The Design of Conversation - Design Bureau

Abbott Miller


Abbott Miller

More to a mentor, brilliance , talent, teacher of graphic design and a noteworthy career that you reveal . Try compassion, truthfulness and now and then apathy for underlings ..


I worked with Abbott for a few years at Design/Writing/Research, the singular formative working experience of my career. Much is made of Abbott’s individual creative and intellectual brilliance, all of it completely deserved. But what often eludes public discussions of his career is Abbott’s history of consistently finding very talented designers to work with — designers with similar philosophical instincts — whom he mentors as sort of master apprentices and who often leave Abbott to embark upon noteworthy careers of their own. Abbott is a great teacher, and his legacy will extend far beyond the small studios from which he himself works. He deserves much more credit for this.

It’s nice to see how an ultimately visual company begins every project with words.


Great read! Abbott’s work really has quite a handsome consistency.

The Design of Conversation

Saturday, July 31st, 2010

Abbott Miller is the kind of designer that never really stops designing.

“I’m constantly thinking about design, and constantly thinking about projects. My mind is never at rest.” Sitting down with him in his office at Pentagram in New York, it’s clear that Miller designs by discussion—in this case, the design in question is this article. “How can we set up a structure for the conversation that takes it away from the usual designer profile?” Miller asks. “One could do it by topics within design, or perhaps by thematic content areas?”

It’s this back-and-forth conversational approach, he says, that is the most effective and beneficial way for him to develop his work.
“I find myself trying to have these conversations with everyone around me, whether it’s a client or my team, you’re trying to develop a dialogue,” he says. “If I’m sitting in a room by myself, I don’t get ideas. I actively get ideas because I’m talking.”

It’s a relief to know that I’m endlessly interested in what I do, and that I can get so engaged by these issues, and my appetite does not wane.

The design process for Miller, partner at renowned design firm Pentagram and co-founder (with wife Ellen Lupton) of multidisciplinary studio Design/Writing/Research, begins with he and his team sitting around a table and discussing the project at hand (he says the visual part comes only after they’ve developed a conceptual foothold from which to work). And unlike many designers who generate their designs through sketching, he actually does very little of it. “When I do, it’s because words have failed me. I like to draw, but I associate more with executing an idea then developing an idea.”

At its core, Miller sees graphic design as a medium based on the exchange of ideas. “What defines design is that it’s not private—it’s always social. It’s you, your presumed audience, your immediate design team, your client, and then the general public.” While there are ample opportunities in a project to make formal decisions and address issue of style—the “designy” parts of the design—they are always second to an expression of his subject matter, the meaning he is attempting to convey, and the overall intent of a given project. “My worst experience with a book or exhibition is when someone comes to me and says, ‘I’ve got it all figured out. I just need you to do this.’ It’s kind of like someone just ate all the food, and you’re there to do the dishes.”

Indeed, his agility as a designer is what makes him such an ideal collaborator, but it also takes the right kind of client to make for an interesting work process: Miller often tells his students, “If a client comes to you and says that they’re not really sure what to do, that’s one of the best relationships you can possibly have—when there’s an acknowledgement of a goal but the path to the end product is unknown, and they’re open to the collaboration.”

While he and his team at Pentagram create a variety of work—books, magazines, web sites, identities—it is museum exhibitions that are the most clear illustration of his collaborative working process and its potential. He finds they are often the most exciting to design because they offer a certain freedom to the designer that does not exist in other formats. “When you deal in the realm of books, there’s a kind of discourse around bookmaking, and expectations around publishing of what’s relevant and what’s not. In designing exhibitions, the expectations are much less codified.” There is a certain directness to the process that Miller enjoys: the selection of artifacts, putting them on display, framing their story. The simplicity allows for a great level exchange with the curator, especially when the topic subject has complexity and cultural specificity.

Miller identifies a number of curators, including Donald Albrecht, Judy Fox, Lydia Marinelli (who is no longer living), and Lupton, who anticipate the role of design in their thinking, and understand that design has a way of sifting out content. They can discuss the ideas of the exhibition without being tied to a specific physical layout, because doing so would circumvent the opportunities design introduces. But Miller notes, “They are by no means abnegating their curatorial control, but they’re anticipating that design is its own way of thinking that will bring out, highlight, and shape certain aspects of an exhibition.”

This active role Miller has taken in the editorial components of his projects might sound different than one would expect from a graphic designer, and that’s what sets him apart. He has championed the notion of the ‘designer as author’, encouraging designers to concieve of their work as a form of authorship. This practice and its duality were hinted at in a poster Miller designed where he described himself in the third person as “A designer that thinks like an editor, and a writer that works like a designer.”

And this is the way the conversationwith Abbott stays interesting—through taking on work that continues to be challenging, and collaborating on projects that allow for a level of personal investment and growth. Even after 25 years in design, he excitedly remarks, “I’m never bored. It’s still extremely challenging for me, both from a conceptual standpoint and a design and business standpoint. I’m grateful for the fact that I know that I’ll have the same attitude of an excited puppy about design until I’m dead,” Miller says. “My greatest pleasure is when I’m deeply engaged in a project, whether it’s print, or an exhibition, or signage, or whatever. It’s a relief to know that I’m endlessly interested in what I do, and that I can get so engaged by these issues, and my appetite does not wane.” And that’s the thing about a conversation—when it’s good, it just keeps going.

Although Miller has worked on a variety of projects in many areas of design, he has recently spent a significant amount of time crafting updated design identities for museums, arts institutions and schools all over the US:

-Logo design for the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco: The typography in Miller’s logo creation speaks directly to the form of the building itself: a horizontal, historic façade with a Daniel Libeskind form blasting out from behind.
-Logo design for the Art Institute of Chicago: Miller’s design strikes a balance between the existing building and the new Renzo Piano-designed addition. The logo and typeface were developed into a full signage and way finding system for the whole museum.
-Identity work for Maryland Institute College of Art: Miller gravitated toward the familiar architectural elements found on the campus, such as the Beaux-Art façade of the school’s historic main building. It is referenced in the two vertical rules that separate the letters of the new logo, with the angled rule referring to the slanted glass prow of MICA’s newest building, the Brown Center.
-Signage for The Cooper Union School of Arts, New York (Miller’s alma matter): The canopy of the building features extruded letterforms that appear normal when viewed straight on, but from angles, the letters distort backwards into space. The lower halves of the letters are punched out of the building’s skin of perforated stainless steel. Miller selected an angular typeface called Foundry Gridnik, which resembles the lettering on the original Cooper Union building across the street as much it responds to the futuristic vision of the new bulding by Morphosis.

Miller says he tends to think in aesthetic clusters. He notes these  places as particular sources of inspiration:

- The temples and gardens of Kyoto, Japan is a source of endlessly interesting design thinking;
-Shaker architecture and design of the United States;
-Post-war Italian architecture and design
-Mid-century modern American’s like Charles and Ray Eames and George  Nelson
-Designer/thinker Bernard Rudofsky, an under-appreciated polymath.

By Isaac Gertman
Photos by Noah Kalina

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