Michael Bierut's 10 Best Advice for Graphic Designers

Michael Beirut advice for beginners

Michael Bierut is a well-known graphic designer partnered with popular design agency Pentagram. He is known as the man behind some of the greatest logos ever made.

Today I wanted to share some of the best advice he’s given so that every graphic designer - beginner or professional - can benefit from it. These pieces of advice are scattered around the internet and I’ve compiled them so you can conveniently access them all in one place.

Let’s get into the first piece of advice Michael Bierut offers his fellow designers.

1. Be Patient

Micahel Bierut urges designers to be patient with clients.

Be patient. Remember that normal people didn’t go to design school.

Many of the clients you’ll meet in your career are business-focused. They didn’t get an education in design so it would be irrational to think they understand everything you’re saying.

Typography, scale, white space - all these concepts are alien to clients. The first step is to educate the client and be tolerant of criticism, doubts and a lot of questions. Approaching a design project with this mindset will save you a lot of stress and help you make better long-lasting relationships with your clients.

2. Save Everything

One unique piece of advice from Bierut is to save all your previous and present work.

The only advice I give to people, and it sounds egotistical, is really just to save everything.

This means keeping a record of all your previous work, sketches, notes, etc. Doing so will help you have a better understanding of your skills.

Having a check on all your previous and present work will help you understand where you went wrong, what things work and how much you’ve progressed. These things are crucial if you want to become the best version of yourself.

3. Stay While You Can

Every day is a different grind. Grinding out a task and sticking with it till the bitter end will help you master it. Bierut suggests beginners to "stay while they can."

The reason this advice is so valuable to beginners is that they tend to be discouraged when things don’t go the way they expected.

But, keeping this in mind, if you plan on sticking around you’ll eventually find a breakthrough. This can also be seen as expressing gratitude for what you have today. We tend to leave a job or project because it doesn’t really interest us.

But then again we might not exactly know what interests us and this can be an opportunity to discover something like never before.

4. Stay Curious

When Bierut was asked what kind of skills are critical to graphic designers nowadays he replied,

I’ll just assume you know all the necessary software programs. The most important trait is curiosity.

Most people tend to jump into the technical know-how of design programs making it the main focal point of their work. However, Bierut doesn’t seem to highlight it as the most important skill set, he just assumes you already know them.

So, although it is important to know the ins and outs of a design program it wouldn’t instantly make you a graphic designer. You would need to stay curious, approach every project like it’s something new and never assume you know everything.

Interestingly, Bierut actually made this mistake himself. In 2020, he was a speaker for the Design Indaba platform and gave a presentation on how he “almost screwed up” his favorite project.

Listen to the full presentation below along with 5 lessons he got from that project:

5. Know How to Read

According to Bierut, it is much more important to know how to read than to draw. Graphic design is all about communication so even if you are great at drawing you won’t get far without good communication.

When dealing with clients you’ll notice yourself talking more with the clients rather than designing for them. This is because graphic design deals more with clearly getting your message across to your audience, not just making things look nice.

Reading compared to drawing is also more challenging. He goes on to say,

There are many shortcuts now about how to draw. There are not many about how to read. Reading — deep, attentive, profound reading — is the starting point of so many great design projects

6. Avoid Jargon

Since communication is so important in graphic design it’s crucial to speak clearly with your clients. This means that you have to avoid jargon like the devil.

Jargon is a fancy word to describe industry terms that are difficult to understand for people to understand. Although you know how “tracking” affects typography many of your clients wouldn’t know what tracking even means.

It’s important to clearly convey what you want to say to your clients. Do this by showing examples to your clients of what you want to say. Or state problems and solutions in layman's terms.

7. Surround Yourself with Bright, Energetic and Curious People

“A man is known by the company he keeps”, and that can’t be more true for graphic design. Creativity is contagious and creativity stems from curiosity. Michael Bierut advises people to sit with “bright, energetic and curious people.”

Sitting with other passionate designers will encourage healthy discussions, brainstorming and idea-sharing. If you engage with such a group, creative ideas will start to come naturally and you’ll see yourself improve day by day.

8. Do a Lot of Work

Michael Bierut is famous for his dedication and work ethic. He is known to work shifts as long as 13 hours in a day. He has willingly worked a full-time job and then go ahead to work shifts from 10pm to 3am.

Doing a lot of hard work will enable you to get experience quicker. Taking on a lot of projects will help you understand a diverse set of needs and skills. It will also push you out of your comfort zone, take on challenges and give you an edge over the competition.

9. The Problem Contains the Solution

This is a famous quote from Michael Bierut where he wanted to prove how easy it is to find solutions when you understand the problem. This also relates to another one of my favorite quotes,

A problem well-stated is a problem half-solved - Charles Kettering

But, how do you apply this practically? When dealing with clients be sure to ask questions until you understand exactly what is the problem.

As stated above many clients didn’t go to design school so they won’t be able to clearly explain the issues they’re going through. It is your job as the designer to ask the right questions until you fully understand the assignment.

Albert Einstein also seems to agree when it comes to asking the right questions,

If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than 5 minutes.

10. Don’t Avoid the Obvious

In a 2005 article, Bierut stated,

Does anyone devote as much energy to avoiding simple, sensible solutions as the modern graphic designer?

Bierut has always believed in providing simplified solutions to problems. And he thinks when it comes to design modern graphic designers seem to overthink the task at hand.

In the article above he continued to give examples of how graphic designers managed to ruin projects by simply doing too much.

He expressed this in the article by saying,

Every year, dozens of products, packages, chairs, posters, books, and devices win I.D. awards, and every year the readers want to know what the winners look like. Simple descriptive images: well, that's been done, right? So obvious! How about if we evoke the confusion, the ennui, the sensory overload of the judging process itself? A daring choice! Does it work? Not really…

When looking at a project and deciding the best plan of action, make sure to explore all options - even the most simple ones. Don’t try to go overboard with graphics, text and imagery rather keep it simple, if possible.

Over to you

Now that you’ve gotten a glimpse into the world of graphic design, it’s up to you how you take it. Bierut offers a lot of actionable advice which is beneficial for graphic designers at any stage of their career. If I were you I’d start today by keeping a record of all my design work and grab a few books to read and further my knowledge.

I hope this article gave you some guidance on exploring your potential as a graphic designer. Below I’ve listed all the sources I quoted in the article above if you wish to read further.

Sources

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