Unlocking the door to great design
Michael Beirut may be one of the most recognized names in design in these recent decades. Despite fame, he remains a very accessible guy as this interview with him in Fast Company illustrates.
I'd go read the full thing, if I were you, but I thought I'd also throw a few quotes forward here.
Beirut is the author of a number of books on design. Reflecting on the process and accomplishment of doing books, he points to their making as a reflective exercise that separates the past and present from the future.
When you do this sort of thing—assembling a book and an exhibition—it actually is putting up some sort of dividing line whether you want it to or not. It’s like the first act curtain, you hope. And then in a way it gives you license to think about what you want to do next and if you want to do something different next.
Beirut is a developer in the best sense of that term. He reflects on a context and generates his own projects to explore ideas and advance them.
I’ve done self-initiated projects and a lot of times I don’t really think of them as design projects. They have to do with just some subject I’ll get interested in and I’ll just concoct some excuse to do a project about it.
He makes the case for the importance of curiosity and reflection as a key component for success in design. But this also means a curiosity about all of the things that surround a design opportunity. We make much in our profession about the importance of research, and observation, and engagement with our clients, telling them of the significance of our deep dive into their business in order to do a better building, or workplace, for them. Beirut says it better.
It’s really important that the more things you can be interested in, the more things you’ll design well...someone says you want to do the signs for the New York Times? I can convince them that to do the work properly, I have to talk to editors, I have to sit in on the page-one meeting where they decide how page one is going to be laid out. They indulged me.
The result, in the case of the new New York Times building was a "tuning" of the place through graphic design to make it more accessible and respectful of the brand, history and tradition that the paper's people felt differentiated them and their pursuits.
I came to realize was that they really loved and felt at home in the old building and going into the Renzo Piano and Gensler building seemed cold and unfamiliar...by sort of acknowledging that we’re not doing off-the-rack things here, we’re sort of reaching into your history a little bit, I think that actually gave some people some reassurance that, with other gestures, added up to something nice.
One of the more often heard expressions in an architect's laments is the belief that "we have to educate the client." That's never a generous phrase. It reflects, instead, a sense of arrogance and superiority that is actually quite false, if not simply inappropriate. Beirut talks about his own education, the sense of hypersensitivity and arrogance it gave him, and his own feeling that he needed to "educate the client." He goes through a transformation, however, into a more generous frame of mind. Ultimately, he realizes that his clients are really quite bright people and, if they don't warm to his design, it might be because he hasn't reflected on them and their problem enough.
I just always assume it’s my responsibility to educate myself, figure out what is it that I’ve missed here, what is it that I’ve failed to connect.
We tell our clients that "we don't have a style." We think that is reassurance for them, that we'll not use their resources to do something that is for our own pleasure and recognition (egad, the power of design awards programs!). Beirut offers a different point of view on the subject of "style," drawing a difference in expense of architecture versus that of graphic design.
I can see sort of the benefits of "having a style." If you’re an architect, I think you really have to commit to an approach that the work you’re doing is so high stakes, it’s so long term, you don’t have the luxury of trying something on Monday and another thing Tuesday. Only a few architects—who were quite criticized for it—would change it up like that...most architects, I think, would be undermining their own practice if they thought about switching it up all the time...In graphic design, the stakes are so much lower, the turnaround is so much quicker, you can experiment with something, try it out, discard it if it doesn’t work.
Finally, Beirut talks of great design as if it were a key unlocking a door.
I can almost tell by looking at something if that designer's key worked in that particular lock. When it does, it seems so sweet and nice and beautiful. It has nothing to do with style, nothing to do with normal standards of beauty, sometimes it can be ungainly or outright ugly, but if it's just perfect for what it is, there’s a kind of ease with it. That sense that it is kind of right—however defined—is something people can, in a really deep subconscious way, can kind of sense. What I like about it is, it doesn’t have to cost more, it doesn’t mean it’s fancy, it’s exclusive, it just means someone kept trying the keys until they found it in that particular lock. Now you can walk through that door.