Michael Bierut | Essays

May I Show You My Portfolio?

Actual portfolio, cardboard and fake leather, 34 by 42 inches, circa 1978.

In the fall of 1979, prior to my last year of design school, on a trip to New York City, I went job hunting. I visited about six design firms. One of them, Vignelli Associates, eventually made me a job offer, and that's where I started my career one week after graduating from the University of Cincinnati's College of Design, Architecture and Art in June 1980. I didn't know it then, but that would be the last time I would look for a job.

On each of those visits, I carried my work in a black portfolio, 34 by 42 inches, acetate sleeves, pockets in the front and back. That portfolio sat in a box, largely untouched, with some other junk in the closets and basements of the three places I've lived in the last 27 years, sort of like a slowly decaying design time capsule. A few weeks ago, I opened it up for the first time in a long time.

I realize you're not hiring, but may I show you my portfolio?


We'll start with this portrait of jazz saxophonist Sam Rivers, copied from photographs on his album The Complete Blue Note Sessions. This is the kind of thing upon which I had built my reputation by the time I graduated from high school: painstaking realism in the style of Bernie Fuchs, Bob Heindel and especially Mark English. There wasn't any instruction in this kind of thing available at UC. I did it after hours, as a private exercise in self indulgence. One never heard names like Fuchs, Heindel and English invoked in our classes.

Instead, we heard a lot of names like Hoffman, Muller-Brockmann, and Weingart. And, of course, Paul Rand. I didn't realize it as a 17-year-old from suburban Cleveland, but in applying to study graphic design at the University of Cincinnati in 1975, I was enlisting in a particular midwestern strain of a nascent global design ideology. Most of my instructors had studied at Yale University under Rand, Bradbury Thompson and Alvin Eisenman, or at the Allgemeine Kunstgewerbeschule in Basel, Switzerland with Hoffman and Weingart.


So out went the crosshatching, and in came the grid systems. I became a designer with a split personality. Without ever putting aside my passion for lush, literal illustration and blunt commercial art, I became an enthusiastic student of the "new Swiss" movement that was sweeping across American design education in the wake of Weingart's 1972-73 U.S. lecture tour. Two leading Basel-trained practitioners, Ken Hiebert and Hans-U. Allemann, visited us from the Philadelphia College of Art and led a week-long workshop, resulting in this interpretation of a Rand quote from "Design and the Play Instinct." Like so many such interpretations, it is neither playful, nor fun, nor surprising, but rather a fairly succinct compendium of then-trendy European design gestures: dots, lines, diagonals, and simulated light-to-dark gradations.


That's not to say that we didn't learn practical things too, like how to render letterforms in a brand of black and white poster paint called Plaka that was specially imported from Switzerland and stocked in the UC bookstore expressly for us graphic design students.

We were asked to choose the name of an artist and interpret it typographically. (We didn't know we were fortunate to get a choice; year after year, Rand assigned all his students the same name, Leger.) I managed to combine what now seem like over-obvious visual puns with the expected typographic moves of the day, painstakingly executed by hand. For Ansel Adams, that meant an allusion to the photographer's trademark Zone System.


Or the enigmatic absences of Magritte's surrealism...


...or the collages of the Dada movement. With Schwitters, I got to indulge a seemingly insatiable infatuation I had for what Bill Drenttel calls Silk Road Typography, also beloved by kidnappers, sampled mildly in the Rand poster above, and with real gusto here. Hand painting letterforms is one of those ostensibly obsolete skills that I now concede was truly character building. Those hours improved my eye not just for typography but for symbol design and formmaking in general.


In an inversion of actual practice, formal exercises were often developed into preemptive responses to imaginary assignments for nonexistent clients. In this case, the Schwitters exercise became a poster for a notional exhibit at a gallery I invented that got its name either from the hero of Ayn Rand's epic novel Atlas Shrugged (which I read six times in my five years of college, sorry) or from the fact that I had only capital Gs left in my collection of presstype. This may account as well for the date range, oddly late in Schwitters's career for such a show. I am relieved that at least the artist was still alive in 1945; content was a pretty malleable thing for me in those days and I wouldn't have checked.
This was a classic assignment given by Cincinnati professor Joe Bottoni that I believe is still given to this day: pick an animal and render it in simplified forms. I have fond memories of sketching gorillas at the Cincinnati Zoo. Oddly enough, I don't remember seeing the work of local boy Charley Harper until much later. Thank God, because he had taken almost all the available animals for himself. Painted by hand, again, in black and white Plaka.


My selection of this subject turned into a problem when the second part of the assignment was revealed: to show the animal in motion. Gorillas are basically immobile. My way around this was a rare instance where I came up with a mildly funny solution to a class assignment. Note that the lettering on the tire is pretty much the same as the word "Kurt" in the Schwitters exercise. I really knew how to paint those kind of letters.


This was my response to a competition held by the Cincinnati Ballet to design a poster to promote their holiday show. This is clearly my attempt to steal from another one of my secret idols, Gilbert Lesser, the New York-based designer perhaps best known for the Studio 54 logo, and a non-doctrinaire master of geometric minimalism and Helvetica. Handcut Pantone paper and presstype. I lost the competition to someone — a non-designer, it looked like — who did a drawing of a ballerina and stuck some cursive typography next to it: an early reminder that high design didn't always play well with the regular folks.


On my own time, I dreamed of merging my interest in illustration, my love of commercial art, and my growing facility with classic form resolution. Freelance assignments gave the chance to try. I designed (and wrote) posters to promote the school magazine, Clifton, where my then-girlfriend (now wife) was business manager. The obvious model for this eclecticism was Pushpin, of course. But so tragically futile! How easy it seemed to imitate anyone who used flat colors, geometric shapes and sans serif type on a grid, and how hard it was to knock off Milton Glaser and Seymour Chwast. I began to realize around then that maybe I didn't have what it took to make it as a designing illustrator. (Note the Times Bold, one of my favorites back then. Take that, Coudal!)





I believe it was this piece that got me the job at Vignelli Associates. The assignment was to design a brochure for commercial label papers. Each page a square, a simple 2x2 grid, one size of Helvetica in two weights: quintessential International Style modernism straight out of the tube. More surprising to me, and dismaying as well, is how eerily the cropped label artwork anticipates the packaging I was to do for Saks Fifth Avenue nearly 30 years later. It's sobering to realize how trapped I am by my own handwriting.


This piece, one of several I did for Print's annual student cover design competition, was just about the last time I undertook an ambitious illustration, this one a self-portrait based on a old black-and-white picture my mom commissioned when I was five. I still like it, although it isn't very good. I lost the competition, of course, and retreated into the comfort of typography for, well, the rest of my life.

It's easy to assume that one grows in self-confidence over the course of a life in design, and in many ways I have. But looking back to 1979, I'm struck by how much nerve I had back then. Part of maturing as a designer is discovering what you're good at. Inevitably, you become biased towards what you know will work. In unknown territory lurks the risk of failure. Back then, I was too naive to know what risk was, and too enthusiastic to dream I'd be slowed by any obstacle. I'm older and wiser now, and, maybe, sounder and safer. Is it too late to take up crosshatching again?

Posted in: Business, Education , Graphic Design

Comments [119]

Wow, I love so many pieces of your portfolio. The typographic pieces in particular are amazing... I really yearn to undergo gruelling typography mentoring, but it's so hard to find these days.

Thanks for showing that Michael. Fascinating.

Blimey, you're good. When can you start?
Brad Brooks

It is fascinating but equally frustrating- high design still does not play well...I have a similar portoflio, Daler/Rowney, acetate sheets but not pockets it is always flung in the trunk or back seat of my car and the sheets end up sticking to each other in the heat...
Considering the car explosions in Beirut though, maybe I should keep it somewhere safer so that if I get blown up on my way to work- some of my favored work will remain...
Lana Daher

michael, I really enjoyed your article. Can you tell me what you look for and respond to in portfolios you look at now?

Thanks for that, Mr Bierut.
The Sam Rivers portrait is fantastic! It looks so NOW.
Nothing new under the sun, I guess.
Jeff Gill

Thanks for coming in to show us your portfolio.

We don't have any jobs at the moment, but we'll keep you on file and we'll let you know if anything arises.

We wish you all the best in your search for a job.

Enjoyable post, MB, interesting to see how it all started (with how it continues) - such mature work. However, I'm intrigued, considering the period and the European influences, how er... American it all looks. I don't mean to offend but it does have a certain 'stamp' on it. Knowing your passion for british graphic design and music didn't any what was happening in the UK during that time make it over there? It certainly had a big hold on many potential designers over here. You weren't interested, or was it that those NYC giants were just too big an influence to allow any contamination/cross-pollination?

How did you resist making the dot of the "i" in "Magritte" into a bowler hat? Your sense of restraint was evident even then, Michael.
Daniel Green

Knowing your passion for british graphic design and music didn't any what was happening in the UK during that time make it over there?

Derek, I must confess that British graphic design was basically unknown to me until my last year of school, when Pentagram published Living by Design and Colin Forbes came by to give a guest lecture.

In a pre-internet world, information was hard to come by, especialy between the coasts. The only means of dissemination of design work were competition annuals (all very American), a limited number of magazines (mostly fairly provincial), expensive books that might, just might, turn up in your local bookstore (no "graphic design" sections), and the occasional emissary like Forbes or Weingart.

I shudder to consider the perpetually overexcited state I'd be in had the internet and the blogosphere existed when I was a student.
Michael Bierut

Coincidentally, I recently dusted off my circa 1982 Philadelphia College of Art graduate portfolio, which was, literally, mouldy. I must say mine was not nearly as good, nor as diverse, as Michael's. That's probably why I didn't get the job at Vignelli, though to be fair, I never did interview there! I see certain things in common between our portfolios (the dots, the lines, the simulated gradients...). My own recent portfolio review generated a similar poignant humor. I can well imagine the HOURS spent with black and white plaka getting that gorilla in the tire swing just right. And though I hate to bring it up, Michael, do you think the A in Ansel might be just a hair too light?

I digress. Looking at my own portoflio and reading this great post remind me of something for which I am eternally grateful. At PCA, thanks to the likes of Ken Hiebert, Hans Alleman, Christine Zielinsky, and more, I received a spectacularly good design education. And it was an education that somehow managed to go far beyond the formal lessons of making dot, line, and type compositions. That Basel-based education might have caused us all to end up with similar-looking graduate portfolios, but it was a great platform from which to begin a design career and to find our own ways in the world.
Rob Henning

Dear Michael,

Such a generous move! And really exciting that so many of your works still seem so exciting and fresh. As a designer i find it interesting to force myself keep on doing things that can stand the test of time. As a design teacher I see it as a great thing to show to any design student today. Thank You!

Minja Smajic, Stockholm, Sweden
Minja Smajic

Thanks for showing us your old work. Having graduated from DAAP in 2002 (though in architecture), I can say that the type work you show looks quite similar to what I saw students working on as I passed by various studios and crits.

It's great to see someone's school work, coupled with the knowledge that they have become and extremely strong designer. This was a very welcome Friday article!

Wait, now it seems like a lot of you are kissing his behind, because some of the work is nice like the brochure for commercial label papers, but I thought Michael was showing it because some of it is a bit laughable and naive now, ie the Clifton poster. Isn't this to show how far he came and how hefound his strengths/weaknesses?
Glenn Ford

I'm sure Michael Beirut has had his behind kissed more than once by other designers, and as such is probably supremely well qualified to recognize an ass kissing when he receives one. But, really, it seems to me that the people who are complimenting Michael on this work and his post are equally well qualified to recognize it for what it is--work Beirut produced as a student thirty years ago. In that context, I don't see how it is laughable or naive, though there is certainly humor in the post. Of course, the work does show where he began and how far he has come. It was strong student work 30 years ago, and that's still easy to see. There's nothing wrong with saying so. I have nothing whatsoever to gain by kissing his ass myself, but nevertheless, kiss, kiss, Michael.
Rob Henning

Sorry Kid.
The work is pretty good, but we are looking for someone that is fluent in all aspects of the following software 3D Studio Max, After Effects, Acrobat, Bryce, Canvas, CorelDraw, Dimensions, Director/Shockwave, Dreamweaver, Fireworks, Flash, Framemaker, Freehand, FrontPage, Golive, Illustrator, InDesign, Infini-D, LiveMotion, Pagemaker, Painter, Paint Shop Pro, Photoshop, Poser, QuarkXpress, Ray Dream, Shockwave / Director, Powerpoint, and Word. And you must be an expert on multiple platforms. It would be helpful if you are familiar with CAD. And you also need to be a write and edit in html, xml, write and edit Perl, Java, JavaScript, ActiveX, ASP, CGI, databases and of course are familiar WC3 web standards.

Oh, and the starting salary is $14,300.
Mark Kaufman

I sure hope Print magazine seriously considers your design for its cover now.

I love the variety and timelessness of the work you're showing here. Very inspiring, especially the black & white designs. Thanks a lot for this great post.

Onur Orhon

Your work looks so familiar to me. I must have somehow crossed paths with it/you back in my heady days living in the late 70's/ early 80s NYC art school(SVA)/work world. So nice to see quality work....
bruce ninetynine


I really appreciate you cracking open your old portfolio for us to see. I'm 4 years out of school and trying to escape the gravitational pull of direct marketing. I recently pulled out my school portfolio (since very little of what I've worked on recently would get me into a design firm) to see what still works, what needs to go, etc.

Your portfolio was very beneficial for me because it's a great example of what a great student portfolio looks like. I can only refine my hand-inked elephant so much and it will still look like a student project. Ditto my hand-inked typographic designs. (Shout out to Ray Morales and Mac Magelby of the University of Utah for keepin' that character-building tradition alive, baby! May they continue to resist the pressure to add dreamweaver to their curriculum!)

Now, as I burn my midnight oil, I have a better, clearer vision of what my portfolio needs to be. Thanks again.

You know, Michael,

as a 45 year old I headed to the local junior college to go from being mom to graphic designer in a small town about one hour from Cincinnati, one hour, if you go a bit over 70mph on the back country roads in the forgotten state of the tristate area.

One of the first lesson in fun de mentals class was don't show up to interviews with a cheap portfolio. The teacher, who despite being a junior college "professor" was quite keen in his knowledge and teachings, meant it in more ways than one. I'll give him full credit on that. He was that kind of multiple meaning professors. Anyway, you state here that yours was faux leather.

I gotta laugh. For the first presentation i ever did in class I, being the smart alec I was and still am, showed up with my very first official results from the dark room packed in the cheapest portfolio i could buy from a office supply store. On the outside I wrote, magritte style typography:

this is not

a cheap portfolio.

The professor laughed as soon as I stood up. From there on out, I had to outdo myself with each and everry presentation with some cheap, but well thought out, trick. In the end nothing came of it. Instead I went blogging to show a work in progress portfolio instead and saw many of my ideas become inspirations for work that came to life, too bad it wasn't by me as i could have used the money.

Shame all that 3-d natural talentapplied to programming efforts was wasted, too.

An historical case study in how to work at Vignelli straight out of college. Wow.

I don't suppose you're selling prints of the Gorilla?

Wow Michael. Great stuff, thanks:)

I have to say, that commercial paper brochure came out of the extra strength tube of International style Modernism... jeez that thing lept out of the screen... beautiful!
Henrik Tandberg

i enjoyed seeing mr. beirut's earliest works as well. but something certainly struck me - mr. beirut publishes a book of personal essays which was released only recently. and now, he shows the "first room" of a museum retrospective (a la virtual blogallery). the combination of these things are certainly examples of late/post-career legacy artifacts of reflection. is mr. beirut subtly telling us that he is about to retire from design? am i reading too much into this? i hope not.
Gong Szeto

I have the very same sized fake leather and cardboard (beat-up) portfolio in my bedroom closet full of my old work. I'd never have thought to post all of it, but it was a wonderful idea!

what a difference in us, lugging those damn things around town and to interviews, as compared to well-all digital-online portfolios...

I still think every design student should have to buy one of these monstrosities, and then navigate it though streets, cars, doors and up elevators to interviews.

...and then keep moving them 30 years later.

Many thanks for a memory-provoking piece!

One of my favorite articles at DO. As a design student seeing this was incredibly inspiring. Thanks for sharing Michael.
Jonathan Vingiano

AWESOME MICHAEL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Are you hiring? ;)

Dear Michael,

Such a generous move! And really exciting that so many of your works still seem so exciting and fresh. As a designer i find it interesting to force myself keep on doing things that can stand the test of time. As a design teacher I see it as a great thing to show to any design student today. Thank You!

Minja Smajic, Stockholm, Sweden
Minja Smajic

I graduated from DAAP with a graphic design degree in 2000. All of those same projects you did in the late 70s we did in the late 90s.

I have gotten rid of most of mine because they were mostly print-outs. The ones I have kept are the pieces created by hand.

Do you still have all your foundation color studies? I can't throw any of them away because of the amount of time I spent on them...

I love the Ballet poster is that wrong? lol

An inspiring post.

Michael, thank you very much for sharing this part of your life with us.

For those of you who liked the work, stop by DAAP sometime; we'll still doing it. Thanks for setting a good example for those of us still painting keys in Plaka. (Although who doesn't like painting keys in plaka?)
Patrick Keith

Michael, Now that was refreshing... and strangely familiar!

My 1983 portfolio from the University of Illinois looks almost identical, right down to the Plaka illustrations and swiss style cropped type on a square page assignment. Now I understand your interest in reviewing my portfolio when I landed on the Vignelli doorstep a few years later. I was impressed with your generosity back then, and I see that spirit still lives within you today. Thank you.
Bonnie Lebesch

Wow, excellent insight. I'd be too scared to show my first portfolio online (I still have it, in a box in the garage) because I look at it now and cringe. Well I guess we all do that with hindsight sometimes. But I look at certain pieces and realise just how good I was with hand-rendered typography, and we never get to do that these days. Btw, I graduated 8 years ago, and even then our tutors made us do EVERYTHING by hand. Good fun.

It's great to see how things were done in '79 - the year I was born! And how timeless good typography is. Students today could learn a lot from those pieces.

it's great
Richard Lau

I think what strikes me the most is your strong grasp of typography.

I graduated from University in 1997 and I think it took me about 4 years of professional work before I started to grasp good typography.

beautiful work!
Jeff Williams

Magritte = Awesome!!!

Joe Moran

Wow, some really nice work there, esp the typography.

The Bearcats are 4-0 and ranked in the top 25 for the first time since, well, you were in college.

Wow, you're work it breath-takingly amazing. I think I'm going to barf, not because of your work, but because nothing I've done can even hold a candle to what you've done. Design school isn't what it used to be. I wish you would mentor me for an afternoon, then i might have a shot. Wow I love your work!
James George

No, mr. Bierut-
It's not too late to take up crosshatching again. Please do.
Ms. Norway

God, you made me laugh.

I remember many late nights at Philadelphia College of Art, BA, 1984. The smell of Plaka, the many sheets of Letraset strewn about the work area, the Luci, the stat camera. Those essential pieces of equipment seem like such dinosaurs now. The physical act of touching the type, of drawing letter forms, or setting cold type for the letterpress really asked young designers to be part of the "craftsmanship" of design. It slowed us down, but in a way that made us think about type as art.
Sue Sprinkle

can we see what you did with Gordon's key project?
jay colvin

I love this post! I can relate. I love how the samples are presented with explanations and links. Wish I could manage to do the same. I have the same type of portfolio stuffed away in the basement along with a collection of other tear sheets, printed pieces and various souvenirs of early work gone by. Makes me wonder if the pieces will ever again see the light of day.
Maria Choronzuk

Michael, thanks so much for digging through the closet and sharing. Wonderful trip. Took me back to Clifton and Graeter's and warm Guiness at Arnold's. Ahhhhhhhhhh, those were times.

You earned your chops on that Gorilla art Michael! Knowing it wasn't created with vectors but rather, cold press board, rapidograph, french curves and an obvious skill and craft is something not seen too often in books churning out of schools today.

I want that primate on a shirt.

Von Glitschka

Beirut you big show-off! You're only showing this cos it's so good. Just thinking about my graduate portfolio makes me want to puke.

Really amazing work. I am just finishing design school and I am amazed to see the amount of skill that had to have gone into the painting of the fine details of some of the works.

I really can't imagine having to paint type with all of its subtlety. Maybe that skill, specifically, is somewhat obsolete now, however, to me it will ever cease to be impressive.

Also, pretty inspirational. Thanks.
Andrew Meyer

Fascinating! I love many of your pieces too, stunning work!

Dear Michael,

Your taste is real fresh, color combination comes out very good....Specially i like the COPPELIA work
Logo Design

I wish all current graphic designers HAD to be good illustrators, too. I think we'd see a lot less crap. (not to say, that graphic design needs to be illustrative, but from my experience good illustrators make good graphic designers)

Dear Michael,

What's so refreshing about this peek into your old portfolio is the honesty and, of course, that sense of what you are as a designer now came from somewhere we can see. Most illustrator/designers would just as soon let the dead art remain in storage.
When I look at what remains of my old stuff I find only a few worthy of ever showing, but then I lost most to Hurricane Katrina... (nature edits.)
Thanks for the look.
Mark Andresen

The Cincinnati Ballet was not prepared for a new decade, much less high design. Your portfolio and commentary is beautiful and intriguing.

So cool to see a portfolio of a professional when they were just starting out. Did we all do the project of the animal renderings or what? Thank you for sharing, Michael!

Loved this post! I graduated with a BFA in printmaking in '78 from an Ivy League school (they didn't have a graphic design concentration at the time) but expected to get a high paying job at a famous design firm when I looked for my first job. What the hell was I thinking! I carted my faux vinyl and cardboard black portfolio case around NYC too and now I cringe thinking about what some of those design firms thought. I ultimately took a few classes at SVA to learn how to do mechanicals. I think I still have a few sheets of Letraset (Cooper Black!!) laying around. Thanks for the memories, Michael.

I loved this article, Michael! Probably my fave from all the DO stuff I've read so far.


Michael, apparently you are a gifted writer as well as designer. Part of your writing gift is perspective, which is more than just interesting, it is helpful to us. Do more writing to be published. Yours truly,

Thanks for that. Very enjoyable trip down your memory lane. And lots of good lessons.

Ah, the memories.

I was in the class of '74 at UC in what was then DAA. (The 'P' was added later.)

The program was rigorous but worth the effort and perseverance. It has served me - and my clients - well for many years.

Thanks for sharing, Michael.

PS: For a time we both commuted on the Hudson Line, but I've relocated to Kingston NY.
Rick Whelan

great article

I was enlisting in a particular midwestern strain of a nascent global design ideology

I've come late to this discussion, so I can skip all the ass-kissing and go straight to my associations with my architecture education: In architecture school we're taught that following the latest fashion (as presented by your professors), is "creative" and "innovative" and "individual."

We see this today in the avant-garde -- but how is it "avant-garde" (or individual or innovative) to do exactly what your teachers tell you?
john massengale

The safety of sticking to what works, simply does just that....it works. However, it doesn't mean something couldn't work better. If we stick to the mentality that progress or a different approach to something that is functioning is a poor decision because it may fail, leaves us at the beginning. Take a risk. We already know the ending to life, so what do we have to lose?
Thomas Guzowski

How about all the Design Observers post their student portfolios? That would be great to see.

Dear Mr. Bierut,
I really enjoyed reading your article. It reminds me just how scared and excited I am to start the job searching process in less than three months. I am a senior design student at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, Michigan. I graduated high school in 2000 and thought that I had everything all planned out. I was going to go to college to be a veterinarian and finish it all in under 8 years. It sure is funny how life can take us in many different directions.

After taking an extensive array of science and math classes and switching majors several times over, I find myself nearing the end of my collegiate academic career with more anxiety than I began it with. I guess some people might call me well-rounded when it comes to the many academic disciplines that I have experienced. Maybe even a regular renaissance man, but for some reason I don't feel like one. For the past three years I have plunged myself head first into CMU's bachelor of fine arts program with emphasis on graphic design. I have taken what seems like a countless number of art classes such as 2D and 3D design, drawing classes, typography, logo and identity, webdesign, motion graphics, multimedia design, color and composition, and many others. I have had a great time during my four years and learned a lot about myself and my design ability. I am not afraid to admit that I don't know everything there is to know and I have never considered myself to be a standout student designer, but I have every now and then tooted my horn when it was necessary. I am confident that I have what it takes to find a good job fresh out of school, but there is always that "what if I don't" voice that gets me nervous inside. I am sure that things where a little different for you when you first went job hunting, but what things if any did you learn from these experiences? Anyone, may feel free to comment on this question.

I have a portfolio (a metal box with a clear see-through window on the top part that lifts off) I spent about $200.00 on not even a year ago. It is amazing to me how the times have changed and what employers now expect. In it I have carefully put together works of what I consider to be fairly strong in their own individual rights and what I hope to be eye-catching work to any possible employer prospects. I was told by my advisor to select about 10-15 strong pieces that demonstrate my abilities in print design, logo and identity design, webdesign, and multimedia design. I have covered all of these areas and have about 3 examples of each. Is this what employers typically look for?

What advice if any can anyone give me on how to go about preparing for entering the design job market. It is such a competetive field, especially here in Michigan. What can I expect to encounter and how do I handle these situations? It is one thing to hear it from professors, but another from those who have probably been there many times over. Any other students who are fresh out of school and have been here and done this feel free to respond.

I will end my post by giving Mr. Bierut a well deserved congrats on finding a job so fast and sticking with it all these years later. I can only hope that I get so lucky. I am sure that feeling nervous about leaving the academic nest is normal and that I will eventually learn to adjust without it over time.

Thanks for reading.
Brandon Hart

Great article. Nice portfolio as well.

Michael, personally I feel your trapped into Pentagram because of the work that got you into the studio and work. Now understandably during that time, big studios like Pentagram were ones that you applied to for a design job. But perhaps you should give up high design and actually go back to your love of personal illustration? As a design student myself, your first poster of Sam Rivers tell me more of what you like using in terms of mixed media. Something that I have said to myself is that if your passionate about Graphic Design then you can ridicule and laugh at it where you can find faults to appreciate it more.

I think many people are overstating modernist work by grandfather designers like Wim Crouwel. I don't write this with disrespect but we should understand the processes of early Graphic Design and appreciate its roots but not re-apply it in this contemporary society. No offence Michael, but the poster you did for the Ballet lacks personality. It holds that restriction of geometry and using Helvetica.

I find it in real conflict when Wim Crouwel says he loves modernism and he doesn't like people changing typefaces. If anyone is intelligent to realise that Wim was born in an era which embraced Swiss Modernism such as yourself. But times have seriously changed. Graphic Design to younger people is about developing an intricate style where Illustration and Graphic Design are merging to together to create this exciting playfulness where there is no boundaries. Why should there be any boundaries within Graphic Design?

I feel a lot of designers have to somewhat obey supposely divine laws of graphic Design by Massimo Vignelli and so forth. Michael, I like your early work and what you have contributed for design but i don't consider you my idol nor personally a designer I really like.


This is amazing. Someday, I hope to pursue this same journey -- carry a wonderful portfolio around with all my life's work in it. Do something I love.

I guess we can't all do what we love. I've been passionate about design since age 9 and the following fall, I'll probably going into some generic career path.

You're so lucky! :)

Thanks for posting this interesting article Michael. Early portfolios are always so insightful - they say a lot about why/how designers develop into the work they produce later in a career. Your comment about early work anticipating later projects is also particularly relevant, it happens all the time and is very difficult to avoid.

Hand painting type should be something every design student should try. You can learn more rendering a single typographic phrase in ink or paint than you will setting a hundred other phrases digitally. I recall that my first attempt as a design student was Walbaum 374, using gouache on stretched cartridge.
Tony Seddon


My Presentation Book looks worse.

Don't let Robert Plant see that Illustration of him.

The Silhouetted Hands are most interesting breaking up space and tell the true story and carry the eye to Robert Plant.

I hated carrying around those Presentation Books.

I always enjoyed people walking up to me asking me was I an Artist or Designer.

Never quite mastered the art of inserting multiple pieces in the portfolios.

The most embarrassing thing that can happen, you layout the work at home and mount it as you want to present it during the interview. After you get to the interview and open your portfolio all the work has come un-mounted and begin sliding around in the Portfolio.

Back to your work. Such an Eclectic Sampling of your Brilliance.

I'm curious to know as a trained Illustrator did you include samples of your illustration with your Modernist Design.

I was taught when pursuing employment, show one or the other, meaning Illustration or Design depending where you were looking for employment. Better to research the market.

Traditionally, Designer(s) had Biases against Illustrator(s) and Illustrator(s) had Biases against Designer(s).

Most Designers were using photography as a means of expression and didn't patronize illustrators.

Illustration in and of itself is an Independent Career with very few staff position, if any. Very few corporations or agencies during the time you graduated employed staff illustrators.
That was a deterrent for me not pursuing a career in illustration.

Your Strong Suit in Illustration No Doubt
was your ability to Convincingly Render.

I'm also interested in what area of illustration you were interested, Cover, Editorial, Corporate, Advertising, etc.

The names you mention Bernard Fuchs, Bob Heindel, Mark English were definitely Realist.

Bernie Fuchs the most experimental and expressionistic of the group you mentioned.

Patrons of Design Observer unfamilier with the Legendary Bernard Fuchs can find him here in a Special Issue devoted to his work.


You didn't mention Bob Peak as an influence. Bob Peak combined Illustration and Flat Color, Graphic Silhouetted Imagery in his Illustrations and advertising Art.

Bob Peak and Bernie Fuchs were Best Buds and both signed their names in the same writing style.

Special issue of the Legendary Movie Poster Artist / Illustrator Bob Peak can be found on the same site different link.


Jerry The King Kuyper who is also an Alumni of University of Cincinnati won the Print Cover Design Contest when he was at University of Cincinnati fifteen year before you.

I mentioned this to The King some time ago. He had the NOIRVE to ask how I knew about the Cover Contest he won with Print Magazine.

My reply. Is there anything I don't know???!!!

Andrew Knew, then Art Director of Print Visual Taste was more in tune to Modernist Design opposed to Illustration.

Wrong Choice for the Print Cover Contest.

Great Stroll down memory lane. Computers have Glamorized our Profession to the extent and belief by non designers anybody can do it.

I submit to you, if the kids today had to cast off, count character, use a haberule and do the math. There wouldn't be as many people wanting to pursue a Career in Design.


The Hostile Takeover of Corporate Identity

I truly agree with your statement on the 'split personlity'...I am currently facing that. My art finds expression through rich, intricate indian motifs, all needed to weave the story together, & even though indian design is considered (wrongly) just kitsch, my design approach is contrastingly simplified and relatively minimalist in expression. I'm not even sure why the dichotomy exists...but there is perhaps a 'split' somewehere!

Everything you showed is great and I enjoyed reading through your article. As I was reading, I remembered an article that I wrote a while back on my blog, I hope you don't mind me listing it. I thought that it might be helpful...

I have subscribed to your feed.
Rachel Goldstein

The fact is graphic designers are a dime a dozen nowadays. Take what you can get and be happy.

A professor at my university who is a hero figure to me, think of you as his hero. I think you can't really tell about a person by collection of his best work, but a collection of work that shows his progress. I am very impress that a lot of the works you showed, some of them are an experiment that could almost be considered ineffective.

This encourage me to pick up some of my work that, I am proud of and did my best on, that didn't quite live up to what I expected (either get low marks from teacher or not win competition). Of course I still go see my professors to ask how I can improve them into a portfolio-worthy piece, but prior to this i wouldn't even bother.

I can't see anything. Images don't show up. Reading the article and the comments creates a weird curiosity and frustration.

Interesting article - but for some reason, the images are not coming up with it. I've tried looking in three different browsers, same result in each one. Any suggestions?
Eric, we're looking into the problem. The Editors.
Eric Talerico

Wonderful works. Although don't understand much about desain graphics, but Michael's work is really something. We can enjoy the color, the lines, the shapes, the graphics, etc.

It is very much fun if we can do the things we really love.

" an animal and render it in simplified forms"

I had the same assignment as a student, but to use the simplified shape as a basis for a logo design. And I still use this assignment as an instructor today.
Lisa Youngdahl

very interesting.
Jahanzeb Khan

Thanks for taking the time to post your own design nostalgia.

I too grew up in your home town and at Kent State University I the same shock of going from high school cross hatch to the swiss design.

Another big shock for me was to go from a 2b pencil to a fat messy piece of charcoal in drawing class.

Your work does show a mind that sees the world in ways that is truly unique. Like you "professional" work you have continued to apply your unique vision to a corporate world that tends to shun creativity and risk for designs paths that are well traveled.

Always inspired. Thanks.
Brian Brinkman

"In unknown territory lurks the risk of failure." — this is beautiful, thanks for sharing.
Joshua Nychuk

i would like to see any design for my portfolio

Great portfolio and inspiring for designers alike to explore their creativity to not be afraid of going into "unknown territory" despite the thought of failure. Interesting range of work.
J Kirk

This work is brilliant. I really like the variation in your work and how you combine both illustrative design and typography in your work. This is a real inspiration for me as a university student.

I really appreciate how timeless some of your work is and how each piece varies. This work and article is very inspiring for myself (and other designers alike) not to be afraid of experimenting or taking risks. We should challenge ourselves to try new things, rather than trap ourselves in our comfort zone.

It's wonderful to see that your designs have aged timelessly, which is obviously the mark of a good design. I also really like the depth of how you've managed to incorporate the artists styles in to the typography pieces of their names. They may appear to be obvious visual puns to you now but to me it gives a new aspect to aspire to.
S Ellison

I really like the fact that you talk about the fact that you took risks, when you were younger, I think thats what has made you who you are today. My favorite piece out of your portfolio is your Ansel Adams design as it is simple yet effective, nice portfolio.

It’s never too late.
Thanks for pointing me in the direction of some interesting topics lots of food for thought (although some of the links are broken). It was interesting to read about your progression and personal creative development having just begun an illustration degree. It is interesting to see how people progress and change paths. I also enjoyed the historic aspect of the article. Things have changed a lot in 30 years so it is useful to bear in mind how processes affect style.
‘high design didn't always play well with the regular folks.’ I have to admit that I find some design cryptic and esoteric at times. Is this a naked emperor thing or am I missing some subtle nuances?
Thanks for a good read.

I like how you have a lot of variety within your portfolio, I think it is great that you pushed yourself outside of college to build yourself a reputation. I think clear that you've discovered what you're good at because both you're illustration and typography are really strong. I love your style, especially your typography and how well thought out it is.
Rachel A

I love many of pieces in your portfolio. The typographic pieces especially, they have been created to have a big impact but have been kept very clean and crisp. I also like the fact you have combined typography with images to create a bold and eye catching piece. A big inspiration.
Rachel H

I really liked this article, I love the variety in each of your pieces.
I especially liked the piece where Michael designed a brochure for commercial label paper and used that style and technique 30 years later for the Saks branding. It shows it has not gone out of date if it can work so many years later and that it is a strong piece of type.

This article is inspiring, as I myself have many projects outside of University and come across obstacles, this helps me to understand and search, showing being hungry is the key to learning. Reading this article shows that development is power and history as Graphics is more than designing, its finding yourself.
Keramot Ali

You have used a different style for each different piece of work giving a wider variety. I like how you have done the monkey in its simplified forms and how you have used just black and white to present this. My favourite piece of yours is the cover of Print magazine; the illustration has good tone, shading and personality.

I found the journey through some of the pieces in your portfolio and the stories behind them very interesting. I feel you show that combining the design ideology of the place you studied with your own previous outlooks on design you created interesting pieces of art. I wonder how many of your fellow students went on to work in design as quickly and successfully as you seem to.
mark amos

I found your jurney fassinating ! Though out your personality is shown but giving variety to each one too. The simplisticness and brillience of the moving animal piece is very captivating. Further up the blog youused a little colour palet which I feel gives the piece a more eye catching and aesthetically pleaseing feel. Making a porfolio like this is a good way to reflect on the past and see how your changed through time, seeing what decitions and choices made you what and where you are to day. this also showed me that looking back on other work can somwtimes guide you forward,which i haven't thought about before.
Thank you, this has inspired me in my own designing process.
Beverli Johnston

I really enjoyed looking at your work and the way in which you have come up with different solutions for the jobs/projects you have encountered during your design career. I think the piece I took interest in the most was the poster for a notional exhibit at a gallery and the way in which you have created an eye catching image just from using simple shapes and positioning them, I think this stands out the most to me because this is a technique I like to try create in my own work.
David S

Its so refreshing to look at work which was produced before the internet and computer programs were readily available. It seems back then raw talent was the only way to stand out; I think a sense of time is now lost, on how much work actually goes into one of your hand rendered pieces. Your article has inspired me to seek out new ways of producing work away from a mouse and key board.

This is a really interesting article, your work is fantastic! I always love looking through other people's portfolios, but this one in particular as it depicts a journey from your humble start as a designer attempting to achieve a reputable career. I like your ability to freely experiment with different styles and mediums and your work has made me realise that it's ok to produce designs through more traditional methods of pen, pencil and print and sometimes staying away from this digital age can produce some inspirational, timeless pieces.

I like how simple the design's are, and how you don't have to come across as to put so much detail into one design, just to get a message across.

It is refreshing to hear from a designer who has made a living that there was a period of time, like I am going through now at university, when you were unsure what path to take. I love the story of the portfolio and how it is described as a "slowly decaying design time capsule" just like my college one beneath my desk. The designers mentioned are some of my greatest influences also and when in need of inspiration I constantly look up work by Glaser and Rand. I really love the comical take on the animal in motion piece too, genius!

I find it very interesting to see how people started out their journey through design and how people look back on their own work.
It's also nice to see that not everybody knows what they'd like to specialise in at first but that you found you were directed towards typography with your work as such, as a design student this gives me a lot of inspiration to explore more styles of work and ways of doing my work.
Each of the pieces are very inspirational, as is the text, a very nice read.
Benjamin Bostock

The only way to respond to this article is 'inspiring'. Confidence in port folio and presenting yourself to the different agencies paid off and - I assume - after being turned away by some of the agencies, there was still belief in your work.
It's good to know that other young designers find it hard to get out of the comfort zone. In this case it was clearly beneficial - " how eerily the cropped label artwork anticipates the packaging I was to do for Saks Fifth Avenue" shows that the techniques one is trained in become a natural working method for said person.
Yeah, generally inspiring!
Elaine McL

To look back at the journey you've been through till the present time and seeing how much has changed is actually quite nostalgic. It makes you really think about what you've done and how you should be inspired by your previous work and develop it more and more.
Reading this from a professional that has been around many many years really puts you out there as an amazing role model, thank you!

This article is a great read for aspiring designers today. I specifically love the work he’s done for Saks Fifth Avenue, I am fascinated in the design process that lead to his final outcomes however I think his statement “high design didn't always play well with the regular folks” is appropriate as the method may be loss on the consumers.
Anna A

I really like how you work is varied. Some of the designs are simple, but I think it is a good thing as long as you get the message across to people than the design has worked.
Sometimes butting to much detail into a design can be overpowering and I think this is what I have learnt from this.
Each of the pieces of type are very nice as the text is easy to read. I also like how you have combined illustration and typography in your designs.
Naomi Rayner

Wow. Your portfolio is amazing, especially your work with typography. I love how varied it is. I think in the design industry today, a lot of people are scared of going out of their comfort zone, so they sort of do the same designs over and over again, but all of your pieces are so different with different styles and effects, and it's downright inspiring. So thank you.

I really like how you see yourself as a typographer but really have a variety of work in there and you've tried other things. I think it help to improve your typographic work when using other influences other than just other typographers. The variety of styles used is really interesting as you see a lot of designers who's work all looks similar.
Chloe Cordon

I think it is wonderful how through out all of your work you've managed to keep this simplistic style while still being able to combine both your illustrative side and your very disciplined type style. I think people going into the industry today can defiantly learn something about how sometimes the most simple designs work better than anything else.

I really enjoyed reading your article. It really sparked some thoughts.. its inspiring to see the range of styles and areas you have covered over the years, it made me want to create so many things! As for the getting-out-of-the-comfort zone, its never too late. You might even be able to push yourself harder after years of being in the comfort zone?

I really enjoyed reading this blog post and looking through your work. I love the variety of designs you have done as you haven't 'pigeon- holed' yourself to one style of design and have taken inspiration from existing designers. I think the way some of your designs are simple is very effective as it gets the message across easily and also the designs that have more detail, for example, the piece you did for Print's annual student cover design competition are very inspiring.

What I found most interesting in this story is the final illustration shown and how it was created 30 years ago. Out of the images displayed this is the most energetic more so to the fact that it wasn’t his usual style, he was willing to take a risk. Nobody wants to fail or feel dissatisfied but then it could also be the best work you produce.
Emily Bedford

I found it reasuring to see that not every designers knows their strengths and weaknesses from the very begining and that they adapt there style to work around their own shortcomings as they develop as a desginer. I also like how he suggests that we should maybe step out of your comfort zones even if they don't produce your best work.
Ben N

what i found more inspiring about this portfolio was the confidence he had to get out in the wolrd and not be affraid to put his work out there, as if he had nothing to lose. Also the wide range of designs has encouraged me to 'think outside the box' with my designs and not just stick to the style i know.

Inspiring, quite refreshing really. It was a very clever how you showed the gorilla in motion, thinking a little differently and very well executed. Deffinately taking a mental note and a leaf from your book. Next time i get stuck for ideas i'll remember back to this, overwhelming inspiration.
kevin mcnulty

I liked your portfoio, i think there is quite a range of typography,illustrations and the simplied form peices. I agree with your way of thinking in that we as artists should focus on our greatest personal talents and abilities if we are to acheive the best outcome, even if it may mean diverting from personal taste.

The Cincinati Ballet competition entry kind of reminds me of Peter Savilles poster work for the Hacienda and Factory Records.
ste bartle

Michael, my favourite piece of yours from the above is the 'Clifton Magazine' poster. Your combination of illustrative and typographic skill is awesome.
One of the things that I thought was important whilst reading this
was that you're not always happy with your work, and can admit when it can be improved. Thanks

I found this article to be an interesting insight into a life of a designer. It was great to see such a variety of designs with a mix of typography and illustration. It was good to see how someone review their own work years down the line and can see how they have improved as they've matured.

It's interesting to read the honesty in the self-criticism Michael has, talking about when he took risks as a young designer really helped him find his talent in typography and learnt to concentrate on that rather than illustration in order to make it as a designer.
He states that maturing as designer has made him wiser, that in the unknown lurks the risk of failure. This gives me the impression that Michael may be unwilling to take risks anymore a trait that I think can produce good work and is a shame he has lost. Saying that though taking the risk as a young designer has obviously paid off for him and has made him the designer he is today, working for pentagram and recieving very high honours in design, shows he is doing something right.
Sam R

This is really inspirational, as building my portfolio I would hate to leave aside projects that I have spent so many years on. without understanding and adding towards my personal research and ideas.
kadir ali

Your work is amazingly good. I really like the variation through out your portfolio, it's great to see you combining illustrative design with typographic design. Your designs are simplistic but get the message across, that was intended. It's great that you had the attitude you did, trying techniques and designs even if they weren't successful, you still carried on to pursue what you wanted to do, learning from your mistakes, keeping your own style within the designs.

Jobs | July 24