Books: Michael Bierut's 79 Ways to Read About Design

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As Pentagram/New York principal Michael Bierut notes on his Design Observer site, his Seventy-nine Short Essays on Design, a $24.95 hardcover from Princeton Architectural Press, "is a 272-page book about design that contains no pictures. Each essay is published in a different typeface, and you may not find every typeface equally easy to read. And 68 of the pieces in the book were previously published on Design Observer, in one form or another, which means you can read most of them for free. So, then, why a book? Good question." Another good question might be, why didn't he design the book himself? The design is credited to his Pentagram colleague Abbott Miller. "Once I decided that the book would have no pictures in it, I realized I needed a serious, classic book designer, which is why I turned to my partner Abbott," says Bierut. "He came up with the idea of the 79 different typefaces, but we picked them together. It was harder than I thought it would be. Sometimes there's a clear rationale for the selection; other times it's pretty much random. I decided not to make it public which is which, so that people could have some fun — or be irritated — trying to figure out why certain fonts were chosen."
Essays by Michael Bierut
Essays by Michael Bierut
That clear rationale can be found, for instance, in "I Hate ITC Garamond," which is, of course, set in ITC Garamond (there's a font guide in the appendix). Similarly, "Designing Under the Influence," which is mainly about Barbara Kruger, is set in the virtually Kruger-owned Futura Italic. "It turned out to be surprisingly hard to find that many effective text fonts," muses Bierut. "There's also some interesting effects that happen when, as a reader, you're asked to change typeface every few pages. I think you can get used to reading almost anything, but this book doesn't let you. I'm not sure if this is good or bad, but it's interesting." So what does he favor for a readable font? "I'd never call it my favorite, but every time I page through the book I'm struck by how nice and readable Century Expanded looks on number 11, and I vow to start using it more. Haven't gotten around to that yet." Number 11 is "Howard Roark Lives," about the 20th century-expansive Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead as a sort of "fundamental design school textbook." As Bierut writes, "Like all Ayn Rand books, the central theme of The Fountainhead is how individuals of creative genius, the source of all human productivity, are misunderstood and persecuted by the great unwashed. The books usually end with the heroic genius vanquishing his lessers and going on to have great sex with another heroic genius of the opposite sex."
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