Seventy-nine Short Essays on Design, by Michael Beirut

Michael Beirut is perhaps about as close as you can get to being “famous” as a graphic designer – right up there with names like Stefan Sagmeister, Jessica Hische, Paula Scherr, Paul Rand, Massimo … oh wait, these are all names that I probably only know because I’m a graphic designer myself (or perhaps next to names like those, I prefer to call myself an aspiring graphic designer). Actually, being “famous” – but only in a graphic-designer kind of way – is one of the 79 topics Beirut expresses with wit, stark honesty, and thorough likeableness in his book Seventy-nine Short Essays on Design. Or really, it might be a little more accurate to say that it’s a constant undertone, throughout the essays, which is also occasionally addressed directly.

One of the most memorable pieces of the book is in Essay 4, “How to Become Famous.” Beirut starts off with:

Fame, of course, is relative. Madonna and David Letterman are famous. Most normal people, on the other hand, have never heard of Milton Glaser or Paul Rand. In the context of this little guide, fame refers to something very specific: a famous graphic designer is famous among other graphic designers. My mother, for instance, knows that I’m famous because my sister-in-law, who’s a dental hygienist, used to clean the teeth of a graphic designer in my home town back in Ohio. Nothing could have astonished my sister-in-law more than when her patient asked her if she was related to me. Other than that, I can’t say for sure that being famous counts for anything.

After that, he goes on to give a deadpan list of advice for how to become famous by entering competitions with “cool-looking projects that solve easily understandable problems.” This one made laugh the first time I read it, because I spend around 50 hours a week working to design solutions to problems that are anything but easily understandable (see the IBM DevOps Pipeline in my portfolio? There’s a reason it can’t be summed up in a pretty headline and a bunch of sexy, 3D-skewed planes of screens). Better yet, he gives the advice “Try to enter so your thing is the biggest thing on the table … having your piece be one of the largest in its category gives it a tremendous advantage.” He also explains how to give a speech, and how to do great design work. He has two great pieces of advice for doing great design: 1) “Do lots of work. You only need to do about three really great pieces a year to become famous.” and 2) He takes the old rule When in doubt, make it big. If still in doubt, make it red and adds “If it’s big and ugly, it isn’t big enough.”

The whole book isn’t just some semi-cynical treatise about making it as a designer, though. He recounts humiliating moments that taught him life lessons (Essay 10, “My Phone Call to Arnold Newman”), describes the most terrifying word to designers (Essay 58, “On (Design) Bullshit”), rails against the mindless overuse of the word innovation (Essay 71, “Innovation is the New Black”), and gives some beautiful descriptions of mentors like Massimo Vignelli (Essay 78, “Massimo Vignelli’s Pencil”).

As tempting as it is, I won’t use this entire post to flip through Beirut’s book and quote moments I still remember 6 weeks after finishing it. Instead, I’ll also point out the two most novel, but mundane, but totally effective devices employed by the book.

One of the first things I noticed about the book was, “Hey wait a minute, there’s more than one font in the cover, and the font just switched between Essays 1 and 2.” It took me far too long to realize, with great satisfaction, that of course – the book is actually designed in 79 different fonts, with one for each essay. Now, alone, that would only be satisfying to know that some intern in Abbott Miller’s team had manage to wrangle up 79 different but good typefaces for one book. But as you read it, you soon start to realize that each font is used for each essay for a very specific reason. Sometimes, it’s obvious why: when you write about Barbara Kruger, of course it’s funny and appropriate to use Futura Italic. Sometimes, the connections are a little more subtle, but I came out with a confidence that the book designer could quickly tell a hypothetical inquisitor the exact reason for each typographic choice.

The other most noticeable surface quality of this book is at first annoying, but soon liberating. This is a whole book on graphic design, with zero pictures. This runs entirely converse to every other design book I am familiar with, which is all the more confounding, at first, because Beirut name drops influences, peers, and objects of design consideration several times for each of the 79 essays. What’s more, I read much of this book on the New York City subway, which meant I had no phone service with which to Google examples of the work being discussed. However, this has a few refreshing upshots. As mentioned above, this book is able to be deeply expressive through simple typographic choices alone, which is deeply fitting as a book written by a designer about graphic design. More compellingly, the lack of pictures changed my typical design-book behavior. Typically, I lust after and acquire a design book for it’s stunning collection of photos or rich, informative diagrams, only to skip the prose and mostly drool over the photos and captions (if I’m feeling ambitious). On the contrary, with Beirut’s Short Essays, there was nothing else to do, so I actually read the text, and found myself relishing that luxury. The final effect of a pictureless book is one a no-nonsense designer like Beirut is no-doubt proud of: this is a book you can easily carry around, stick in your bag, and read in short bursts during commutes or in other mini-moments of space.

In fact, you may be noticing that my blog doesn’t have any pictures, either. No, this won’t help you carry it with you on the subway (there’s always Pocket if you really need to take this with you). However, it is my hope that by leaving out some of the elements usually considered as essential to a blog, I can maybe create a bit of space online which doesn’t feel quite like a space online. Besides, there’s always the entire rest of the site, if you’re really looking for visual representations of who I am or what I do. Here, I hope to do something more than skim.

If you’re dying to get to the better writing of Michael Beirut himself, you can start reading it for free online. However, with a book itself as so well-crafted and readable, it’s very worth buying a physical copy. Do the right thing and buy it at Strand, or whatever book seller you like to support.