The Design Observer Group

Posted 01.07.13

Michael Bierut

Positively Michael Patrick Cronan

Michael Cronan
Michael Patrick Cronan and Karin Hibma, Berkley, California, 2009. Photo by Michael Macor, San Francisco Chronicle.

I met Michael Cronan on my first visit to San Francisco in 1983. It was a trip that changed my life.

I had been working at my first job in New York for three years at that point. In those days, the East Coast graphic design scene was dominated by legendary names: Milton Glaser, Ivan Chermeyeff and Tom Geismar, Paul Rand, Rudi de Harak, George Tscherny, and the one I was lucky to have been hired by, Massimo Vignelli. These well known designers were all in their fifties, or sixties, or seventies. They had made their names as young turks 20, 30, or (in the case of Rand) 40 years before, and were showing no signs of stopping. They dominated New York like skyscrapers. And like skyscrapers, they cast long, deep shadows. 

In was in 1983 that we got a client in San Francisco, and I made my first business trip there. Using Massimo's name as a door-opener, I decided to look up some local designers. And the hottest designers in town were the ones that were nicknamed "The Michaels:" Manwaring, Vanderbyl, Mabry, and Cronan. Amazingly, everyone took my calls, which wouldn't have happened in New York. Even more amazingly, I was invited to join Michael Vanderbyl, Michael Manwaring and Michael Cronan for lunch. 

It was nearly 30 years ago, but I can still remember that lunch. It was a beautiful, sunny day. These guys were clearly good friends. They were so energetic, so supportive of each other, so enthusiastic about design and its possibilities. And more than anything else, they were so young. I remember thinking how much fun it must be to work in a town where the legends were not towering skyscrapers but just great guys a few years older than you were.

In the middle of it all was Michael Patrick Cronan. He was one of those rare people who was not just funny and smart, but who could make you feel funny and smart yourself just by being in his presence. Even at that first meeting, he was full of ideas, full of questions, full of advice, even for a kid like me, someone he had just met and, for all he knew, would never see again. 

As it turned out, we would see each other again — many times — over the next three decades. At each encounter I was enveloped in an all consuming hug from this great bear of a man. I got to know his wife Karin and encountered his sons, Nick and Shawn, just often enough to be stunned by how fast they grew. Michael, on the other hand, didn't seem to age at all. His seemingly limitless supply of energy led him from venture to venture, most notably the clothing line he created with Karin, Walking Man. Like the designer, the garments were big, warm and comforting; looking back, I suspect they may have been created just so anyone could have a Michael Cronan hug ready to go at a moment's notice, no further away than the nearest clothes closet.

To many people, he became most famous as a naming consultant, coming up with monikers for, among many other products, TiVo and Kindle. This surprised some people, but not me. Having led people through several painful "nomenclature exercises," I've learned the hard way that — even more than design — this particular field requires taking people on a journey that in the end requires nothing less than a blind leap of faith. And it's hard to imagine anyone better at instilling faith — faith in oneself, faith in one's judgment, faith that everything was simply going to turn out okay — than Michael Cronan. A positive attitude was the only kind of attitude he had.

It was that sense of faith that I took away from that sunny lunch 30 years ago with Michael and his two friends. Living in New York in the shadows of giants, I had grown unsure about my own ability to design, and about my own prospects for success. The example of the Michaels — three guys who were just a little older than me, who were having a great time and had no doubt that the best was yet to come — changed the way I thought about the future. I returned to New York filled with energy, and optimism, and the blind, thrilling faith that everything was going to turn out okay.

Michael Patrick Cronan embodied that spirit, and it will live on in everyone who he touched in his too short life. He died last week at 61, following a five-year struggle with cancer, on that holiday that for so many of us symbolzses the moment for new beginnings, New Year's Day.