THIRTEEN’s New Graphics: A Q&A with Pentagram’s Michael Bierut

May 7, 2009

Or, to be more accurate, WNET.ORG’s new graphics! The impetus behind this redesign? Designer Michael Bierut answered some of our questions:

With the establishment of the new umbrella company, WNET.ORG, New York public television is building a new image for the 21st century. To express this image, WNET.ORG partnered with design studio Pentagram to develop a brand architecture. Part of this process has involved creating a series of on-air, online I.D.s for THIRTEEN and WLIW21; part of it was just figuring out how to unify the companies that comprise WNET.ORG. Michael Bierut spearheaded the new designs; here he talks about the inspiration and context. (For more detailed analysis and exposition of the designs, visit Pentagram’s site.)

How did the history of Thirteen’s identity inform your decision-making for the current identity?
When we designed the 2006/7 annual report, I remember at one point getting really confused about the relationship of EBC, CPB, PBS, Thirteen, WLIW, etc. When we first discussed the project with Rick Thompson (marketing), our main challenge seemed to be to clarify these relationships. While all these organizations have had interesting graphic expressions through the years, the goal was to make a simple link between, first, the parent and the two flagship stations. The new name for EBC, WNET.ORG, provided the starting point we needed. The dot before the ORG becomes a sort of “hinge” for the whole thing, serving as well as a dot over the Is in THIRTEEN and WLIW (not to mention the “four Is” in the mission statement.)

Pentagram has put a stamp on NYC’s cultural landscape, both figuratively and literally, with your identity packages for different institutions all over the city. How does the THIRTEEN/WNET.ORG/WLIW packages fit into that landscape?

WNET.ORG is a cultural resource in New York City on the scale of the Metropolitan Opera, MoMA, or NYU, and should be recognized as such. But it’s been hidden too long, muffled partly by the stereotypes that surround the world of public television. By giving all its activities — broadcast, online and elsewhere — a family look, we want to create the critical mass that’s needed for WNET.ORG to maintain and grow its profile as an innovative and relevant player in the NYC cultural landscape.

Are you a public tv fan? Do you have favorite programs now/or/memories of shows on public tv?

I am a public TV fan. I grew up in Bill Baker territory, Cleveland, Ohio, watching channel 25. I was a little too old for Sesame Street but was a real fan of Zoom. Nowadays, of course, I watch THIRTEEN. As a designer, I especially appreciate Charlie Rose’s interviews with architects and other design professionals. There’s really nothing else like it.

People are often themselves shaped personally by the work they do for others. Has doing this particular job changed how you view public broadcasting? Anything else?

Having worked with hundreds of clients over the past thirty years, I’ve learned that what people like me can do can only go so far. A new logo is meaningless unless the organization it’s standing for is playing a valuable role in people’s lives. WNET.ORG is clearly on the move, with new leadership, new programming, and a new window on New York through its Lincoln Center facility. The new look has come at a perfect time.

You already do work for a form of public broadcasting with your pieces for Studio 360 on the radio. Did doing this identity change how you view/approach public television, or your awareness of public television, in your own life?

Of course, as a graphic designer I find it fun to work for visual media. Our firm did the logo for Public Radio International when they first adopted that name. It was strange trying to explain to people why a radio producer needs a visual logo, but most regular folks don’t know, or need to know, anything about the complex ecosystem of local stations, program developers, distributors, and funders, that make public broadcasting possible. They tend to call all public radio NPR, to PRI’s irritation, just like they’ve been inclined to refer to tuning into Thirteen or WLIW as ‘watching PBS.’ Hopefully the new identity will start to clarify things!

Here are the new THIRTEEN station IDs using the logos. The music is by Juilliard student Niccolo Athens.

See other works by Bierut here. His blog, Design Observer, is one of the best sources for design theory and discussion on the web.