Negative Space: Logo Design with Michael Bierut

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
Logos used to be a thing that people really didn’t give much thought to. Over the last decade, the volume and intensity of arguments about logos have increased substantially. A lot of this is just the internet being, you know, the internet. But logo redesigns, in particular, attract a lot of hyperbolic vitriol. I was wondering what this felt like to a designer, so I talked to one of my favorites. Michael Bierut is an AIGI medalist and partner at the International Design Consultancy, Pentagram, where his work includes brand identity, logos, book design and packaging. I had such a fun time talking with him, I just thought I’d put our conversation out as its own episode. I hope you dig it. Many of you might be familiar with the logos we discuss, but if you need a little help jogging your memory, this is a great episode to listen to as you scroll through the images on this episode’s webpage at 99pi.org. Michael says that for a very long time, no one understood what his job as a graphic designer really meant. But recently, that’s changed.

Michael Bierut:
I have to admit now, a lot of times people will say, oh, so, do you do logos? Or they’ll outright asked me what I think of, you know, some logo that’s in the news and this is entirely new and kind of startling and unnerving.

Roman Mars:
What is the most recent logo they’ve asked you about? Have you been asked about your own logo?

Michael Bierut:
Oh yeah. Oh yeah, yeah. No, I was-

Roman Mars:
Like as if they didn’t know?

Michael Bierut:
Oh no. Oh, absolutely. Back in early 2015, I was engaged in a secret project, which was to design a logo for the campaign of, as of yet undeclared candidate for president Hillary Clinton. And it launched. There was a huge amount of attention to this logo, which, you know became ubiquitous I think – the H with the arrow in it. And at one point, before it was widely known that I was a designer of it, I got an email from a magazine saying that they were convening a bunch of designers to volunteer to say how they would have designed the logo because it was so horrible. And so like “we’d like to know how would you have designed it if you could have done anything”. And I sort of just said, “Oh, you know, I think I’ll pass this time”.

Roman Mars:
So, tell me a bit more how the Hillary logo came about.

Michael Bierut:
It used to be that people would run for political office and they didn’t understand that they needed a logo and maybe they didn’t need a logo. Um, Barack Obama changed all that in 2008. He ran and he had this now-famous O for Obama in blue with sort of, red stripes leading into the center of the O with the O kind of symbolizing a setting, or probably more likely a rising sun. And that symbol was so ubiquitous, both in 2008 but the fact that he won kind of sealed the deal. It appeared over the next eight years representing his candidacy and will go on to brand, I assume, his foundation and his library and his post-presidential activities. With that kind of established as a benchmark for political campaigns, by the time 2016 rolled around every candidate, one way or another, had to unveil a logo and very early on in 2015, the beginning of the year, I got a call from a team that was consulting with Hillary Clinton. They asked me whether I would volunteer my services to create a logo for Secretary Clinton.

Michael Bierut:
What we wanted to do was exploit some of the characteristics that people had come to appreciate, I think possibly by accident about the Obama logo. One of which was that, it could be adapted into different forms. You could kind of like, customize it for different groups of voters or different locations. And, so we had this idea like what if we had a symbol that you could change every day if you wanted. You could make it celebrate LGBT rights one day, and celebrate veterans the next day, and then modify it for Memorial day the day after that, or Halloween the day after that. That requires something very simple. So we came up with this very simple H with an arrow going through it, kind of symbolizing, we thought that the candidate was moving the country forward and also giving us a way to kind of point that H at other things, meaning that Hillary was for veterans, or for LGBT rights, or for me.

Michael Bierut:
It just kind of like proved to be a really interesting, malleable, lively system in the end. It’s interesting because it’s this sort of device. For one thing, no one really votes… people don’t vote for logos, they vote for candidates and they vote for people who they think will improve their lives in some actual way, not people that have flashy logos. But often, it’s some tangible symbol that will crystallize in the voting public’s mind, the essence of what a candidate is.

Michael Bierut:
I think just as Hillary had that H with an arrow in it and by the time it was election day, I was seeing it everywhere and certainly at the convention center Javits Convention Center that night, for what was meant to be the victory party, people had it embroidered on their jackets, temporary tattoos on their faces… It was everywhere. It was interesting.

Michael Bierut:
At the same time, her opponent had a red hat with the slogan on the front of it and that, in a way, was a logo for that candidacy. So, I think there’s the substance of what people are promising, and there’s sort of a tangible bit of shorthand that kind of sums up what that promise is. And I think that in the commercial world, that’s what symbols have always done. You’re meant to kind of ascribe all sorts of higher transcendent values that things like basketball sneakers and soda pops, and instead, the transcended values are then-athletic achievement and refreshment, respectively. And somehow devices, like swishes or dynamic ribbons or whatever you want to say, are kind of meant to be the holders of that meaning that is then kind of reinforced by advertising and by hopefully actual firsthand experience with the product.

Roman Mars:
It’s interesting, I never really thought of the hat being a logo. Could you sort of pull apart some of its qualities as to what it’s conveying to you and why it works?

Michael Bierut:
I think what was interesting about Donald Trump’s red ‘Make America Great’ hat was that one, it’s a very populous sort of thing. It’s clearly not something one associates with coastal elites who are intellectuals although I have baseball caps and wear baseball caps. So maybe I’m not an elite. I’m from Ohio after all but I mean it’s definitely not suited for a black-tie or business attire. It’s meant to be sort of the kind of thing you associate maybe with, you know, with hardworking salt of the earth Americans. The fact that it’s red is sort of making a really clear statement about a red America, let’s say, and the slogan ‘Make America Great Again’, all caps, you know, cap locked, yelling aptly, I think kind of reminded people of the candidate’s own delivery of those words.

Michael Bierut:
And I think most importantly, you know, it wasn’t an underground thing. It was very visible. If you sort of were a supporter, you put that thing right on your head and it was like if someone’s looking at your face, they would look at that hat and they’d read those words. Wearable brands like that, short of tattoos are sort of a big commitment you make to kind of advertising someone else’s cause. I assume that he had buttons and stickers and signs and stuff like that, but that hat, which is meant to be worn, was like really calling on people to personally identify with that candidate in a really unequivocal way.

Roman Mars:
So the Hilary ‘H with an arrow logo’ is released and people react to it the way they react to any logo right now, which is really active discussion online whenever a new one is done.

Michael Bierut:
Yeah.

Roman Mars:
And it’s also in the context of this political campaign where she got an unbelievable amount of criticism no matter what she did.

Michael Bierut:
Yeah, yeah.

Roman Mars:
But I remember people reacting to the H with the arrow really strongly. Some of it quite negative. Were you prepared for that in any way?

Michael Bierut:
What had taken me aback and what I should have seen coming is that logo, which I actually personally thought and still think was really good – I mean it was exactly the one that we wanted the campaign to use. We were confident that over the course of the campaign it would be used in all sorts of ways that would win people over. And I think that was largely proven out. I mean, I think by the time November came around, if you sort of like went on the Pantsuit Nation Facebook page, you would see a million different expressions of it all homegrown and grassroots, and really, really fun. And I remember saying while we were working, while we were looking at all the different options, the logo, I remember saying, I want something that’s so simple that a first grader could do it with construction paper, Elmer’s Glue and kindergarten scissors. I didn’t want a fancy thing you needed to know software programs to create. I wanted something that was as easy to draw as a heart or a peace sign or a smiley face. Something that could be that ubiquitous.

Michael Bierut:
I think we got pretty close to it. It’s just a very simple piece of geometry and two primary colors. Now, really though, what happens when someone like that is launched, put out there into, the uncaring world, people treat it as a… It’s open-endedness actually at that moment works against it. It’s treated as a Rorschach blot and everyone projects things onto it, right? And, this happens with sports teams. It happens with colleges and universities. But I think I underestimated to the degree to which it would happen with a political candidate where someone as well known as, Secretary Clinton, there’s a lot of people who have opinions about her already and then suddenly they had this convenient thing upon which to project opinions they may have already had or opinions that they just thought were clever or whatever it was. And, so suddenly, you know I kind of would marvel.

Sometimes I’d say it’s just some straight lines, some 90-degree angles, some 45-degree angles and two primary colors. It doesn’t mean… People would say, well, what does it mean? I said, well, it’s an H because that’s the candidate’s name because of the H. It’s an arrow because she wants to move the country forward, and it’s red, white, and blue because of America. And that’s really the truth. That’s what it meant.

Michael Bierut:
And yet, I was kind of taken aback, but I shouldn’t have been actually, and I have to commend the campaign who were resolute about their commitment to it, and in fact, really brought it to life and made it really sing over the subsequent months. In contrast, there was a notorious logo that was unveiled when Donald Trump identified his running mate in the form of Governor Pence and they had this TP ligature that a lot of people thought they saw, you know, unsavory things in and made fun of it and animated it in ways that are kind of salacious and it just was made to disappear.

Michael Bierut:
If you unveil a logo and you really are committed to it, the worst thing you can do is sort of blink and sort of say, oops, forget that. We’re making that go away and to forget you ever saw that. I think if you stick to it and just act like you really mean it, eventually the world will get used to it. And then eventually if you wait long enough, people will be outraged if you try to redesign it into something else.

Roman Mars:
Do you remember the first time there was a public fight about a logo where normal people like, got involved?

Michael Bierut:
So for years logo redesigns were like a very esoteric thing where people like me who had gone to art school to learn to be graphic designers would sort of say, did you see they changed the UPS logo? You know the logo for UPS delivery trucks. And I know who designed the original logo. I know who did the redesign. I know what kind of things to say about it. And everyone would talk about it. There were like little chat rooms on websites where people would comment for days on the pros and cons of things like that. The first one I remember going public was, The Gap floated a redesign of its logo. It appeared online and suddenly someone said, ‘Oh my God, The Gap, you know, the retail store The Gap is going to redesign this logo’, and to the surprise of The Gap, all these consumers started getting really agitated about it and started saying, save the old gap logo or this new logo is ridiculous.

Michael Bierut:
Usually, the criticism that’s lodged against new logos is that my four-year-old could have designed that new logo. I actually think that’s a good thing. I like logos that four-year-olds can design actually. But to most people, they sort of seem like logos are sophisticated things that need to be designed with complicated equipment by skillful people. And they also assume that a lot of money was spent on logos too. So how much would someone pay to do this thing? So I remember that The Gap had sort of let this logo float around out there that was not the blue box with the highly condensed Serif letters G-A-P that we’re all familiar with, but it was a lowercase Helvetica with this superimposed faded blue square kind of put off-center on the letters.

Michael Bierut:
And for some reason, it just really aggravated people. Even I was surprised by that and people asked me my opinion. I don’t remember a normal person ever asking my opinion about a logo before, but that became… that was something that started happening more and more in this in the years to follow. So, something about social media, something about the internet kind of has enabled all this to happen.

Roman Mars:
And, they definitely blinked on that one.

Michael Bierut:
Oh yeah, I think they denied that they ever meant it. ‘Oh, that was just something we were experimenting with. Don’t worry. We’ve heard our loyal customers loud and clear and never fear, we shan’t be changing The Gap logo’. And, what’s interesting is of course, that’s a logo doing exactly what it’s supposed to do.

Michael Bierut:
I mean, when people are being sold logos, they’re told that they will be the receptacle of all the passion that the consumers have for a brand which is this kind of weird hard to express thing otherwise. But now all of a sudden this’ll be the focal object upon which all that love is going to be aimed. And, naturally then, the customers think that they own the logo. And then when the company has the temerity to change it without asking anyone’s permission, suddenly the customers who have been told, you know, ‘love this thing’, all of a sudden it’s changed on them and without warning and they get like freaked out.

Roman Mars:
Do you think that general design awareness in the public has made your job easier or harder?

Michael Bierut:
Oh, I think it’s made it easier and it’s made it more fun, I would say. I’ve always thought that what I do isn’t the most important thing in the world. But I always thought it was important. I’ve devoted my life to it and it’s gratifying to have people notice it. And I don’t think we can ask people to notice our work and think it’s worth talking about, and then presume to tell people, but you can only say positive things about it, you know.

Michael Bierut:
I mean if people are going to talk about it, you’ll get the uninformed people talking about you and you get informed people talking about it. And by and large, I think negative comments are always more fun to read than positive ones. A rave review is a little dull to read. But I mean, I’ve never had anyone forwarded me a positive restaurant review. You know, like on the other hand, if the restaurant reviewer of The New York Times takes a restaurant apart, the relish with which that writer will describe every dish is just a sight to behold. And, I think criticism is much more fun to write and more fun to read and unless we want to go back to having no one notice what we’re doing and pretending like it doesn’t matter at all, we should just get used to criticism. And I have, that’s for sure.

Roman Mars:
I mean is there a way to get used to criticism? Like, have you figured out what’s your sort of Jiu-Jitsu method of dealing with it?

Michael Bierut:
One of my partners and I, Michael Gericke and I, redesigned the logo for the Big Ten football conference, and it needed to be redesigned because it was called the Big Ten, but it had 11 teams in it, and they had this clever logo that combined the words Big Ten written out with the number 11 kind of hiding by the T for ten. So, it was sort of like you would simultaneously read 10 and 11 while looking at it which I just thought was, you know, it was a neat solution to a problem which actually shouldn’t be focused on. I mean let’s not celebrate this weird disconnect between the name of the conference and the number of actual teams that are in it. And they were going to 12 teams and now they even have more teams. So the whole thing was, they decided to kind of just come up with a logo that wasn’t based on the actual number of teams in the conference. It just was called the Big 10 Conference.

Michael Bierut:
We did basically a logo that was made out of the letters B-I-G for big. And then we did a treatment of the I in big and the G in big, so it had a double reading as the number ten. And so when that was unveiled, I actually got voicemail about it from people saying, you know, “I can’t believe you”, “What’s wrong with you people”. Those people are the loyal fans. And I remember someone at the Big 10 Conference, when this logo launched, sort of telling me, this is the passion that kind of makes him sit in those seats when the weather is terrible and the same passion that’s going to make them take it personally when you fiddle with the logo. But, what happens is, once people get over the shock, if you can hold on tight, they’ll get used to the new logo. And, if it’s any good at all, it’ll soon be the beloved Big Ten logo and people will sort of like then object the next time it’s changed.

Michael Bierut:
As long as people still care about the Big Ten, they’ll care about it every time it’s changed. And I have to admit, we’re entering a stage now where I have worked with clients on doing logos and doing updates to logos where I can tell the worst thing that could happen is if no one reacted at all. The best thing would be if everyone loved it. But, the worst thing would be if no one noticed. They’re like happy to sort of like take the outrage just because wow, people really care about us. It’s easy for people to care about a sports team or a university. It’s a little bit harder to make people care about a retail brand but people feel very faithful to retail stores because they put those garments right on their bodies. And, I think it’s actually a little bit harder to make people care about financial institutions and more abstract entities that play a more kind of distant role in our lives.

Michael Bierut:
But, all of them now will get comments on logo updates and I think the Jiu-Jitsu that you use to sort of weather it is, you just sort of think, well people are going to react to change strongly sometimes, but the strength of that reaction is actually directly related to the depth of feeling they have about the particular brand that you’re representing. So it’s a little bit bad news equaling good news I think.

Roman Mars:
Have you ever had a one on one interaction with a person like a Buckeye fan just deeply enraged, and how does it go?

Michael Bierut:
Well, this is what’s interesting with those Buckeye fans for instance. I had this policy of responding… They found out, somehow it came out that we had done it, and people found our emails and I started getting forwarded these emails that had a lot of, “how dare you” or “I don’t care how much you charge, you should be ashamed of yourself”. Or you know, “my father who was class of 23 is spinning in his grave” or you know, whatever. I would always write back in this really kind of courteous way saying one, it’s always disappointing to have worked hard on something to know that people don’t like it. I can only hope that you, over time, come to at least get used to it. Ideally, come to like it as much as we do or at the very least not have it bother you quite as much, but I know that the team values the strong feelings you have about them and as a fellow fan, that’s the thing that we all really focus on.

Michael Bierut:
I would write something like that and I really meant it to. I really meant every element of that. And then about two-thirds of the people, I would write to would write me back in this chastened sort of tone where they say, ‘Oh thanks, I’m sorry. I was going over the top a little bit. I still don’t like it, but I was happy to hear your explanation and I’m sorry. I kind of like fired that off to you in the heat of the moment”. Sometimes they wouldn’t apologize, but clearly the one thing that was really obvious was, that the thing that really bothered them the most was their sense that giant, impersonal corporate forces were arbitrarily changing things that they cared about personally with no thought of who they were as fans and what the team was or anything like that. And the idea that there was a human being with a name and a voice who might share their feelings in any way whatsoever, you could tell it wasn’t what they were picturing.

Michael Bierut:
It’s a very satisfying target if you just think somewhere up there horrible people are messing with something that I liked and now it’s ruined. I hate you. And then if all of a sudden that person shows up in person, it’s a little bit kind of, “Oh I didn’t quite mean that”. So, again, my goal, I’m not trying to convert these people. I mean I sincerely feel bad. When I design something, I’m actually not trying to make people mad. I want people to like the thing I designed. I’m sort of almost always convinced at the moment that eventually if the thing I’ve designed is well-crafted and is really appropriate for its purpose – fits the team, fits the audience – eventually will come to play the same role in their lives that the thing did that it replaced. And, logos are interesting because I design a lot of things. I design say, book covers let’s say, and a book cover it has one moment of truth. When you’re buying a book in a bookstore, you walk down the aisle and it catches your eye and then you think, ‘Oh this looks interesting’. You pick it up, and you decide to buy it. Then your experience thereafter is basically with the book itself and the role that the cover played isn’t that consequential

Michael Bierut:
Logos though, they’re one of the few things that appreciate in value as they’re used. If you picture really simple logos that are iconic in the American commercial landscape now like the Target logo say, or the Nike Swoosh, these are things that a four-year-old could design, are really simple looking, have no inherent meaning. Well, the Target logo has a meaning that people find exasperating. If you’re hiring some fancy design firm to do a logo for a company called Target and they come back and they say, “We came up with something really great. Here it is”, and it’s a target. It’s like, well how long did that take? You know?

Michael Bierut:
But I mean think about how much they’ve been able to do with the simplicity of that mark. Think about how they’ve been able to manipulate very simple forms to mean all sorts of different things. And I would argue that that logo now, regardless what they paid for it back in the 60’s when it was commissioned, it’s worth, you know, a hundred times as much now.

Roman Mars:
What is your least favorite aspect of the heated discussion around logos or redesigns when they happen publicly? Like what is the type of criticism where you’d just go, “Eh, that’s not… I don’t care for that.”

Michael Bierut:
If you design something new, people for some reason are so desperate to reconcile it with something they’re already familiar with that they’ll say, oh, that looks exactly like this other thing and sometimes depending on their frame of mind, they’ll say that looks exactly like this other thing that could be something vaguely smutty, like you know, male or female anatomy or something like that. There’s like, so much of that goes around, and no matter what you design, they have this very human need to kind of turn abstract shapes into something figurative that means something.

Michael Bierut:
And really, I mean, what logos are meant to be are empty vessels into which meaning is poured. And that meaning when they work, right, is the meaning that your firsthand experience with the thing that’s represented by the logo is. And I think, when someone just says, “Oh, that looks like genitalia to me. Did you see it?” This sort of is tough. Also, I’ve never actually committed this error all the way, but if you’re a practicing graphic designer, if you’re a young graphic designer out there, one bit of advice I have is if you’re working on a logo that is… say it’s a quasi… it’s a geometric logo with a four-part kind of thing that kind of has a rotational, angular rotational aspect, if someone says that kind of reminds me of a swastika, that’s a signal that that logo will not be presented to anyone. Just put it away actually.

Michael Bierut:
I mean you can say it looks like a penis and like you can actually get over that. But I mean, logos that look like swastikas just like really… I remember I was going to a meeting to a client and I had privately had a little twinge with it. I did a logo I really liked and it sort of had these kinds of geometric characteristics that depending on how you looked at it… But I thought no, not really. And then, so I was going there and I had this big presentation. I needed someone to help me just carry the thing to the meeting, and not even be in the meeting, just carry it in there.

Michael Bierut:
It was like an intern and the intern said: “Does this sort of look like a swastika to you?” I remember almost like bursting into tears and saying, “Now you’ve ruined everything”. And sure enough, I go in the meeting, I said “This one…” and the client says, “Well this one won’t work. You know, you see what it looks like, right?” And I’m like, “Oh yeah, I’m sorry, what was I thinking?”

Michael Bierut:
So, I guess I hate that the most. If someone says that it looks like an emblem of the most evil political and cultural force of the 20th century, that’s not good. And it just goes to show you though, the swastika was this perfectly abstract, harmless and even kind of benevolent symbol for centuries. It was a spiritual insignia that kind of has a lot of application in Eastern culture and then got hijacked by one guy – a failed artist and his friends – and they turned it into what they turned it into. And it just goes to show you.

Roman Mars:
I mean if somebody notices it, that’s a good piece of criticism because obviously because they’re right.

Michael Bierut:
Oh, yeah, yeah. When you’re doing these things, you do want to say, what does this look like? What does this remind you of? And then these days particularly, abstract logo designers have the same problem that people coming up with names for products do where it’s, you know, where all the good names are taken. All the good URLs are taken, and frequently, all the good kind of simple abstract geometric logos are taken. So it’s really hard to find one that hasn’t been done already.

Michael Bierut:
When you do these things, we have to do these legal searches, you try to make sure that no one else has used it. If you can find one that’s nice and simple that is available, you’re just kind of like, oh my, you feel like you’ve discovered a new continent. Oh my God, you know. You want to plant your flag on it and declare yourself king.

Roman Mars:
Have you ever seen a new logo or a redesigned logo, and over time had the most change of heart about it, like a real strong reaction and then kind of began to love it? Or do you remember anything like that where your point of view changed either for the more positive or for the more negative?

Michael Bierut:
Partly because of the way I’ve been trained and for having done this for so many years, my snap judgment about logos is probably more refined than it should be. So there are ones that I saw when they were brand new that I didn’t like much then and I still don’t like. But a lot of times even if I don’t like it, I sort of get what they’re going for. There’s some that are just outright, I just plain don’t like them. Here in New York, we had, the longstanding logo of the Metropolitan Museum of Art was replaced with a logo that replaced a drawing of an M with letters saying The Met. A lot of people didn’t like it, partly because it was new and replacing something that they were used to. And partly because I would concede it was like really idiosyncratic and weird looking. But at the same time, I was thinking, but if you go to The Met, it’s a big complicated, idiosyncratic place. You go there and get lost. It’s like really labyrinthian inside. It has so much stuff there. They try to represent this thing with something that could look like it was for a pharmaceutical company. Something clean and simple wouldn’t be doing it justice.

Michael Bierut:
It needs something that kind of feels complicated and idiosyncratic and specific. So I remember I looked at it, and I see, even now when I see it, it still kind of takes me aback sometimes because I was used to the old one like everyone else was. But, I can recognize that in the long run, I think it will, if they stick with it, I think it’ll work and come to be as beloved as its predecessor was.

Roman Mars:
When you say that you plain don’t like something, just like in general, what are those things that you plain don’t like? Is there a way you could articulate those qualities?

Michael Bierut:
I mean, I hate to say it, but just like everyone else, I’ll look at something and say, Oh my goodness, that’s rather ugly isn’t it? I mean for instance if you want to talk about another design, the design for the 2012 Olympics in London were widely criticized, and I think, well, to the degree that it’s right to criticize logos, I can really see why people criticize it, because I think that that was like a darned funny looking logo, because it was like really chunky and jaggedy and kind of kooky looking. But again, I have to admit I sort of got it. It’s like, you know like a presidential campaign logo, it’s sort of had to mark a moment in time. It wasn’t mean designed to be this enduring thing that would last forever. It just had to kind of like, symbolize what was happening in that specific place at a specific time, and would be further associated with all these kinds of feats of athleticism that would be the actual real experience of the event, not just the logo.

Michael Bierut:
And so in a way something idiosyncratic and specific could come to stand for all those other things. However, I still think it’s ugly. It’s just like ugly. It’s sort of ungainly. It’s like weird looking, and I could never quite… I have to admit I personally and privately need to make up a story that explains it. Hence, I could make up a lot of stories for The Met logo. I could make up a lot of stories for every logo I’ve ever designed. To me, it’s sort of the same pleasure I used to take as a kid you know, sitting in my dentist’s office, looking at highlights magazine. They have that thing called hidden pictures where it’s just those drawings. Yeah.

Roman Mars:
Oh, those are the best.

Michael Bierut:
It’s the best, right? It’s this drawing, and then it says, ‘in the picture of Bob, can you find, you know, a teapot, a hairbrush, a basketball’, and then you can’t see any of those things. Then you see like the hairbrush is the drapes on that window, and the basketball is that plate that’s in the pantry. Then all of a sudden you’re finding all these things and there’s such pleasure in discovering those things. And if you’ve got a logo that has that bit of pleasure embedded in it, and I think with, like for instance, when we embedded the ten in the I and the G in the Big Ten logo, we were trying to do something like that.

Michael Bierut:
The most famous instance of it probably with contemporary logos is the arrow that’s hidden in the FedEx logo. I think those little surprises just give people so much, you know, they give them a little bit of joy, make them feel smart and actually make them complete the picture in their own mind. And you have the pleasure of looking at something and making a discovery. And, I think if you associate that moment of pleasure with a logo, that really is a great thing. Even if you look at a logo and say, well, all those ligatures are meant to symbolize connection. That’s not quite as fun as finding a hairbrush in some window curtains. But it’s something, and it works for me these many years later.

Roman Mars:
So last year there was a redesign of the Kodak logo and I interviewed Keira Alexandra of Work-Order who did it. And when I talked to her, she purposely talked about how they just rolled it out kind of low key, and they didn’t make a big hullabaloo about it. I mean it still got criticized in different ways and largely lauded, but you know, it was kind of a reaction to the brand new thumbs up, thumbs down.

Michael Bierut:
Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Roman Mars:
You know, what do you think of that? Is that a good idea? Do you feel similarly inclined or, do you like to throw it out there and have it be a bit of a bloodsport, what is your take on that?

Michael Bierut:
Well, I used to tell my clients, no one will care when your logo goes out there. Don’t take out an ad in the paper and say ‘bold new look, same great taste’. Like no one cares. I used to like joke and say, ‘oh hey honey, honey, kids come in, you know, the Amalgamated Widget just changed their logo’. You know, no one cares.

Michael Bierut:
But, then we pass through this weird thing where it became this funny kind of like social media-enabled bloodsport where like, ‘Amalgamated Widgets is going to change its logo in three, two, one, game on’. And it’s like, ‘My four year old could do that. How much did they pay for this piece of crap’, et cetera. So suddenly it turned into this like thing that people did for their own and other’s amusement.

Michael Bierut:
I still think though, that these things succeed to the degree that they’re actually reflecting, something of substance has really changed in the thing that’s represented by the logo. So, in the case of Kodak, when they updated that logo, it was meant to mark the rebirth of a beloved American company that to certain generations of photographers really was the gold standard of… or just the ubiquitous kind of element in the photographic process. And it was associated with that five-letter word, Kodak, especially with the yellow box, and with that very simple logo that they had.

Michael Bierut:
And when Keira Alexandra and her team updated it, they actually were really careful I thought, and sensitive to extrapolating everything they were doing from examples in the past. And, I know what pleasure she took. She did one big bold move, which was, instead of writing Kodak horizontally, she writes it vertically. She stacks the five letters one atop each other and is able to make a very neat kind of ready for the 21st century and all the requirements that logos have to have today in terms of reproduction and dissemination. She made a really nice logo with that move and took a great deal of pleasure in finding a couple of examples of the letters being stacked in the same way from deep in the past of the company. So, she was able to kind of give the whole thing this imprimatur, this endorsement from almost beyond the grave, from the deep in the history of the company. Which I think was really satisfying and actually very effective for them.

Roman Mars:
Is there like a fashion right now that you bristle against or maybe one that you think is great? I mean, like simple, for example, is like… I think that’s kind of always been somewhat of a goal in logos, but it seems to take on a real guiding principle right now. Maybe more than in the time when somebody wrote Coca-Cola out as a long script. Is there something today that you really love that you think is a fundamental principle? Or do you think of it as a fashion? Or, you know, anything like that?

Michael Bierut:
I have to admit, I like simplicity of form, but, sometimes I’m a little suspicious of simplicity and typography. So, I love this typeface called Helvetica, which some people would argue is among, you know, it’s a very simple, clean and ubiquitous typeface that has represented over the years, everything from American Apparel to American Airlines. You know, chances are no matter where you are, there’s some Helvetica on something that you can see from where you’re sitting. And if not, just take out your wallet. And if you have any American paper currency, that big number five on your $5 bill is in Helvetica. So there it is, right?

Michael Bierut:
And I think there was a time back in the late ‘60s where you could take any logo reset it Helvetica and it would look modern, contemporary and kind of like ready for, you know, the millennium, and I think then it fell out of favor and I think oddly it’s come back a little bit.

Michael Bierut:
So, among other things, very recently Diane von Furstenberg has been redesigned. So, instead of the idiosyncratic DVF monogram that they had before, now it’s the words Diane Von Furstenberg in Helvetica. And it looks clean, it looks neutral. It looks smart, but it also kind of, at its worst and not necessarily in this case, but I mean, sort of has that same sort of glum and impassive and kind of, I’m too cool even to acknowledge you exist kind of face that supermodels will have in certain fashion shoots where they just are expressionless and kind of almost zombie-like. ‘I am so cool. Well, don’t look at me. No, please look at me. Not like that. I don’t know who you are. Go away.’ So Helvetica kind of can have that quality and I just think it can be a mean withholding sort of typeface.

Roman Mars:
So I have a bunch of listeners they’re design aware, their design engaged and, as a person who puts things out in the world and makes logos and makes new logo systems for people, what would you want them to know when they interact with you? Like what type of criticism would you like to hear or not like to hear?

Michael Bierut:
I sort of deal on a field where like almost like a lot of the things that define what I do kind of comes down to really boring sort of sayings like, ‘don’t judge a book by its cover,’ or on the other hand, ‘you only get one chance to make a first impression’. And so they all kind of contradict each other, you know. And the advice I give is that, at the end of the day, graphic design is really important, but it’s also kind of one of the most cosmetic things in the world. If you can read an exit sign, you’re going to get out the door. If the door doesn’t have a doorknob on it, if it’s nailed closed these are all things that are real impediments, but that exit sign can be in any typeface you want and you’re still going to find the door, and so I think it’s… You know, you can make a handsome exit sign that actually fits the architecture around it. You can make one that’s hard to read and that one is going to be a dysfunctional, but there’s a lot of different ways to do it and usually, it’s not a life or death thing.

Michael Bierut:
I think there’s a lot of things that are like really life and death matters in the world and really important and worth getting agitated about. I think that probably logo design shouldn’t be one of them. There’s people that are paid a lot of money to care desperately about the way logos look, and I aspire to be one of those people. I think that if you’re not getting paid to do it, try not to do it too much. Only do it to the degree it entertains you, but then move on to more important things.

Roman Mars:
Michael Bierut is a partner at Pentagram. I’m the proud owner of a signed copy of his 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’. Plus, he’s the co-host along with Jessica Helfand of the podcast, ‘The Design of Business | The Business of Design.’ It’s really good. If you’re looking for insights into the world of design and designers, you need to subscribe to it and its sister podcast, Debbie Millman’s ‘Design Matters’, which is like the OG of design podcasts. They’re essential listening.

  1. Juan A Rivera

    Has a company ever changed their logos on a regular schedule on hopes the logo itself will generate sales of the same old article but now with a new logo?

  2. Emily S

    On the topic of hidden pictures, I really appreciate the Amazon logo – not only do I see an arrow “from A to Z,” I also can see it as a smirk. How wonderful to get a package in the mail that already is trying to make you smile!

  3. Loved this episode. Fascinating, and also really enjoyable to hear an episode solidly devoted to some straight-up graphic design geekery (not that some of 99PI’s recent topics have been any less interesting, but there’s always something to be said for going back to your roots, I think).

    Interestingly, this is one of the top Google Image search results for the London 2012 Olympics logo: https://camelsnose.files.wordpress.com/2011/03/olympic-conspiracy-swastika500.png. Just goes to show!

  4. Dantheman

    One factor I see is that when when a company loses its distinctiveness, the logo ceases to matter, and logo changes just remind people of the commodification of most products. I’ve got lots of blue-collar friends who used to be strongly invested in their brand of beer/cars/jeans but now don’t really care because the beers are all brewed in the same InBev vats, the cars are indistinguishable and boring, and the jeans all come off the same looms of the same subcontractors. In fact, the only thing that will get a reaction of any passion is a “Made in USA” sticker or a truly family owned business’ product.
    To many people a logo change communicates (accurately or not) that the brand got sold, and there’s no longer any connection to the founders. Logo changes remind people that there is no longevity, legacy or continuity…so why care? Where is my bank headquartered, and what makes it distinctive? I lost track after the 3rd or 4th ownership change, and stay with them because the alternative is another ever-morphing conglomerate. So while the design aspect is interesting, I’m not sure logos do much goid unless the actual product is distinctive in some way.

  5. Christo Irving

    Listening about the pleasure of finding images in logos made me think, I have to take this moment to point out my favorite logo ever. Take a look:

    https://ih1.redbubble.net/image.44210878.5715/sticker,375×360.png

    It’s the logo for a fictional motorcycle company (think harley davidson) called Corley Motors. The company existed in a videogame about motorcycle gangs. It’s a triple entendre. It’s the letters of the company, CM. It’s a wheel with wings, which speaks to the freedom that a motorcycle embodies. And it’s a knife with a hilt, which plays to the violence culture. I love it.

  6. I found Michael Bieruts perspective so refreshing! Honest, down-to-earth reflections about design and people’s response to design are too rare! So much of this conversation transcends design and moves into the general creative process and how people respond to ideas that push folks out of their comfort zone. This is my favorite 99% episode yet!

  7. Wow, Mike was so interesting and entertaining. I really never knew I could listen to anything about logos for an hour and be so entertained. It also seemed like you, Roman, also really enjoyed the interview. I will definitely be checking out his podcast.
    Thanks,
    Paul

  8. John Meyer

    Mr. Beirut gave a wonderful, interesting, and engaging interview, at turns laugh-out-loud funny, and always insightful. Roman was clearly star struck; after 5 minutes so was I. Easily cracked my Top 3 all-time 99% invisible episodes.

  9. Joe

    The Hillary logo really lacks what made the Obama logo better, the blue is the wrong shade, and there are no white outlines to break up the eye shattering contrast between the red and the blue, that makes it lack harmony and and blends into a blob of color instead if distinctive shapes and colors.

    The old UPS logo really looks better, it just needs a different execution, perhaps inverting the colors so that the shapes are brown, and the text and ribbon outline are white, and a different font because of that p.

    The London 2012 logo reminds me of the 1930s expressionist designs.

    I love what was done with the Kodak logo, it really capitalized on that distinctive shape that Kodak had developed by now, and if you’re marketing Kodak, you’re not marketing it to a new audience unfamiliar with it, you ought to aim it towards the people who already knew Kodak and cherished that image, rekindle that connection and carry it forward into newer generations, instead of building it from scratch.

    The Mozilla logo… i get it, i understand what they’re doing, but i dont know if i like it, i think the style of the letters and the symbols are too disjointed as if they were taken from 2 different fonts, it doesnt flow together, maybe if the whole thing as sans, or if the symbols were played more into being italics, i dont know…

  10. scottd

    Michael Bierut is a smart person and I loved this episode but the Hilary logo was terrible. It was terrible because it truly did reflect the corporate Hilary vibe. It looked like a logo for an insurance company. Bierut recognized why Trumps hats worked. The difference between the two really sums up the campaigns in a lot of ways.

  11. This is my favorite episode of 99pi. Michael Bierut’s ability to be objective and non-judgemental about good branding that gives people a visceral and negative reaction is really refreshing. I’m probably in the minority, but I don’t hate the GAP’s rebranding and I understand why they reverted under pressure from consumers. I’d love to hear more episodes about the logo design and brand identity development process in the future. Great work.

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