, he realized that he had made a miscalculation that meant the building might topple over in a high wind. This is a career-ending mistake. But instead of covering his butt or calling in an army of lawyers to protect him, he simply went to the head of Citi and said he had made this mistake and he wanted to fix it. They were so disarmed by his forthrightness that they actually worked with him to fix the problem and he came out with his reputation intact. Being honest like that requires real bravery, but LeMessurier’s story proves that it’s worth it
Michael’s tips for getting new business:
I am really good at getting new business. And there are simple tricks for doing it. But sometimes I’m reluctant to tell many people these tricks because I feel like I’m able to go in and get a lot of work just because no one else seems to know them.
One is, if you spend a lot of time asking questions and are sincerely interested in the client and his or her business, a lot of times they’ll think that you’re really smart and you really “get them.” You may not be smart or get them at all, but because you’re open to the idea of learning about them, they’ll give you more credit than you perhaps deserve.
What to avoid in a new business pitch:
Most designers, when they’re going in to pitch a new client, have prepared very, very carefully. They’ve selected the portfolio they want to show, they get all their talking points worked out, and they’ve perhaps even researched the client in advance and actually are going to demonstrate their acumen by telling the client what kind of conclusions they’ve drawn about their business already.
All those things are worth doing, but a lot of times the result is they’re so eager to start rolling, that if they’ve got sixty minutes for the presentation, then they have sixty minutes worth of solid material to fill that, and then some.
I’ll go into meetings and I’ll put off the moment where I have to present my work as long as I possibly can. I’ll just keep asking questions and questions and questions and questions and of course, the more questions, the more they’re telling you what they’re looking for in a designer.
Thoughts on how to present your work to new prospects:
The more you talk with them, the more they tell you what they want to know about you. So, after you’ve asked a lot of questions, when you start showing them your work, you know what to focus on, things that you know now are relevant to their situation and that are answering questions that they have, that are in the spheres of interest to them.
I’m not sure why everyone doesn’t present this way, but every once in a while I’ll get a client who will tell me what the other presentations were like. And it’s funny to hear sometimes.
Dealing with prospect insecurities:
Clients just want to be sure they don’t make the wrong decision. And if they don’t have that much experience working with designers, they’ll go into a presentation ill at ease and feeling insecure. It’s just the way it is. For them it’s new and uncomfortable. It’s different from other situations in their life because they usually feel very capable and in command.
But when meeting with designers, they might not think they have any taste or know anything about design or something like that, right? They have a kind of fear and insecurity.
Most designers, when they’re pitching, when they’re selling themselves, think the way to allay the client’s insecurity is by demonstrating absolute confidence. They try to let the prospect know that they shouldn’t worry: “I really know what I’m doing. I’m a real expert. Look at all this stuff I’ve done. I really know your business. I spent time researching it. I’m on top of everything. You have nothing to fear. I’m really competent. You have no reason to worry.”
The prospects greatest fear:
And the problem is they miss the one over-arching fear that clients tend to have, that you’re not going to listen to them. That’s what they’re really afraid of. They’re afraid that you’re going to go off and design something, and not really listen to whatever it is they need. And, if you’ve managed to fill a sixty-minute presentation with sixty minutes worth of bragging about your skills, you’ve basically confirmed exactly what it is they’re most afraid of.
They’re not afraid that you’re a bad designer. They’re afraid you’re a good designer who is going to go off and do something that has nothing at all to do with what their problem is.
Thoughts on the importance of curiosity:
If you read a lot and you’re genuinely curious about the world, you’ll go far in this profession, because there simply aren’t that many people who are able to combine graphic design talent with genuine curiosity about the world.
The great thing about our profession is the nature of the designer/client relationship. You’re always put together with someone who is coming in with a new perspective. And I think designers complain about that sometimes. They say, “My biggest challenge is educating the client.” I never, ever talk about educating the client. I don’t believe in it.
Avoiding bad design:
In fact, when I see bad design, it’s not because the client hasn’t been educated. It’s because the designer hasn’t been educated by the client. I don’t mean taking orders from a hack client. I mean genuinely becoming sympathetic and interested with what the client is trying to communicate, what makes them interesting and special.
This article is published by Will Sherwood | The Sherwood Group |Website Design | Graphic Design | Marketing Communications: The Sherwood Group has over 30 years of experience working with all sorts of companies, small and large. Our clients range from entrepreneurs to Fortune 500 firms, in nearly every business sector, from across the street to around the world (and yes, even Europe, China, and South America). Our goal is to create advertising, graphic design, website design, and marketing communication that still looks fresh and relevant 10-15 years later. Our mission is to stir your imagination and leave your competition shaken and wondering, Now what do we do?” We are located in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
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Please comment. We’d like to know if you found this article informative or helpful?
By victry 27 Dec 2008
I especially like Michael’s honesty. As a painter first, I see color and form and then the message. Sort of like hearing the music, but not knowing what the words mean…or caring. I do that too.
So his work has always hit me as astoundingly strong and forceful. The Saks campaign was brilliant. His advice about clients really hit home too. Life is too short.
By David Gibson 12 Mar 2010
From David Gibson
this is great
I really like that Pentagram is his second job
By Lorraine Armgardt 12 Mar 2010
Posted by Lorraine Armgardt
I agree with the statement that you should always listen and get to know your client and their business. Without that, there is no way that you can design with the client’s best interest in mind.
By Jerry "Hutch" Hutchinson 12 Mar 2010
Posted by Jerry Hutchinson
By Tim Lawrence 12 Mar 2010
Thanks for sharing the interview…some really good thoughts and ideas in there and I haven’t even gotten half way through it yet. Looking forward to reading the rest of the interview when I have more time.
Posted by Tim Lawrence
By Van Chuchom 12 Mar 2010
Will, thanks for your Superstars list! I enjoyed reading them as their words are truly insightful.
Posted by Van Chuchom
By Deborah Carrington 12 Mar 2010
the wonderfully talented and now departed alan fletcher comes straight to my mind!
Posted by Deborah Carrington
By Lyubov Strauss 12 Mar 2010
Excellent job. Interviews are powerful and thoughtful. You capture the history. It is great. Great choice. Interesting stories. Great choice of visual images and presentation. Thank you for sharing with us.
Posted by Lyubov Strauss
By Keith Tarrier 13 Mar 2010
Very interesting. Good on him from going from nowhere in deisgn to a major player starting at a late age (for a career)
I wonder where I would be today if I took the job I was offered in 98 during the dotcom boom…
Posted by Keith Tarrier
By Kristin Hall 15 Mar 2010
Thank you for posting this interview. I heard Mr. Bierut speak several years ago at Notre Dame and was inspired by him at that time. He says much of the same things in this interview that he did then. Sounds like simple advice, but so important to get your clients to talk and to really listen. I believe that it can make the difference between good design and great design.
Posted by Kristin Hall
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By Todd Baer 17 Sep 2012
Michael Bierut shares his story honestly and with easy. I am always impressed when a designer as accomplished as he, gives real advise on how any designer can improve proffessionally.
Listening and asking questions, as apposed to presenting an hour long slide show to a prospective client, is something I’ll be trying soon.