Light Years, poster for the Architectural League of New York, Michael Bierut and Nicole Trice, 1999
Who designed this poster? Well, I did, of course. Basically. More or less.
Design is essentially a collaborative enterprise. That makes assigning credit for the products of our work a complicated issue. Take the poster above. When it's published, it's often credited just to me. But its genesis is a little more complicated.
Like a lot of widely reproduced graphic artifacts, the poster has become separated from its original purpose; most people have no idea that it's an invitation for an annual benefit for the Architectural League of New York
called the Beaux Arts Ball. I design one every year. Each one has a different theme. That year the theme was "Light Years," for reasons I no longer recall. What I do recall was my pleasure in discovering, after doing some sketching, the rather obvious fact that the two words have the same number of letters. I thought we could take advantage of that by somehow superimposing the letters of the two words. I took some sketches of this idea and others to Nicole Trice, a design student from the University of Cincinnati who was serving a three-month internship with us, and told her to try some variations to see what would work. The version I liked the best was the one you see above. I asked her how she did it, and she told me, but I've forgotten. I never touched the Mac.
So, the formal attribution for the poster goes to me and Nicole. But I've done one of these every year, and seldom as successfully. This particular one works because that year's ball committee (Walter Chatham, Cristina Grajales, Frank Lupo, and Allen Prusis) picked a theme we could really work with (or at least that was mathematically convenient); the management of the Architectural League (Rosalie Genevro and Anne Reiselbach) approved the design and paid for its reproduction; and the printer (Rich Kaplan at Finlay Brothers
) did a beautiful job printing it, with no one supervising on press (couldn't afford the trip to Hartford for a freebie). Also, what about the letterforms, which play such a large part in the design? Interstate, by Tobias Frere-Jones
. Finally, I'm not sure this poster would have looked exactly like this without the influence — a complicated subject
to be sure — of artists and designers I've admired like Ed Ruscha
and Josef Muller-Brockmann
. That's a lot of people, and I probably left someone out.
When a design artifact becomes more widely known, it grows ever distant from the complications surrounding its birth, and sometimes, as in the case of the poster above, even its context and meaning. Continually referencing endless lists of collaborators seldom serves the purposes of journalists, curators and design historians, who want clarity and simplicity. I can't say I blame them: that long roll call of people that appears every time I open my copy of Adobe Photoshop 8.0 must be significant, but to me the names are as unreal and fantastical as the people who attended parties at Jay Gatsby's house
in the summer of 1922.
Lone authorship corresponds more neatly to the popular image of personal creativity, so even objects that could not possibly be the handiwork of a single person, like the iPod, nonetheless become associated with a single name, like Apple's Jonathan Ive
. Likewise, although Emotion as Promotion: A Book of Thirst
lists Rick Valicenti as editor rather than author, and a long list of collaborators on one of its early pages, in a review like the one below
, it's hard to think of it as anything but a compendium of Rick Valicenti's work. This is even true in a book like Tibor Kalman: Perverse Optimist
, in which efforts are made to bring in the voices of collaborators and to credit everyone involved in the design of every reproduced image: perhaps in the end the only picture that really matters is the big smiling face of Tibor on the cover.
Tibor is the classic example of a non-designer who managed to exert an influence on — and get credit for the work of — a generation of talented designers, without really doing any hands-on design himself. Another is the late Muriel Cooper
from the legendary MIT Media Lab
. I was talking the other day to my partner Lisa Strausfeld about the time she was a student there. "I used to wonder why Muriel got credit for so much of the work that came out of the Media Lab. But now it strikes me how pervasive she was," Lisa said. "She picked all the typefaces that we worked with. She set up the structure of the problems and guided the way we solved them." Like Kalman, Muriel Cooper authored a vast body of material just by force of intellect and personality, while all the while other people thought they were actually "doing the work."
And none of those people — some of whom have names you might recognize — are listed in the captions for the images that illustrate Cooper's biography
on the website of the American Institute of Graphic Arts. It's not fair, of course, but what's an ambitious but anonymous young designer to do? The solution is almost too simple. Filling out the information forms for design competitions and publications is tedious work. Chances are good that whoever is stuck with doing it would love to be relieved of the responsibility. Volunteer for the job. That way, you can make sure that the credits are scrupulously accurate, with one exception: no matter what, make sure your boss gets listed as creative director.
That worked for me way back when. Come to think of it, it still does.