Michael Bierut at UX Week

Michael gave one of the keynotes today at UXWeek. He is a great storyteller with a wonderful self-deprecating style (that somehow combines with an amusing cynicism about some of those around him; but yet he’s genuine in it all). His talk essentially focused on his learning moment(s) as a designer around being user-centered.

He took on a pro-bono project to rename/rebrand/create a logo/etc. for a project to redo decrepit libraries in NYC schools. In a post-modern fashion, he presented his deliverables for that client in a dry and critical tone, mocking his own “big ideas” in a way that made it clear he no longer sees them as big ideas any longer. It was an interesting line to skate, there is always bullshit and performance in trying to convince someone that a new idea (or a trite idea, brought in for the first time, etc.) is a valid one, and it’s easy to present the same idea as genius or crap depending on the tone of voice. Listen to some old Bob Newhart recordings for a concrete example (Tob-acco… er, what’s tob-acco, Walt? It’s a kind of leaf, huh?… and you bought eighty tonnes of it?!!… Let me get this straight, Walt… you’ve bought eighty tonnes of leaves?… This may come as a kind of a surprise to you Walt but… come fall in England, we’re kinda up to our…).

Bierut’s ideas were completely inappropriate and indicated how poorly he understood the problem. The client took him out to see the libraries, and he got it. Instantly, and hugely. And the design work that he and many others collaborated one was wonderful. Framed as a story about his own failures, it’s actually a story about success. But the framing is what makes the telling of the story so genius.

Bierut gave his client a new treatment for the library. In a funny PowerPoint build he went from

He planned to deliver a full specification document indicating fonts and treatment and all the rest, but in the interim, the client took control over the logo and started using it whatever way they wanted. He realized that this was okay, and that the cultural (and indeed design) benefits outweighed any super-specification desire he might have projected on them.

One awesome and obvious (in hindsight) example of this dawning user-centered perspective was in how Michael and his team referred to these different libraries being designed. Before meeting the librarians, he referred to them by the architect (i.e., the Peter Arkle (sp!) library) but afterwards he learned that it was referred to as “Vince’s library” – a classic user research insight – different groups call things by different names, revealing their underlying use model!

Five things he learned
1. Innovation is overrated*
2. You get power by giving away power
3. The real opportunity may be outside your scope of work
4. Consistency does not equal sameness
5. Take care of the experience and the brand will take care of itself

The “innovation” comment was challenging and Ryan Freitas asked about it. Bierut added that “innovation has never been a profound motivator for me…design has to work within conventions to work.” Seems like we’re approaching the I-word with some different things in mind. Bierut felt he started off being too “clever” – which I hear as new for new’s sake – and that wasn’t the right thing to do. I don’t think innovative means shocking, obviously new, different, and all that. I think innovation can be invisible and brilliant and seamless to adapt to, with that whiff of exhaled “ooh!” that happens afterwards. To a graphic designer, the word may mean something else.


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