Michael Bierut On Design Before and After The Computer and Why AI Might Not Be So Bad After All
by Rudy Sanchez on 08/09/2023 | 9 Minute Read
Technology changes how we live and interact in all facets of our lives, including work. As humans continue to improve upon the implements used to design, create, and build, jobs are transformed and sometimes eliminated.
Before the widespread corporate adoption of the computer, especially those with a Graphic User Interface (GUI), graphic design was full of sharp knives, smelly solvents, and tacky glues. Designers needed surgeon-level dexterity to execute their work and would have the occasional battle scar on their fingers from an errant X-acto blade. Mistakes sometimes required starting over; there was no Option + Z in those days. Typesetting was a specialty done by humans rather than by software. Often, you had to special order type, and it would come back as dry transfer decals.
“When I was in school, at internships, and after graduating, I learned the mechanics of the trade, as I’ll call it,” says Michael Bierut, partner at Pentagram. “Graphic design is often called a profession, but in many ways, you could almost call it a trade back then because it involved a mastery of manual skills and clerical type operations. It was a fully analog business.”
Michael graduated from the University of Cincinnati College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP) in 1980, entering the graphic design world a mere few years before its next seismic shift. Bierut saw the emergence of the PC and digital typesetting, desktop publishing, and digital design.
Bierut has had a successful career since the introduction of the computer and has seen how it transformed the way designers work and witnessed mechanical and analog aspects of the business disappear.
“People who did graphic design for the most part, but not exclusively, were preparing physical artwork that would go to printers for mass production,” Michael says. “The things we handed over were that we assembled using knives and glue on cardboard that we put in envelopes with instructions. Then we’d go to the printers and get turned into printed pieces of graphic design. So every step of that process was deliberate and time-consuming, and in 1980 dollars, mistakes were costly if you made them. You had to be really deliberate in everything you did.”
That world has mostly faded since the arrival of the computer. Fewer people are required to do all that literal cutting and pasting. But on the other hand, the computer and subsequent global telecommunications boom has opened the profession to people everywhere and has changed the pace of production.
A graphic design project would often begin with a meeting, and there would be some kind of text associated with the work.
And just like today, there would be an audience or expectation for that particular work, and something would need to be communicated to that audience. Let's say you needed to dream up a concept involving a picture of the Eiffel Tower or Sigmund Freud—likely, you'd have a mental image of those two things. If you had a knack for drawing things in your head, you could sketch them out and show your idea to a client. But if it escalated beyond that, you'd need to acquire a picture of the Eiffel Tower or Sigmund Freud.
"If you were lucky, somewhere handy, you might have on your shelf a picture you could use for reference,” Michael explains. “But other than that, in New York, at least, you’d have to go to the 42nd Street branch of the New York Public Library, where they had a picture division and submit a request for an envelope full of pictures, and they’d give you a bunch of portraits of Sigmund Freud or a bunch of photographs from various sources of the Eiffel Tower. That was a physical trip you’d make to another place and sign off for those pictures. And then you’d have to figure out some way to physically transfer that picture, take whatever text you want to have to go with it and send that out to have that turned into typesetting. Even the process of typesetting was very involved. Using different mathematical tables, you had to calculate how big the type needed to be. If it was text, you’d have to be able to estimate how many inches deep it would go at various heights and widths.”
“Physically, it was like assembling a piece of IKEA furniture, but it was much harder overall because you would have in mind a vague idea of what the thing you wanted to have it look like as the goal," he adds. "But as you were going along, that might shift, or the client, your collaborators, or your boss would say, ‘Oh, now that I see it, I don’t think that works.’ The time it took to make those adjustments was measured in days. It would take half a day, a full day, two days, or overnight. Everything moved at this molasses pace. Although, at the time, it was just the way life was.”
The computer would, of course, change all that. Designers today don’t need to go to their local library to check out photographs. Visualizing ideas wasn’t a significant investment in time and resources. A Google image search takes seconds.
Of course, that’s not to say that the desktop publishing and computer-assisted design revolution didn’t scare professionals at the time, just like AI does now. “If someone would have said to me, ‘What if there was a machine on your desk that could generate typesetting immediately,’ I’m not even sure how I would have answered that question," Bierut says. "I would say, ‘But we have typesetters, who I know and trust and like.’"
According to Bierut, the folks who did what he did were concerned that this would potentially reduce or eliminate the designer's role. Now, anyone could create, say, a newsletter using the software of the time even though they didn't have a design background or education.
"What was harder to imagine at the time was how liberating it would be to have so many options available and to be able to change things in minutes," he says. "Then, we had access to so much possible material with the internet. Obtaining pictures of Sigmund Freud and the Eiffel Tower is a thing that would have taken a real schlep; you can get in milliseconds from your computer just with a Google search or something else. All that ease and multiplicity of options are a net good for creativity, problem-solving, and design in general. But I would also say there was something valuable about the necessity of planning and deliberation you had to do in the old days. The kind of people I admire the most managed to either internalize that and embrace new technology while retaining their capacity to plan things out carefully in their minds. And people have come of age knowing nothing, but the digital world is not associating that kind of careful forethought with the analog era. I think they associate that forethought with a good process for coming up with a good solution.”
Fears over AI replacing graphic designers reverberate today. Even Adobe, arguably one of the Horsemen of the AI Apocalypse, has employees openly expressing concerns that its AI development will put its customers, and themselves, out of work. After all, Adobe can’t sell Creative Cloud licenses if there are no creatives left.
Desktop publishing, digital typesetting, the web, and computer-assisted design technologies did transform how things were created, shortened the time required, and reduced the number of people needed; over time, it opened the field to more individuals, even amateurs, and widened the canvas for professional creatives. It also had the unintended consequence of liberating designers, as Michael explains.
“I remember doing a lot of things and thinking, ‘I’m not sure this needs to exist,’” Bierut begins. “Every big commercial entity would be publishing newsletters and promotional brochures. That sustained whole industries, not just graphic design businesses but typesetters, paper companies, and printers. I’d work on these things thinking, ‘I don’t think anyone reads this thing, I’m not sure what this is. Still, it’s a fun exercise to design and make it look beautiful.' Of course, I’d ask myself, ‘Wow can I make this thing so compelling that people will notice it and read it?’"
But no matter how much work he put into it, he still wasn't sure if it needed to even exist in the first place or if everyone in the office should labor so intensively over it. "So the first time someone demonstrated what ChatGPT could do, I realized that there’s a whole lot of writing that I’m given to work with and writing that I do, that even as I’m doing it, I’m thinking, ‘Why am I writing this? No one’s going to read it. This is boring,'" he admits. "And it can be anything like writing a proposal to do a new project, and there’s a form to fill out that asks to describe your approach to the work, your working process, and how you ensure you get a good result for your clients. There’s almost no original way to do that. In fact, an original way to do that might get you penalized." In Michael's view, the best thing to do is write something sound and anodyne. Nothing too weird or quirky, or you might not get the job.
So, if AI takes over those mundane projects and tasks that aren’t creatively engaging or necessarily important, you free up designers to be creative in the same way the computer first did when it arrived on the scene. “If you’re in a creative business, once you have AI engines that write, design, or do things, the threshold for what counts as creativity gets more clearly illuminated," Bierut says. "Those doing the everyday things were never the point of difference for someone like me or the people that I compete with and the people that I admire. It’s things that are so wholly unexpected but still perfectly suited to purpose that I find arresting and effective."
"I think it’s hard to imagine that you could regularly plug that in and get that spit out by an AI program,” he adds.
Computers have always been machines that we’ve utilized in the same way since their existence. Humans provide input; the computer interprets and then provides an output. AI might be the hottest thing right now, but it still essentially boils down to input, interpretation, and output. And perhaps it’s best suited to providing outputs that don’t need to demonstrate some artistic or creative flare. For example, many documents we genuinely need in society—like sales contracts—are essentially the same boilerplate with some details changed. That is something that an AI can accomplish with a bit of human time investment. AI may play a similar role in design, freeing humans to pursue more creative design challenges.
“A majority of the world is boilerplate, and that’s a good thing,” Michael says. “Because all of us are motivated by two opposing kinds of needs. One is the need for predictability and comfort. And the other is the need for surprise and excitement. If you get that balance wrong and everything is just comfortable and predictable, you get bored. And that’s not good. But on the other hand, the antidote to that isn’t 100% unpredictability, surprise, and entertainment, because then you get too overstimulated and start to freak out. There’s a certain reason why you wouldn’t want every building on Fifth Avenue to look like the Guggenheim. It just would be too crazy in an unpleasant way. This architect was admiring some anonymous building somewhere in Manhattan, and they said, ‘You know, what makes a city great is its ability to put up and maintain something like this, a perfectly good kind of background building that actually does its job well and isn’t calling attention to itself.' But if you examine the details, you see that they’re sound and built to last, and the tenants are satisfied. And then down the block and around the corner, there’s something more special and showy that provides a great foil for that.”
So maybe ChatGPT, Midjourney, and all of those other new generative AI programs can be responsible for doing the boilerplate really well. Now, you've got time to do something a little more interesting. "Everyone dismisses boilerplate as crap that’s not worth anyone’s time," Bierut says. "You could argue boilerplate makes the world go round, whether it’s in architecture, design, or writing. Boilerplate makes things that are special look and feel more appropriately special. Maybe that’s an appropriate way to think about the promise of AI, but I don’t know.”
While being free from dull, uncreative design projects sounds like a great proposition, it’s of little solace for the current legion of folks tasked with those projects. Then again, these are early days, and nothing is certain save that AI technology is progressing, improving, and not going away anytime soon.
If we can glean any lessons from the introduction of the computer to the design world, it's that one can offload the uninspired tasks to the machines, all while formulating new ideas and forms of communication. Designers and creatives of all stripes can make the unexpected while the robots replicate the necessary background pieces to our existence.
That sounds like a good plan for a while. Or at least until AI becomes fully sentient.