MICHAEL BIERUT HAS a crazy idea. “I’ve actually never said this out loud,” he tells me one morning, while sitting in the main conference room at Pentagram’s New York City office, where he’s a partner. “It’s a private thought that I’ve had, and it’s actually sort of weird.”
Here it goes: Bierut doesn’t believe in creativity.
Ok so, it’s not that he doesn’t believe in it exactly, it’s just that he thinks creativity, in the way we often use the word, is kinda overrated. “There’s a finite amount of newness available at any one time, or maybe period,” he continues. “And you have to use it really deliberately.”
This might sounds strange coming from Bierut, who has spent the last 35 years establishing himself as one of the more—you might say—creative graphic designers in the industry. In the three-plus decades he’s been working, Bierut has crafted some of the most recognizable pieces of graphic design in recent memory.
To Bierut, graphic design is a little like a crossword puzzle—you have to use the information present to come up with the best solution. “The more clues you have, the more likely you are to work your way to an answer,” he says.
Sometimes those clues are right in front of you. Bierut recalls one project in particular where this was the case. It was 2006, and Saks Fifth Avenue, the NYC department store, had commissioned his team to come up with a new graphic program. The project was stumping him; nearly two months in and he and his team still hadn’t figured out what to do with the identity. The client had given them full freedom to reinvent the brand. “We had no limitations whatsoever,” he says. That was a problem. “Give me all the limitations and uncaring clients and no budget rather than freedom and a receptive audience.”
Bierut began by resetting Saks Fifth Avenue in every typeface imaginable. “We just kept thinking there had to be some new, fresh way to do this,” he says. He knew that more than half the stores in the country still were using the old logotype, a serifed typeface designed by Tom Carnase in the 1970s. “I said, you know, maybe let’s just see, almost because I’d run out of ideas, why don’t we take that logo and see if we can clean it up a little bit,” he recalls. One of Bierut’s designers had the type up on her screen, zoomed in on a tiny section of a letter she was refining. And then it hit him—that was the answer. “I said I think we take the existing logo, clean it up and take the constituent parts of it and make something new out of it without inventing anything new at all,” he says. How’s that for non-creative creativity?