Partner and designer at
"The biggest challenge is that we live in a vast, interconnected world and almost any engagement with it on any level brings a risk of compromising one’s ethics."
Raphael Roake: How do you, if at all, navigate ethics in your practice?
Michael Bierut: I am fortunate in that our practice is set up so we can be selective in who we work with. So I avoid working with anyone doing something I either don’t like, don’t respect, or (more generally) don’t have a particular affinity for. I also avoid working for jerks, to the degree I can identify them in advance, which is not easy sometime.
RR: Do you think we (as designers) have a responsibility to consider and challenge things such as the ethics behind the companies / products / services we engage with?
MB: I think every one of us is a citizen and a human being as well as a designer, and some of us are sons or daughters or husbands or wives or fathers or mothers as well. Each of these roles entails responsibilities, and none of them can be separated from your life as a designer.
RR: Are there any cases of this happening in your practice or in the wider industry that you thought were interesting or different?
MB: The biggest challenge is that we live in a vast, interconnected world and almost any engagement with it on any level brings a risk of compromising one’s ethics. For instance, one of my first, and favorite, clients at Pentagram 20 plus years ago was the Brooklyn Academy of Music, a great cultural institution dedicated to both high art and serving its community. Much of its work was made possible by philanthropic support from a large holding company that included cigarette manufacturers. I would never work for a cigarette company, yet I enthusiastically worked for BAM. You could say it was the same money. Not simple.
RR: How far do we push that with clients or bosses?
MB:I haven’t had a boss for years, but I was lucky to have a great mentor in Massimo Vignelli, who was imperious with clients and never worked with one he thought was unworthy of his time. Arrogant, perhaps, but a great example and role model.
RR: How do you at Pentagram navigate this with so many different partners undertaking such a large range of work and clients?
MB: Each partner is free to work with whichever client they choose. But because we are all very close, whenever any of us has an ethical question, we’ll take it to the others. What should I do? Should I work for this client? Should I walk away? These are great conversations, and seldom lead to black and white answers.
RR: Any advice for young designers on navigating this space in their careers/beyond?
I’ve noticed that whenever anyone compromises, it’s usually because the money is irresistible. My advice is: if you can possibly avoid it, never do work just for the money. Live frugally if you must. Keep your overhead low. You are lucky to do something you love. Having to do it only to pay the bills spoils a wonderful gift.