Earlier this week, Michael Bierut, Sonia Williams, and I spent an hour on the phone together. Michael is an influential graphic designer based in New York, Sonia is a high school student in Paintsville, Kentucky, and I’m a designer at Automattic, living outside of Boston.
Sonia came prepared with a great set of questions. She prompted Michael to tell us about his career, and to take us through some of his favorite projects. We talked about designing this website. Michael described how he came to use a photo of the earth to represent home: he’d aimed to show the most universal representation of a home. We all live drastically different lives, in drastically different houses, but this gigantic, fragile planet is our shared home.
At the end of the call, Sonia went to her next class. I got to work on WordPress.com and Longreads, and Michael turned his attention to his work at Pentagram.
Michael, Sonia, and I are all different ages, at different stages of our careers, and in different parts of the country, but we took time out of our days to share stories and work together. Our conversations felt natural, and we learned a lot from each other. I was struck by just how powerful — yet seemingly normal — an experience this project was.
When I was Sonia’s age, I attended a fantastic high school: The Buffalo Academy of Visual and Performing Arts. I was an art major there, which meant that I had two periods of art every day, in addition to my normal coursework. I took extensive classes in painting, sculpture, pottery, photography, art history, and more. I loved art, and I knew I wanted to involve it in my future somehow, but I didn’t know any specifics beyond that.
At some point during my senior year, one of our teachers arranged to have a graphic designer visit her classroom. He showed us an ad campaign for a local art museum that he’d worked on. It involved billboards, printed material, and a website. I remember being really interested in his presentation, and speaking to him for a few minutes afterwards. Until that point, I don’t think I had a great idea of what exactly graphic design was. I knew a bit about designing individual things — an ad in a magazine, a single website, etc. — but that was my first real exposure to the idea of (and challenges around) designing an identity that spans across many single applications.
A few months later, I took my art portfolio to a college portfolio review day in Syracuse, New York. I applied to a number of colleges, and ended up in Brooklyn, studying graphic design at Pratt Institute. In my design history class, we learned about Michael Bierut.
I’ve been working in the field for over a decade now. I’ve worked on branding, ad campaigns, websites, t-shirts, and more. I currently do all this while working from home. High school me didn’t know this sort of job existed until I met that graphic designer.
When John Maeda invited me to take part in this project, I thought back to the time I met that designer in high school, and recognized the impact it had on my future. Sharing what we do with the next generation is a key responsibility of all of us. Just as I’ve learned from Michael Bierut’s work throughout my career, it’s my hope that Sonia and her classmates come away from this experience with a better understanding of art and design themselves.
Thanks to John Maeda for organizing, thanks to Michael Bierut for your artwork, insight, and perspective, and thank you to Sonia for all the preparation and effort you put into this project.