The Logo Effect, According to Michael Bierut

04 May, 2017

Michael Bierut is a partner at Pentagram, where he’s worked for 27 years. As a prolific graphic designer, he’s created some of the world’s most memorable logos, from Mastercard to Hillary Clinton’s iconic H. We recently had the privilege to talk to him in our library about how logos influence our culture, our history, and our minds.

How did you become interested in logo design?

Seeing a logo when I was about four years old. I grew up in Ohio and was getting a haircut on Granger Road in Garfield Heights. As my dad was driving home, he pointed across the street and said, “oh, look at that, that's clever.” I saw a forklift parked at a construction site with the word “Clark” on it, and couldn't figure out what he was talking about. He said, “look at how they wrote the name of the truck, at the way the L is lifting up the A the same way the truck lifts things up.” I was like, oh my God! How long has this been going on? Is it everywhere? I couldn't figure out what this was. I was good at drawing. I liked art, but this wasn't drawing or art. I wasn’t even sure it was hard to do. It was more like an idea, but a cool idea. It turned out that if you were graphic designer, you might be asked to design logos. I found that out much later, but this is what really started me on that road.

Tell us about the Doomsday logo.

This isn’t a logo I designed, but I was involved with figuring out how to make it useful for the organization that had commissioned it. The story begins long before I was born, at the end of World War II, after the atomic bombs were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The scientists who’d created the bombs were seized with a certain kind of, if not, remorse, second thoughts about what they’d caused to come into the world. One was a guy named Alexander Langsdorf Jr., an editor of a little newsletter called the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. It started catching on, got some sponsorship and a little bit of foundation money behind it, then turned into a proper magazine.

And this is where the countdown clock comes in?

They thought it needed a better cover. Professor Langsdorf's wife was an artist named Martyl. Evidently, she was the only artist that any of these scientists knew, so they asked her to design some artwork for the cover of the magazine, and she came up with this idea of having the hands of a clock set at about eight minutes to midnight. She said later it was because it looked good to set the hands there, and she realized you could have type on top of it all and it worked just fine. She intuitively struck on this amazing metaphor for the threat of nuclear annihilation. This whole ticking time bomb, minute by minute, second by second, as we approach the final countdown. The scientists realized they could use that to promote their cause, and started every year announcing in their estimation, how close we were as a species to midnight because of the proliferation of nuclear weapons and later chemical weapons and climate change. It's a really, really potent symbol.

The Doomsday Clock logo by Pentagram

How did you become involved with it?

About 60 years later, the Atomic Scientist Association came to us and said we’d like a logo for our organization, and we said you already have a logo, the best logo in the world! They said, “oh, no. That's just infographics. We want another logo.” We persuaded them to use their Doomsday Clock as their logo. It’s interesting because it has the opportunity to be changed once a year, so we've worked with them since then on a pro-bono basis, just to promote the cause. I think it's really remarkable. It takes this vast amount of complex detailed, scientific information and reduces it to a single metric. God Bless those scientists and hooray for Martyl Langsdorf. She boiled it down to this one thing.

What’s different about the new design?

We designed it so it could have any state you want it, from 15 ’til time out. Every year, they publish a tabloid that commemorates the resetting of the clock. They just unveiled and moved it for the first time ever to a half-minute point, to two-and-a-half minutes (I think because they figured if they moved it too quickly, they'd run out of time, given who's in charge of our White House and what's happening around the world). They're trying to parcel out the panic in little doses.

Is it your favorite logo?

This isn't, strictly speaking, a logo… but I think it's such a powerful, simple, piece of communication that I really admire and it took no artistry to do it. It's just a simple thing, like a smiley face or a heart for Valentine’s. (It's the opposite of those things, of course, because it's really scary.)

The Cathedral of St. John the Divine is a different story.

I’ve been working with them for nearly 20 years. In that time, they asked us to come up with a graphic program for the activities they do at the cathedral. It's a beautiful, inspiring piece of gothic architecture, but sort of intimidating, and surprising to learn that they have contemporary art exhibits, and music performances, lectures, and a lot of community outreach up on Morningside Heights. They wanted a logo that would signal they were hip and contemporary. We took that rose window symbol and colors and did a really simple logo with some regular, straightforward sans-serif type as their signature. We set their voice in a typeface we recommissioned from an old one named Fredrick Goudy, this black-letter typeface, very gothic looking. We just pretended it was the most modern typeface in the world, and use it to talk in a modern way.

Like how?

To write things you wouldn’t normally write with it. When they cleaned the inside of the cathedral and reopened it, we put out posters that said, “oh my God,” which was the reaction of a lot of people when they saw the inside of the cathedral. Or the Harley Davidson slogan, “loud pipes save lives,” which we used to promote their great organ concert series. They have a blessing of the animals on St. Francis's Feast Day; you can get a T-shirt that says “Holy Cow,” or ”collect what you receive” (a play on asking you to pick up after your dog). It’s the most photographed poop sign in New York. Very popular with visitors, stolen often. Who would steal a sign like that from a church? You’re just going straight to hell.

Cathedral St. John posters, designed by Pentagram

What about the Saks logo? How did you tackle this challenge?

A lot of times what makes brands interesting is this tension between something that looks really old but exists in a contemporary world. Saks Fifth Avenue was trying to convey both timelessness and authority. They had their old logo for about a dozen years and said we could change it to anything we wanted. We tried all these different things, set all these new typefaces but those were sad to me because they just looked like some new store had opened up on Fifth Avenue. It didn't seem to have any tension between who they really were and how they were perceived, and how they wanted to be perceived. This took a long time to get to. We visited their history and they had script calligraphic faces going all the way back to the ’40s. Around 1955, they actually had a specific way of writing Saks Fifth Avenue in Spencerian script. About 20 years after that, they formalized it into a three-line configuration, then they had that for years. That was the logo I remember they had when I moved to New York in 1980. It’s an old-fashioned, very ’70s looking logo, if you ask me. One of my designers started refining it and blew it up, modifying all the edges and smoothing it out and slenderizing it. She had it really big on her screen, and I thought, well, wait a second, that looks old-fashioned, but if you zoom in on the details, the abstraction on those details looks more modern, and so we discovered that if you put it into a square and divided the square into 64 smaller squares, a lot of those squares had these beautiful little abstract paintings in them. They look like Barnett Newman or Ellsworth Kelly, or some kind of abstract expressionist, where you could see the attention to detail and the little asymmetrical moments that are all hiding in this thing in plain sight for 20, 30, 40 years, really. We decided to make tiles out of these things, and then just manipulate them.

So their new logo was already in the DNA of the old one?

They had invested decades in the spirit of those curves and the traces of it managed to carry forward into the packages. I remember the CEO asked how long it would take for people to figure out that this is Saks. At the end of the month, people knew what it was. They were sending a lot of people out the doors carrying bags, which end up being your best advertising.

Saks bags by pentagram
Saks logo by pentagram

Have you ever gotten a logo wrong?

This is one of those cases where the minute I got the job, I knew exactly what the logo should be. The Museum of Arts and Design was moving into a windowless building built in the early ’60s. An architect named Brad Cloepfil reimagined it by carving these glass channels all the way around it, like one continuous line that snaked through the multiple floors. I wanted to do a logo made up of one line, exactly like those channels. I’d figured out how to do it, and it would just require a couple of little modifications, like changing the name of the museum. (Doing one continuous line didn’t really work because there was no way to make the M connect, but it did work with A plus D.) So I said okay, you ready for it, client? Big idea: one continuous line, focusing on what makes you special, arts and design. They're like, people call us MAD. I said you don't want to be called MAD! It hits like an insult. I realized we had to make a lot of mockups with this on it, so the client could understand the inevitability of this genius idea.

Did you convince them?

We made a whole bunch of versions of it in different colors and stuff. We did press-kit folders and stationery. I go in, show it to them again, and they were like, yeah, we get it, but I could tell the passion wasn't quite there. I was trying to make them marry this thing… and it was going to be a loveless marriage. They understood it, but they just didn't feel physically attracted to the thing. I pictured them being trapped in this loveless marriage with this unsexy logo and went back to my team and said, what if it’s called MAD? What would we do and what else is there about this place? I was the only person who was excited about this glass channel. So we said what else is going on for this place? It's on Columbus Circle. That's the only complete traffic circle in Manhattan, as far as I know. It's a little square building on that circle. It's a square and a circle, the basic building blocks of art and design. What if you take squares and circles and line them up. Bang, it's that simple.

A moment of inspiration…

It's just like that moment where you feel the key go into the lock and you know it's going to open the door. It was just so nice. When you do something like that, it's like you're not just hammering this thing, trying to make it fit. It just starts doing itself almost. Naturally, I went back and had this dream date. It was like the climax of The Bachelor or something! This was just so simple, they were like what took you so long? It worked on banners, shopping bags, packaging, all that stuff. Ties, if you want to wear ties with logos on it, not bad. It says, if you can read this, you are MAD. It's sort of like a little secret code, just for people that like this museum.

So you were wrong… and the client was right?

Trust me, it happens a lot. I've learned to actually love that process. It's made me really respect my clients, too. For every time I've felt that it was necessary to educate a client about design, there's been 20 times where I was the one who wasn't paying attention or listening hard enough or had my own head somewhere that was making me oblivious to the real possibilities. Most of this work I owe to the fact that my clients were patient and let me find my way to the right solution.

MAD logo designed by pentagram

If you had to boil branding down to one principle, what would it be?

Dolly Parton said find out who you are, and then do it on purpose. Of course, figuring out who you are isn’t easy.

You’re mostly known for your design of the Hillary Clinton logo, aren’t you?

Back in January 2015, I was asked whether I would volunteer my services to secretary Clinton, who was contemplating a run for president. I said yes right away, because I knew her. I thought she was a fantastic senator. I thought she was a great secretary of state under Barack Obama. I thought she would be the most qualified person to run for the president of the United States. I was very enthusiastic about this. I was also daunted by the idea of designing a logo because you're up against Barack Obama's logo, which everyone knows. Except this was the opposite problem in many ways, because Barack Obama was a start up. No one had ever heard of him. They had a blank slate. Hillary Clinton was the opposite thing. In our very first meeting with her team, almost the first thing they said was their candidate has 100% name recognition. There's no one in the whole country who doesn't know who Hillary Clinton is. We almost had to defamiliarize her a bit. When Clinton ran for the senate in 2001, she was just doing the thing that politicians almost always did, which is stars and stripes, waving flags., serif and sans-serif, small caps, italics. It was all over the place. With the rise of social media and digital communication, these logos had to communicate in ever more efficient ways, so it was going to have to be some very compact thing that would work like a little square in a Instagram icon or Twitter feed. And the design you finally ended up with was the H, with the forward arrow… We created guidelines back in March 2015 and turned it over to the brilliant team led by Jennifer Kanine, who actually did all the graphics for the campaign. I remember saying I want a logo that's so simple a five-year old could do it with construction paper, Elmer's glue, and kindergarten scissors. I wanted something really, really, really, simple. This is really simple. Just an H with an arrow. Lucas Sharp had designed this typeface called Sharp Sans so we modified it to make it the typeface for the campaign. The H arrow was done with hyper-simple geometry and reduced down so it could be really small. Lucas’s typeface was customized and renamed Unity for the campaign. I met Clinton and talked to her on the phone a couple of times. She was really amazing in person, like everyone says. I still wasn't positive they would use this logo. They were testing it with voters and I'd heard that they were looking at other firms. We had done this work, turned it over to them, and it was just me, a designer named Jesse Reed, and project manager named Julia Lemle working in secret at Pentagram, unbeknownst to all my partners and everyone else in the firm, for free.

Hillary supporters in Iowa
Thousands of fans drew their own versions
Every community was able to propose its version of the logo

How did you find out it was the one they’d picked?

In April 2015, when she announced she was officially running for president, she ran a little video where she made the announcement and at the very end was this little animation based on some sketches we had done a couple months before and there was the logo. I was like, oh my God! That's the logo! I can't believe they're really doing it! Then this guy says what lucky third-grader designed the Hillary Clinton campaign logo? Another guy said he finally figured out what the Hillary logo reminded him of: the World Trade Center. Nothing prepared me for this. All of a sudden, literally, on Twitter, on everywhere, on talk shows, on Bill Maher, people were making jokes about this thing we’d designed. The thing that frustrated me most was that the only thing they'd shown was this one logo at the end of the video and it ended up in my least favorite state. They’d found out I'd done it and asked, what's the idea of the logo? And I'd say it's an H because her name begins with H. It has an arrow because she wants to move the country forward, and it has red, white and blue because of America. The secret was the simplicity of this; it was designed specifically so that you can manipulate it in all these different ways, not just make it a metaphor for 9/11, which is an unfortunate manipulation. Design experts trashed it. These were my colleagues, people I knew, saying they hated this thing. Then this one guy named Rick Wolf, who I didn’t know, did this freestyle based on it, and I remember thinking, that's kind of cool. Sure enough, the campaign used it on their Twitter feed and I called them up and said, this is how it's going to work. People are going to do something, just own it. Just get in there and use it. They said oh, we're glad you say that because we were afraid you'd be offended. I said, no this is fantastic. More like this please! The turning point in terms of public opinion was the day they argued marriage equality in front of the Supreme Court. The campaign changed the logo so it contained the LGBT pride stripes. No one saw this coming. It was really surprising. There were all these other expressions that started following after that. In Wisconsin, they made it out of cheese. There was a superfan lady on Facebook who did a version of it out of Legos, out of folded laundry, out of mashed potatoes and peas, out of folded newspapers, every day for 100 days. That was the plan. It was really exciting, up until that night, in November. That was me about 15 feet from the stage, wearing a tie with lots of logos on it. And we all know what happened then. The very first time I met secretary Clinton, I said I'm just a graphic designer and I actually don't think people vote for logos. They vote for candidates who they think will have an effect on their lives. The logo is just a way for people to spot your message and affiliate with a cause they believe in, not because they like shapes or colors but because they believe in what you're saying. I went to the Women's March the day after the inauguration, the Science March here in New York a couple weeks ago. People make these signs and they're not graphic designers, they're not copywriters. They're just regular people, but they have imagination. They have skill. They have talent. They'll make a sign, put it on social media, and suddenly that’s how political messages are being communicated now. I think it's the most remarkable, thrilling thing. In some dense, inadvertent way, we were anticipating by making a logo people could make, but I really do think that increasingly, things like logos are really in the hands of not just you and me but everyone. And the means to communicate for good or for ill really is for everyone, too.

Words by the Editors and Michael Bierut.

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