Michael Bierut | Essays

Good at Art

Michael Bierut, illustration for sixth grade social studies report, "Disaster at Sea: The RMS Titanic," 1968

I was in the first grade when I made the discovery that changed my life. We were given a reading assignment that involved drawing something in the room that began with the letter F. I drew a flag that stood in the corner of the classroom. I still remember the drawing: the flag, complete with folds, the stand with its five-prong base, the storage closet next to it, the window on the other side, and the trees and portions of rooftops outside the window. I didn't think there was anything particularly special about it. But my teacher, Mrs. Kinola, sent it home with a note: It looks like Mike is quite an artist!

That single sentence established the defining characteristic of my childhood. I got good grades, but so did a lot of people. You could get good grades by studying hard, something that many of my peers, especially the boys, felt reflected a misguided attitude about priorities. I seemed to have no real talents. I couldn't throw or catch a baseball with authority, punch someone in the face, or shoplift. But now I had something I could call my very own. I was good at art.

At St. Theresa's School in Garfield Heights, Ohio, in the early sixties, being good at art enjoyed a special status. It wasn't just a skill, it was a God-Given Talent. I made the most of it. I was shy and socially inept, but now I had something with which to gain purchase in elementary school society. My interest in art was encouraged by my parents, who bought me progressively more exotic tools: pastels, watercolors, charcoal pencils. These alone made useful conversation starters in the lunchroom, but I always made it a point to have some of my most recent work casually available for review. As my skill increased, so did the predictability of the response I got. It took the form of a single question, almost always phrased the same curious way: "Did you draw that freehand?"

Of course, that was the trick. What was admired wasn't the artistic impulse — this was something that to this day I'm not sure I actually possess — but something else: the ability to do realistic drawings, the more photographically representational the better. By this standard, the highest possible compliment was "C'mon, you fuckin' traced that!" And naturally, the more painstaking the detail, the more time-consuming the execution method, the greater the acclaim I received. Despite my growing fame as an artist, I had no social life. Thankfully, this permitted me to turn my undivided attention to epic six-hour sessions of crosshatching, creating work as awe-inspiring to my fellow sixth-graders as a magic trick.

Being the local go-to guy for art had another advantage: it permitted me to cut across the schoolyard's Byzantine clique structure. I made posters for the drama club, banners for the football team, campaign buttons for the student council candidates. And with acquisition of a Speedball lettering pen set in junior high, the last piece fell into place. Once it was learned I was a fellow who could bang out a convincing Fraktur my popularity soared among the the school's hard core fans of Judas Priest and Black Sabbath.

It goes without saying that my God-given talents usefully augmented my academic ambitions as well. I never turned in a report or term paper without an elaborate cover and a lengthy appendix filled with predictably overwrought drawings of the subject at hand, whether it was unicellular flagellates, the buildings of Washington, D.C., or the sinking of the Titanic. Was it unfair that my grade often went up a notch because of these elaborate but usually irrelevant embellishments? Sure. But it was also a useful lesson on the relationship of form and content.

In fact, when I look back today, I can see a clear pattern. My eagerness to please, my enthusiasm about working with as many different groups as possible, my discovery that a good-looking package could improve the impression made by its contents: these are all traits that led me not into art, but into graphic design. Today my clients are usually more sophisticated than those Black Sabbath fans in eighth grade study hall; the content I work with hopefully has more substance than my landmark opus from 1968, "Disaster at Sea: The RMS Titanic." But the process, and the impulse that motivates it, has been much the same for the last 40 years.

I wonder if I would have made the same discovery about myself if I'd been born 40 years later. A few weeks ago, I went to my daughter Martha's middle school science fair. In my day, this would have been an excuse to unleash every gimmick at my disposal, mounting an orgiastic display of three-dimensional lettering techniques, full-color diagrams, and impeccably rendered views of...well, whatever. Hamsters, nuclear reactors, the inner ear, the solar system. Who cares? No matter that very little actual science would be on offer. I would still get crowds and spend the evening answering the same question over and over: yes, I did draw it all freehand.

Today, affluent kids enjoy nearly universal access to programs like Photoshop and Powerpoint. So everywhere I looked I saw lettering and images that would have put my handcrafted efforts to shame. In some ways, it was inspiring. The tools of graphic design, even manipulated by seventh and eighth graders, brought the content to the foreground in every instance. It was easy to see who was good at science. But it was hard to see who was good at art.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Education , Graphic Design

Comments [57]

Realism strikes a chord with the general public. As a child I saw this first hand when my parents and friends would praise me for my detailed freehand drawings of Norman Rockwell paintings, Batman movie posters and animated movie stills. My guess is that this is because accuracy and detail are quantifiable means in which to appreciate art. And likewise the highest comment was always "Wow, you must have traced that!?" Often the work that garnered the highest praise was not at all creative. I began to associate my drawing talent with being able to multiply larges numbers in my head. Today as a designer my work is much more iconic, abstracted and creatively satisfying, and I have to say that I am grateful that I chose art lessons over Boy Scouts. I am thankful for the hand drawing skills and competitiveness that I developed growing up. For me, design is rooted in drawing. I wonder, how many designers today grew up being the kid in the class who could draw?
Ty Wilkins

"socially inept"
"no social life."

I can now say I definitely have two things in common with Michael Bierut... or a young Michael Bierut, at least.

I was totally an art kid, but it helps when both your parents hold MFAs in Fine Arts (Father is Painting MFA, Mother is Jewelry Design MFA)... Even to this day, I find any artistic endeavor I can do as refreshing and inspiring and something I can bring to the table as a designer. Anyone who knows me knows that art plays a huge role in my life... and in my design.

Thanks for an interesting article that well worth reading!


Thanks for sharing. I can appreciate your school history. It was very similar here. I was always an average student and never truly excelled in anything (the way and athlete or a science wiz might). However, I always felt confident in art class. My art teacher (3rd grade?) always encouraged me to pursue it. Thankfully I took her advice.

No matter that very little actual science would be on offer. I would still get crowds ...

Honestly, Michael, sometimes you're too self-effacing for your own good.

Sure, I can probably assume that your efforts along these lines weren't the prodigious output of a budding Einstein. At the same time, your visual expositions were, no doubt, pleasantly inviting to viewers. They probably felt compelled to linger a bit longer at your visual explanations. I'm guessing that they found themselves wanting to understand the content behind the drawings and diagrams (besides just being impressed with your artistic flair).

While presentation and communication certainly aren't substitutes for the content (nor should they ever be used to distort it), they are important aspects that are all too often dismissed as "fluff".

Working with a lot of scientists and engineers who occasionally have to present information in a public forum, we've both come to realize that the best science in the world won't do anyone any good if it's not understood and accepted by those who control decision-making. A good visual explanation can sometimes make that understanding and acceptance a reality.

It was easy to see who was good at science. But it was hard to see who was good at art.

For students who aren't good at art, the digital tools available today must be a welcome relief. No more painstaking, hand-lettered science displays!

However, I'm just enough of a curmudgeon to worry that -- without having to attempt to draw something as part of a visual explanation -- kids may not be taking the time to actually see. It's so easy to download whatever visual support is needed. But actually seeing it involves a patient level of study that I fear may be getting overlooked.

Thought-provoking post, Michael.
Daniel Green

And from the sublime to the ridiculous: I won first prize in an art competition in First Grade for a drawing I did of my family (myself, my sister and my parents) dressed as pilgrims. I spent an unusual amount of time on the buckle shoes, and in typical 6-year-old perspective, drew my mother twice as big as the rest of us. (Even my father.) The truly distinguishing characteristic however, was my mother's very un-pilgim-like décolletage: as the story goes, I presented the award winning artwork to my parents with the disclaimer, "I drew Mommy with a cleavage, but I'm not sure they had them back in those days."
jessica Helfand

I too had that early school days reputation. The "artist." I basked in it through elementary school, and yes it was a thrill being the go-to guy. But when junior high came around, I so much more wanted to be known on a more personal level. Even at 12, the artist is lone. In our eighth grade year book, all the other students were elected future jobs that were based on inside jokes telling of their prolific social lives. Yet once again I was to be deemed "artist." I begged the editor to change it to something fresh and exciting. And so I asked her to put me down as "stunt-man."

In 5th grade I was commissioned to do an illustration for the back cover of the yearbook. I drew a Colt (our mascot) wearing sunglasses and a letterman's jacket, standing in front of some lockers with his legs crossed. It was perfectly shaded and finished all the way to the edges of the paper (a measure never taken for un-comissioned work). I sprayed it with Aqua Net hairspray to fix the graphite, and handed it in on time. They were printed. They were handed out to the students, and I was asked to sign autographs. I'd achieved celebrity status. Until one guy pointed out that the negative space between the colt's crossed legs was really very falic. And it was. Everyone laughed. How did I not notice this beforehand? I'd unknowingly penciled in a giant colt penis on the back cover of the yearbook.

And now I design websites.

Great post, Michael. My claim to elementary and junior high art fame was being able to acceptably render KISS' Destroyer album cover and various airplanes. So many airplanes, in fact, it was usually a 50/50 chance I'd grow up to be either an artist or a pilot.

Graphic Design may have had to take one for the team to keep the skies safe.
Jimmy Ball

I once had to report on the digestive system at some point in elementary school. I decided to draw my whole body - complete with my innards exposed demonstrating the mouse-trap-like path of digesting food in our organs. On thing I labored on in this process was defining my body, the contour of my body with precise accuracy. That's the first time I noticed how bow-legged I am.

I drew the human in my report as bow-legged as a person could be, and showed everyone (parents, brothers, teacher, friends) the finished masterpiece. Everyone exclaimed on the humans' absurd legs which made me cry. I pointed to my own legs and came to the realization that not all humans have legs like mine.

That's the first time I realized not to draw the world as I saw it, but rather, to lie...
Jessica Gladstone

Forty years later? wouldn't matter the age or grade. So it goes:

Art was a rare subject in grade school. Smaller, Catholic schools didn't always have this scheduled in the weekly plan. And supplies and paper? We had the cheapest manilla colored construction paper that seemed to begin its recycling cycle in midproject. To make a mark on that crude facsimile of parchment: crayons brought from home, and because of limited desk space it was usually the 16 color box. Every now and then someone would come with that big 64 box snuck away in their plaid school bag. For some one day a year feast we got to use tempera paints to be splattered on some special bulletin board paper. It was basic stuff in the basic grades. Despite and because of all this I loved art and I loved the process, but when there wasn't art, there was penmanship practice. Penmanship, art or design? For a comparison, think back to the Olympic ice skating. Peggy Fleming. Ice skating, art or sport discipline? I suppose penmanship is like compulsory line figures they had to skate.

Fast forward

My first college level drawing class. I had taken design 101 in 1978, and repeated it in 2003. But that was design, and now drawing class was art. Halfway art, anyway. I was taught more to see than to draw. And that was the clue. We had a good teacher, very kind teacher, but he had toughened up in his demands. Lots of time consuming compulsory homework. One weekly assignment was to take four letters and reaarange them in at least six frames to form a picture. It was glorius spreading the wings of a w, or flattening an o, or distrorting a k to draw something else. Drawing our faces in three shades was part of another week's work. Lots of kids (ages 20-40) went home to their computers, pulled the letters around in Illustrator, and used a filter in Photoshop to do their faces. Trace on paper. The computer is a good light screen, isn't it. HOW COULD THEY? How could they miss the chance for this learning process. The next week in class we were given time to work on basic letter drawing. We not only had to draw the letters, we had to draw the grid. I remember getting the drawing board and going out of the classroom and wanting to be alone in my world doing this. Methodical drawing like this is time for quiet contemplation of the process. One person came by and said, "What's with you? Are you too good to sit with the rest of us in the classroom?"

Gads, no I wasn't. I enjoyed thee people and conversing with them.

But maybe, just may be I needed less social time to get my work done, and more me time than the rest of you, cause I don't understand the quick and easy way out.

Your remarks remind me of a critic who wrote an interesting essay about child prodigies. He asserted that there are many children who might be considered prodigies in the arts due to their ability to produce near-photographic renderings. There are even idiot savants who can produce startlingly accurate drawings. However, he says, there are no true arts prodigies, as art requires adult sensibilities to bring the full range of thoughts and emotions to the work. I agree.

As for me, my artistic career started at an early age too. I loved watching war movies with airplanes, so I drew notebooks full of little airplanes in convoluted dogfights. The pages were full of little dotted lines from the tracer bullets, terminating in carefully rendered explosions in red pencil. My parents sent me to a child psychologist.

It's funny, I went into design because I was "good at art" and could draw circles around anyone (and didn't want to starve), now that I'm in design, I can't draw for shit anymore.

I too went through all that. As a kid great at drawing etc etc. Went to art school and realized being great at drawing has nothing to do with art. Bummer.

Michael have you been reading my memoirs? I would think that most designers and creatives of all sorts heard the same thing in the early years at school "_______ is quite an artist". I know for me it was definately the first step on the road to my chosen career path. It was that one thing that made me stand out in all aspects of my young life, not only at school but at home and in the neighborhood. I know in my case I could and did play sports, punch people in the face on a regular basis and shoplifted like a junior Winona Ryder. Everyone in my neighborhood did those things. Art was what made me stand out. No one in my family or circle of snot nosed hooligans had any artistic interests or ambitions, so it was nice to be the person people turned to for painting the backs of denim jackets, pinstriping motorcycles, drawing nasty pictures of nuns in sexually compromising positions or hand painting signage for the bar of a friend's uncle. I also remember the first critique and controversy that my work inspired. The space program was the hottest thing for young boys in the mid 1960s, and I drew the astronaut Wally Shirra landing on the moon with laser pistols blazing, cutting moon men to green bloody shreds. I was told by Sister Josephine in no uncertain terms that that was unacceptable, she promptly ripped my drawing to shreds and made me stand in the corner to think about love, peace and friendship. Today, my illustration work continues to foster hate mail. Good times...
Mark Kaufman

Obviously I didn't pay much attention in school. I have the incorrect URL attached to my last comment.
Mark Kaufman

Well, my teacher told me to study mathematics. Thank good I didn't.

My math teacher told me to stop drawing pictures on my homework. So I switched my major from computer science to graphic design.

Ah, Mr. Bierut-
Delightful, familiar. Many thanks.

Bobbie Fisk

Great story. I used to love making short animated projects with the Super Nintendo game Mario Paint, recording cartoon stories VHS tapes. The spraypainted blood flying everywhere during a 7th grade Outsiders book report sure put Eugene Jung's shoebox diorama to shame.
Dave Werner

I only wish I had such support. Art went unrecognized in my house on the 'other side of the tracks' in Queens NY. As did music and anything too lofty. NOT that my parents were philistines, just hard working grounded depression era Americans. Art? HA! Add to that the fact that my best friend from 7th to 12th grade was an incredibly gifted artist. He could render like a photocopier anything he laid eyes on.(Sadly Jerry, who I lost touch with after said 12th grade - died recently - one of the fated climbers on Mt. Hood DEC 06) So me being jealous and overly-competative never saw past my inadequacies. I gave up. BUT I think I was never destined to be an 'drawer' - in fact my earliest memories of doing anything artistic was using carbon paper to make my own storybooks by 'copying' from old books and encyclopedias. And my Mother remembers me doing this rabidly...sometimes skipping meals, sleep and playing. Somehow I gave that up too. From there my next endeavor was lettering...i filled book after book after book of lettering, mostly comic book style...but this I grew tired of eventually.

Sadly I never gave up the copying/tracing style and thus I, opposite to Michael's experiences always ended with "Nah, I traced it."

And THAT doesn't help ya in social circles! :)

My dad was a mechanical engineer, and I used to go through reams of his dot-matrix scrap honing my drawing skills. And, while I did receive some general notoriety in school for my apparent craftsmanship, my favorite muse by far had four wheels and an engine. Obviously, impressing the chicks with this talent was a relatively moot endeavor.

I was always so jealous/spiteful of my art-nemesis: the guy who drew all of the cartoon people. I could never understand the appeal of this whole genre, but that was clearly where it was at in terms of "artist" action. He stole all of my "most-likely-to..." designations, "best-of-show" awards, and overall public adulation with his goofy, outlandish comics while I plaintively rotated my compass toward scads of new automotive dream machines.

For all of this, my highest compliment/most obnoxious feedback when someone did notice my handiwork was "Wow, what kind of car is that?" To this, I would always fumble over the same awkward reply: "It's my own kind of car... I made it up," which almost always garnered the same annoyed rebuttal: "So, it's not real?"

Daniel P. Johnston


Like most of us, I was the artsy kid. Encouraged by parents who went to college (continually), I remember my dad (therefore I) took Western Civ in the 2nd grade (me). To trace the regimes as they spread and retracted around Europe, he used purchased outlines of the continents and colored in and shaded in the maps and the changes of different eras—with Prismacolor pencils. To me, those pencils were the most alluring thing in our house. I have buckets of Prismacolors around my house, including nubs that go back to 2nd grade.

In the fourth grade "Our Weekly Reader" had an article about the opening of Disneyland and suggested that students design their idea of a theme park. I scornfully observed those around me drawing boxes on lined paper with crayons. I began cutting out paper, coloring and assembling boxes, with doors. The teacher was so thrilled that she let me build an entire amusement park in the back of the room for (it seemed like) a week.

I couldn't believe that I got away with drawing illustration booklets in high school instead of writing book reports. Though, once a coach called me over in the hall and said "How do you spell Tigers?" Like any little pepster I spelled it out in a cheer. Then he pointed to a sign with a cheerleader drawn on it that was quite the self portrait. It said "Go Tigrs!" There is no spell check for hand lettering. (Sadly, it had been up the entire year without anyone else noticing.)

After years in design, I went back to that 4th grade teacher, thinking she had seen some special spark of brilliance, and thanked her for encouraging my art.

She said "Honey, I had to do something to keep you quiet."
Michelle French

Hmm, so it seems a lot of designers can draw really well. Not me. No, I can't draw for shit. Realistic that is.

So, when I was around the age of 14, my art teacher would tell me I couldn't draw at all. And I knew he was right. Some of the kids in my class could draw crazy good and I kept on trying to draw something that actually looked like the thing it was supposed to look like. Not a big success.

I focused myself on writing for all kinds of magazines and making music. After that I went to university to study writing. But I always wanted to go to art school. So after graduating, I went to art school to study graphic and typographic design.

There I learned I might not be very skilled when it comes to realistic drawings, but I sure as hell can draw. It's like with music. I, as a drummer, can go to a concert of a super skilled jazz drummer and think:"wow, I wish I'd have the same technical abilities as him." but at the same time the music doesn't touch me. It's not music anymore, but merely technique. I admire that and have respect for it, but I don't like listening to it when I want to hear real music. Then I'd much rather listen to a three-chord punkrock band who have so much energy and creativity and know how to write a good song.

I guess in drawing I admire and have respect for the technical skilled artists, but much rather look at the drawings of CoBrA artists like Lucebert since those are the ones that really touch me.

rob van den nieuwenhuizen

How many sixth graders have mastered cross-hatching like that? Early signs of genius, indeed. But I assume that since then, you've worked on your smoke rendering techniques :0)

Great post!

That's pretty solid for 6th grade.
Jesse Courtemanche

My experience of being the kid in the class who could draw extended even into my University years. In a class of industrial designers, all of whom could do far better technical drawings than me, I was often asked to sketch a person into someone else's presentation. In my case, being able to draw the human form was my 'schtick'. There was no better way to win over rugby colleagues than to sketch a ridiculously bawdy drawing of some people doing something notorious in a ruck. Thank goodness because I was a woeful rugby player.

Thank you for the post.
PS. That was a kickin' drawing for a sixth grader.

Excellent post. It brings back a lot of memories, some good, some bad. I too was identified as "good at art" early on in my life in much the same way. I used it to similar advantage and felt all of the attendant pressures of that singling-out. Those lessons have stuck with me to this day. You sum it all up quite well and bring an optimistic view to the changes since then. I hope I feel the same way when I'm living it through my child's eyes.
Chris Rugen

If you know how to write then you can learn how to draw. Being able to draw well isn't a god-given talent, if it were then I think a vast majority of todays designers would be shit out of luck. Drawing is a skill that is worked on and honed to perfection(whatever that is!) My high school art teacher told me not to bother apply to any art schools, I would never make it in, she told me to go to community college and develope a portfolio and then MAYBE I could find some art school that would take me. Good thing I didn't listen to that nutjob! Because art is so much more than just drawing or painting or sculpting, its about the idea behind it all.

To anyone who praised my drawing, I said, "it's just geometry. Anyone can do it."

The article and one of the replies above reminded me of drawing with my Grandmother when I was a kid:

She looked after me during lunches and after school when I was in grades 3 and 4. She didn't tolerate noise well and she didn't like to keep toys around, because she didn't want to have to pick them up. Her method was to stick a piece of paper and a pencil in front of me. I drew boyishly gruesome combat scenes, inspired by Sergent Rock comic books and war movies, complete with explosions, dotted lines of machine gun fire, aerial dog fights with more dotted lines of machine gun fire, even space ships bristled with machine guns. When I was finished, I'd show her my work and invariably, she'd look and say, "there is still more room on that page" - So I'd dutifully squeeze another bomber or two into the sky, or menace the poor soldiers with more explosions, because if I didn't I didn't get another page. Her Baroque tastes in children's art, inspired by the Great Depression and her impatience with small children, gave her a very clear and unambiguous set of criteria for what constituted being "good at art". (White space = bad art)

I came to school on easter and as so many children before us we had to draw easter eggs with chalk on our little black writing boards. I did what I could and was enthusiastic. When the teacher came by she only said :"those are no eggs.. those are potatoes...". Those were the early sixties at primary school in Hagen/Westfalen. The name of the teacher was Mrs. Mergelsberg.
I`ll never forget that..and I hated school and teachers ever since.

oh zhoz germens...

I had one child attend two different schools in second grade. In the first school the art teacher was glorified by zhe community. zhen we moved to the wrong side of zhe tracks. It was really not the tracks. It was the wrong side of zhe Bach. My sohn did such wonderful work. I zhink it was the wunderbahr teacher.

She spoke to the kids in pictographs. Good ol' (icon symbol of heart/ican symbol of house).

I've heard the designers can't draw for shit line before. A few comments above, Rob Van Den Nieuwenhuizen mentions CoBrA artists, whom I just love. Comparing designers that can't (or won't) draw, CoBrA artists or so called outsider artists to those illustrators that are considered technically brilliant is a non starter for me. I gave up the sterile pursuit of drawing in a "realistic" manner long ago. I have been able to develop a style over the years which while hiding my shortcomings as an illustrator, highlights my design savvy. For me it's the thought that counts, the idea behind the drawing or design. I have no time or interest in rendering something in a beautiful manner. I have a great interest in rendering an interesting idea or feeling though. The CoBrA artists achieved that brilliantly, even though at first glance they couldn't draw worth shit.
Mark Kaufman

In the 7th Grade i nearly through punches over the painting of a plant on a refrigerator box meant for the backdrop in a school play. I remember how angry it made me feel that others didn't have the same appreciation for the detail and time i wanted to put into the stem and leaves of the plant. I didn't really find this as a way to connect as much as i did a way to anger apathetic classmates. It did teach me to always try and work with those who are as passionate as i.

I really enjoyed this piece, Thanks for posting it.

Beginnings that led to a humbler career than yours, my dear, but the path is so similar it's eerie! My first grade portrait of Miss Shore included wrinkled skirt, chunky calves, and full-blown bee-hive (GOD I loved bee-hives!) Those positive comments from classmates at St. Philip the Apostle in Cols.OH led me to Saturday morning art classes at the local museum, the sports posters (go colts), the science fair drawings, and eventually a career in design. Now at age 50 I occasionally wonder what would have happened had I been given a chemistry set or telescope instead of the paints. Thanks for the memories, Mr. Beirut.

Well put Mark Kaufman. That was exactly what I meant :)

Furthermore: interesting topic with some interesting comments.

I had this girl in my class at art school and she could draw amazingly good. Realistic drawing that is. She could draw an exact copy of a person's face and it would look like a photograph. I admired her skills, but then again: why look at a drawing that looks like a picture and not just at a picture?
In first year she received much praise because of her skills, but in second year the teachers thought her work became boring and she wasn't trying to experiment and reinvent herself. In third year she ditched doing realistic drawings and instead, after some experimenting, drew the greatest stuff without it really looking like something.

Now THAT's drawing, I think. Trying to reinvent yourself, finding out where you strengths and weaknesses lie and trying to develop a personal style. Ofcourse with the concept being the most important.
rob van den nieuwenhuizen

the only beirut drawing i can recall pre Titanic was a Chwast-esque flower vase (upturned to) rocket poster design circa Vignelli late 80s. This one is much nicer! Good at art. Good at writing. Probably good in the sack too.

I hate Michael Bierut. I really do.
felix sockwell

What a great story.

In contrast, I was never shy as a kid. I used to sing the latest pop song infront of my aunts and uncles. My parents were so proud that I had little stage fright.

I was never good at art either. I used to bring home my art homework from elementary/pre-elementary classes and ask my mom for help. I remember specifically, for some class I needed to make a mask out of a paper plate and I couldn't even do that. Most recently, I had to make a model of two planes disecting in grade 12, and I asked my cousin's help.

And now, I am a third year design student who struggles with image making, and resorts to photography for "creative" projects. No wonder, I focus all my energy at information design and data visualizations. In most cases, I am just "drawing" abstract things like numerical data. Nothing realistic. I still cant draw, and I still envy my friends who are so good at it (just like in elementary school).

No wonder my parents were shocked to see me not going for Computer Science (I had a thing for computers since Grade 4, I still do) and opting for Design for my University education. My mom, when she heard of my decision to go into design, said something along the lines of "but, you used to hate drawing things by hand"... she is so right. I still hate drawing things, but I love it when one of my projects get printed. I like making things, but not drawing them. I love to program, but hate to sketch out ideas. I have my ideas in my head, I just dont like when I try to draw them out in my sketch book, becasue they look so bad compared to all of my other peers.

I love design, esp analytical design. But, I definitely dont have a nice story to tell (nor the storytelling ability) like Michael.

Moiz Syed

Ha, those lousy fucking tracers, always out there ruining it for the rest of us! Between them and those smart-alecks with the rulers, nobody'll ever trust a good drawing again!

FFL: Freehand For Life!
Fred Scharmen

I used to draw the members of Kiss on A2 sheets of card, paste on glue and glitter, and sell them as posters to my friends.

It was such a pleasure to read your blog. The creative urge to write simply followed the artisitic talent your possess. Keep "free handing" it on everything you do.

barbara torris

Teachers have an incredible power to determine their students interests as naturally we all want to be good at something. I wonder if you would have developed the same talent if your teacher Mrs. Kinola had not sent home a note: It looks like Mike is quite an artist!

I recently had to take a break from design and to occupy my time helped teach art classes to Grade 1 boys. Not knowing what to expect and being totally out of touch with a 6 year olds life I was amazed at their lack of skill to draw 'realistic' pictures. I was equally surprised that their teacher would not 'correct' or show them 'how' to draw a whale or a sailing boat etc.

As a co-incidence I picked up Johannes Itten's book Design and Form in which he shares the fundamental principles he taught all his pupils. One idea particularly lept out. In brief it was: encourage and praise your students as this will nurture creativity.

It was delightful to see how individual each of these little 6 year old drawings were when they were not prescribed a formulae for a successful result. How praise encouraged them to experiment and continue putting paint to paper.

Sarah-Anne Arnold

I recommend 2 essays by Roy Oxlade published in Blunt Edge on drawing:
Both essays are available on the website of artspace gallery london (http://artspacegallery.co.uk/frameSetASG.htm)
I see the same obstacles for good drawing and painting. The influence of the computer is detrimental to the development of creativity and own "handwrite".

I really enjoyed this post, and it sent me back to childhood memories as well.

I have always liked to draw, although since I have graduated from college and have a real job, I dont think I have sat down to draw just for the hell of it in years.

I do remember winning a "DARE" poster contest once when I was in maybe 3rd grade, and I still have a folder of drawings I made of the ninja turtles, darkwing duck and numerous other cartoon characters I tried to draw as close to the real thing as possible.

My brother happens to also be very artistic (maybe because we are both Aquarians?), but in a totally different way than me. I can draw something if I look at it - usually pretty close to life. He can look at something and then draw it a week later... always made me jealous.

I have also also been very "crafty" and enterprising with my creations. I sold keychains made of leather and conchos, pot holders weaved on looms (anyone remember those plastic kits with the stretchy bands?), hand painted glasses, dreamcatchers, jewelry, etc.

I guess it was fate that I ended up being a graphic designer...

these elaborate but usually irrelevant embellishments?

I am really surprised to hear you say this. As Daniel Green mentioned, above, the act of drawing helps to see and understand: both in the doing and in the telling. Not only did your teachers appreciate the effort, I'm sure they were drawn into the writing by your drawing, and either consciously or unconsciously realized that you had made some kind of connection with the work you were discussing—possibly even researched! And isn't this, after all, what designers do (whether they can draw or not)?
marian bantjes

great post. I was one of those kids, i just wish i had charged money back then...alas

Gah.. i'd have to say.. I've had a totally different approach when it comes to design.

Every since I was young I was always really bad at drawing and stuff... and even still today I find it pretty hard to draw. Still I think it's really important and I hope to be good at drawing one day.. but yeah.

anyway.. I found this article really interesting. The fact that he grew up and his life was fully surrounded by art.. amazing..

it would've been really cool to grow up with this guy and see him going through this!! haha.. cool.
Ryan Bollenbach

Growing up in rural ireland in the 70s, art was a subject that was very much a 'crafty' part of early schooling, but soon got dropped in favour of 'real' subjects in secondary (high) school. If it hadn't been for somebody having the vision to org an after-school class with the art teacher from the girls convent school acorss the river, i'd probably be a scientist now!

The interesting thing for me about being 'good at art' in my early schooling was the way it cut across socio-economic clicks. Normally the poor kids hung together, as did the townies, the culchies (out-of-town country boys), the 'hurlers' (irish GAA equiv of jocks) and the rich kids.

But the 'good at art' mob knew, admired (and envied) each other's work. It made me some lasting friendships and some transient ones, long lost now. I sometimes wonder what happened to those great 'drawers' who didn't come from very comfortable backgrounds, where their talent wasn't seen as valuable as a sporting skill, for instance, might have been.

BTW One of my career breakthroughs, around age 10, was winning an anti-smoking poster competition in my class, comprising of a neat rendering of a filthy, butt-filled ashtray with the unwittingly memorable line "don't be a drag - stay off the fag!' I'd say I won by giving the teacher (and probably the staffroom) a good laugh.

Every time I've ever drawn or painted anyone, their comment has been "that doesn't look like me" or "that really looks like me." I guess that is universal.

this is timely...
My 13 year old daughter has been saying she "wants to be a graphic designer" for a year or so, because "I want to design cool stuff like CD covers."

She loves painting, drawing and various crafts and has a feel for it for sure, but like many kids I suspect, says "I can't draw.".

She also spends HOURS on the Virtual Horse Ranch site where she posts images she has made using photoshop.

Well yesterday she informs me"I don't want to be a graphic designer anymore", because "My art teacher said you can't be a designer unless you know how to draw." I think the teacher could maybe have phrased it better but I understand her point. I will, of course, continue to encourage my daughter, both in digital media AND hand methods.

Michael, didn't know where you were from...I'm from Willoughby Hills...

My years growing up as the class "artist" always seemed to bring me trouble. I seemed to always cross paths with some teacher that did not think drawing was a valid use of my time, and sought to put an end to my constant doodling. Luckily, I had parents that supported me, even if they didn't understand it completely themselves.
Adam Duquette

Michael, I loved your recollections! I was also in sixth grade in 1968 and from the time I was in kindergarden, teachers always told my parents I was good in art. It eventually became the only thing I felt confident about, but I also felt like a fraud, because I was very critical of my "talent." When friends and teachers called me "an artist" - I would cringe. Van Gough and Monet were artists - I was just a person who could draw better than everyone else. In college, I continued to draw and got a BFA in printmaking. But since I got my first Mac in '86, I've barely drawn anything. Now when my kids ask me to draw a picture of a car or a horse - I have to download a picture from the internet for reference. I feel like I've lost my ability to draw and I've finally become the fraud I always felt I was. Luckily my clients don't suspect a thing!

" But now I had something I could call my very own. I was good at art."

My 8 year old son is not really an introvert but can surely be one at times. He feels he is not as fast as the other kids when it comes to running around or playing some game that requires running. But there is something he does which is not a very common thing amongst his peers. He can play some really soothing music on the keyboard without any training at all. I showed him your post and even he really liked it.

Art(incl music) can be a very physical thing too and in certain cases can even demand more physical energy than throwing a ball with authority or running a bit faster than the rest. Maybe children who do not really show much proficiency in a physically demanding activity at a younger age are probably in a subconscious way conserving the energy for bigger pursuits. And maybe this conserved energy releases itself in great artistic endeavors which pleases the masses. This energy is not available to all and people feel that u have to be born with it!
Walmik Deshpande

I really enjoyed this post. It was nice sometimes to be "the artist"... And as someone still in school, I immediately notice and am still surprised to see how many people shy away at the mention of doing sketches, creating their own typefaces, etc. While there are millions of exceptions concerning those successful without the skill, I still feel it is a shame we are often not put through more rigorous hand-done tasks that could only enhance our craftsmanship! I am also saddened that calligraphy is not required, let alone not even offered at many schools... and similarly with advanced typography courses (at least in my case). This post brought a lot of priority questioning to my attention and I really appreciated that.

I must hand it to Michael for stating what I now see as common lure, growing up an artist. Reading all the comments I am pleased to see the multitude of people who shared what I experienced as well. Being a son and a grandson of an artist, I wonder if my children have "it". But having twins that are now 16 years of age, driving appears to be their main focus. Yet I do sense of a spark of talent every once in a while. Thanks Michael for bringing it all back. We are all very lucky to do what we do and make a living doing it. It's nice to share it with a large group of peers.
Andrew Cantor

True, it is harder to tell who is "good at art" than who is "good at science." In science class, you can answer a question right or you can answer a question wrong. In art class, if you put effort into finishing a project, you usually get an A. "Good" art is only determined by people's reactions to it. A perfectly copied freehand rendering of someone else's work is appreciated by viewers because they have something to compare it to. However, an original drawing may not be appreciated as much, especially if it is more abstract, because people do not understand it. The design profession is similar. A "good" ad is one that gets a reaction out of people and sells products. However, an ad can be beautifully thought out and designed, but if no one pays attention enough to buy the product that it advertises, is it really a good ad?

Michael Bierut’s essay, Good at Art, discusses a topic I can certainly relate with. Being an artist in grade school definitely has its benefits, but today the tools of graphic design have been made easily available to everyone. Anyone is able to create something digitally and call it their own masterpiece. The meaning of a true artist has been lost. Art has been taken over by the digital age; programs are available to turn anyone into an instant artist. If you can’t draw, just copy and paste; if you can’t design, get Illustrator and so on. It has become impossible for people to believe that someone can actually do such wonderful things by hand and without having to trace or copy from something else. I think Bierut makes an important point; true artists are a dying breed, anyone can use a program, but who can truly draw and design? Hand crafted work is losing its significance as we place more and more emphases on the digital age.
Rachel Brelsford

Jobs | July 14