If a tree falls in a forest, and no one hears it, does it make a sound? If an event has a bad poster, does anyone attend?
It may seem like a funny question, but this is the philosophy that has inspired a 12-year design partnership between the Yale School of Architecture and the award-winning graphic design firm Pentagram. The firm has developed more than 60 posters for the school’s annual lectures, exhibitions and symposia, and in 2007, Pentagram published a book featuring 40 of the designs.
“If we fail to publish, to promote events, then it’s like trees falling in forests — kind of like the saying,” Pentagram partner Michael Bierut said.
Bierut, who has worked closely with School of Architecture Dean Robert A.M. Stern ARC ’65 on prior projects, began developing promotional posters for the school when Stern took his current position in 1998.
“When I became dean, I thought it was very important for us to have a strong visual identity,” Stern said.
Stern reached out to Bierut early in his deanship to foster the school’s graphic design initiatives, Bierut said. He added that while Stern was on the faculty at Columbia University, he was likely inspired by Columbia’s emphasis on producing high-quality posters and publications for the school’s architecture program.
The initial goal was to bring Yale up to a similar level as Columbia, but Bierut enthusiastically said Yale has gone far beyond..
“I don’t want this to be interpreted as boasting on my part,” Bierut said. “But we’ve really been able to broadcast to people everywhere that Yale is the place where this intellectual inquiry is happening in the field of architecture.”
The distinctive use of black-and-white schemes, with the rare addition of gray scale, provides a two-fold benefit, Bierut said. First, the limited color palette reduces costs, allowing the school to print more posters while spending less. Second, the palette gives the announcements a cohesive feel, Bierut said, allowing for diversity in form, content and presentation, while remaining identifiable as Yale’s.
Weaving together the themes of diversity and consistency was a major goal of the design identity for the school, Bierut said.
“One of the things we wanted to signal to the world is that this is going to be a place that embraces all sorts of different attitudes,” he said. “We wouldn’t just look to the past but would also look to the future. We wouldn’t take any one stance but would embrace the plurality of views.”
In the basement of Paul Rudolph Hall, in front of a colorful wall of posters from other institutions, a Yale architecture student said the black-and-white Yale posters stand out.
“I’m actually surprised they’re designed by the same people,” Leyla Kori ARC ’10 said, referring to the two latest Pentagram posters — one for the recent “Architecture After Las Vegas” symposium and the other highlighting this semester’s events at the school.
The symposium’s poster uses the motifs of lights and billboards, similar to those lining the streets of Las Vegas, while the events poster shows memos tacked to a corkboard. Other designs have focused on geometric patterns, textual graphics and, on rare occasions like the rededication of Paul Rudolph Hall in November 2008, photographs — all still in a black-and-white palette.
But Kori, along with seven other architecture students interviewed, emphasized that the posters are not the primary reason they attend School of Architecture lectures.
“As architecture students, design is important to us,” Kori said. “It makes the events seem important, sure. But we go because we want to hear the speakers and see what’s happening.”
In the lobby of the Jeffrey H. Loria Center, Yale custodian Tony Toliver said he, too, is a fan of the designs. Although Toliver said he has yet to attend the events, he said he appreciates the creative value of the posters.
“I like them because they’re artsy, you know?” he said. “And this is a place where there’s supposed to be art.”
Bierut has also made designs for United Colors of Benetton, publisher Alfred A. Knopf, the Council of Fashion Designers of America and the Walt Disney Company.
Correction: Feb. 16, 2010
The article “Professional posters add pizzazz” quoted designer Michael Bierut mistakenly describing School of Architecture Dean Robert A.M. Stern’s ARC ’65 time as a Columbia University student as the inspiration for the posters the School of Architecture uses to advertise its events. Stern said he was inspired during his time as a member of the faculty at Columbia.