Michael Bierut | Essays

Positively Michael Patrick Cronan

Michael Cronan
Michael Patrick Cronan and Karin Hibma, Berkley, California, 2009. Photo by Michael Macor, San Francisco Chronicle.

I met Michael Cronan on my first visit to San Francisco in 1983. It was a trip that changed my life.

I had been working at my first job in New York for three years at that point. In those days, the East Coast graphic design scene was dominated by legendary names: Milton Glaser, Ivan Chermeyeff and Tom Geismar, Paul Rand, Rudi de Harak, George Tscherny, and the one I was lucky to have been hired by, Massimo Vignelli. These well known designers were all in their fifties, or sixties, or seventies. They had made their names as young turks 20, 30, or (in the case of Rand) 40 years before, and were showing no signs of stopping. They dominated New York like skyscrapers. And like skyscrapers, they cast long, deep shadows. 

In was in 1983 that we got a client in San Francisco, and I made my first business trip there. Using Massimo's name as a door-opener, I decided to look up some local designers. And the hottest designers in town were the ones that were nicknamed "The Michaels:" Manwaring, Vanderbyl, Mabry, and Cronan. Amazingly, everyone took my calls, which wouldn't have happened in New York. Even more amazingly, I was invited to join Michael Vanderbyl, Michael Manwaring and Michael Cronan for lunch. 

It was nearly 30 years ago, but I can still remember that lunch. It was a beautiful, sunny day. These guys were clearly good friends. They were so energetic, so supportive of each other, so enthusiastic about design and its possibilities. And more than anything else, they were so young. I remember thinking how much fun it must be to work in a town where the legends were not towering skyscrapers but just great guys a few years older than you were.

In the middle of it all was Michael Patrick Cronan. He was one of those rare people who was not just funny and smart, but who could make you feel funny and smart yourself just by being in his presence. Even at that first meeting, he was full of ideas, full of questions, full of advice, even for a kid like me, someone he had just met and, for all he knew, would never see again. 

As it turned out, we would see each other again — many times — over the next three decades. At each encounter I was enveloped in an all consuming hug from this great bear of a man. I got to know his wife Karin and encountered his sons, Nick and Shawn, just often enough to be stunned by how fast they grew. Michael, on the other hand, didn't seem to age at all. His seemingly limitless supply of energy led him from venture to venture, most notably the clothing line he created with Karin, Walking Man. Like the designer, the garments were big, warm and comforting; looking back, I suspect they may have been created just so anyone could have a Michael Cronan hug ready to go at a moment's notice, no further away than the nearest clothes closet.

To many people, he became most famous as a naming consultant, coming up with monikers for, among many other products, TiVo and Kindle. This surprised some people, but not me. Having led people through several painful "nomenclature exercises," I've learned the hard way that — even more than design — this particular field requires taking people on a journey that in the end requires nothing less than a blind leap of faith. And it's hard to imagine anyone better at instilling faith — faith in oneself, faith in one's judgment, faith that everything was simply going to turn out okay — than Michael Cronan. A positive attitude was the only kind of attitude he had.

It was that sense of faith that I took away from that sunny lunch 30 years ago with Michael and his two friends. Living in New York in the shadows of giants, I had grown unsure about my own ability to design, and about my own prospects for success. The example of the Michaels — three guys who were just a little older than me, who were having a great time and had no doubt that the best was yet to come — changed the way I thought about the future. I returned to New York filled with energy, and optimism, and the blind, thrilling faith that everything was going to turn out okay.

Michael Patrick Cronan embodied that spirit, and it will live on in everyone who he touched in his too short life. He died last week at 61, following a five-year struggle with cancer, on that holiday that for so many of us symbolzses the moment for new beginnings, New Year's Day.

Posted in: Business, Obituaries

Comments [22]

touching story michael. i think you underestimate some of our gracious NY design compadres (yourself included). as a young kid 15 years ago who left Texas for SF I found it a magical place filled with all sorts. As to the "Michaels" thing (to some: Manwaring, Vanderbyl, Mabry, Cronan) I would also like to posthumously add a few other iconic SF Michaels missing from that list: Osborne, Schwab and Bartolos.

Never knew Cronan but he seemed to be an inspired spirit
Felix Sockwell

A lovely tribute, Michael. Thanks.
Marla Dekker

For those lucky enough to know him, Michael Cronan personified everything admirable and good and kind. Funny, smart, always generous, he was a great designer and artist, a renown storyteller, a bon vivant, and a secret agent of change, but more than anything he was a truly great human being that touched the lives of so many people. He was big guy with a bigger heart.

He always said he was lucky to have had a wonderful life. Those of us who knew Michael have been enriched by his kind, gentle spirit. Michael was one of the good guys. So many of his friends around the globe feel the sadness of his leaving too soon.

He was a great inspiration in so many ways and leaves a big, big hole.

My life is better for having known him.

He will be deeply missed.
Eric Baker

Heartwarming tribute Michael...I had the opportunity to have dinner with Michael Cronan a couple times...once when we was a guest speaker for our AIGA Capter and once with Chris Pullman and April Greiman during the AIGA 2005 Design Conference here in Boston...He was indeed one of the friendliest, personable designers I have ever met. RIP Michael.
Clif Stoltze

"was not just funny and smart, but who could make you feel funny and smart yourself"
A true measure of a great person.
Thanks for the nice story.
Frank de Souza

beautifully touching memory, michael. thanks for sharing. i didn't know him but he sounds like someone i would like to have known.

Nice tribute Michael. Thank you.
Steve Williams

You can add Michael Bierut's name to the list of designers named Michael with big hearts and a spirit of generosity that match their talent.
Sam at Wordstrong

As great a loss as this is for our profession, it's a greater loss for humanity to be without Michael's warmth, wit, intelligence, and compassion. I am privileged to have known him and his wonderful family, and have been greatly enriched by every shared experience and conversation with them all. My sympathies are with everyone also so privileged, and in particular with Karin and the entire family.

I was surprised at Michael Cronan's untimely death. I didn't know of his illness and like others who pass away too young, it doesn't seem right. It also reminds you of your own fragility. I didn't know him well, but I met him a few times and he made me feel like I DID know him well. Unpretentious, outgoing, friendly. I'm sorry for his passing and for all those who close to him.
Randall Smith

One of the benefits of being a graphic designer is having an excuse to geek out on the work of design luminaries and even, on occasion, meet them. I regret I never had the occasion to meet Mr Cronan or be welcomed by one of his hugs.

His work speaks volumes about the man. Open. Engaging. Forward-thinking. Frank.

We were fortunate to have him in our midst.
Bill Dawson

San Francisco less one Michael is like a Mount Tam night less one star. Sure, there may be plenty more — but those of us who love this business, that city and its embarrassment of creative riches know we have lost a source of present wonder. Of all the Michaels there whom I have met (in his case by phone for an interview one day), none had a more caring, generous or whimsical approach to graphic design. It takes one to know one: thank you MB for this loving tribute. We now know him all the more — a blessing that might help alleviate the sadness his immediate family must feel today.
Matthew Porter

From one Michael to another about another, thank you for your remembrance of Michael Cronan. I invited Michael and Karin to join our designers for a critique here at Chronicle Books last November and we were all touched by his insights, humor and generosity. While I too am a Michael, I wouldn't deign to be numbered among the ones Michael Beirut mentions. In fact, and even though I am a few years older than Michael Cronan was – maybe it was his physical stature –
I always thought of him as a big brother. In many ways he was.
m. carabetta

It's only fitting that one great Michael write about another. And as you always seem to do, you've beautifully captured his spirit and living legacy.

Within five minutes of knowing Michael Cronan you felt better about yourself, design, and the world as a whole. He had that uncanny way of touching people. But beyond being his friend, fan, and peer, I was most humbled by the example he set as a father and husband.

Michael has left us a bounty of work and heartwarming experiences which we can feast on forever. As long as we remember him, he will always be with us.
Dana Arnett

Such a fun and spirited person. A big personality and like a breath of fresh air.
Mike Quon

Michael Cronan was my teacher. He was tough. It was not always fun. But he pushed and pushed until my “pretty good” semester-long project finally developed into something very strong and smart. All of the work that came out of that class was different, and compelling in its own way. Michael found the strengths in each student, and led each one to the best solution. And, he could really make me laugh.
John Clifford

Wow. Thank you, Michael B.

Reading your tribute brought me right back to the playfulness of Michael Cronan. I have sweet memories of him being a high-spirited troublemaker at AIGA board meetings and, as you recount of your first lunch, always an endearing host at any gathering, bursting with camaraderie and warmth.

You can see his compassion in the photo with Karin. My heart goes out to his family.
Chee Pearlman

i remember michael
i miss michael too
and, i too visited the michaels as a youngish pup. on my pilgrimage i did not have the pleasure of lunch with all three, but rather visited each one at their studios. lucky me, too!

while i have many super fine memories of that (right of) passage to the west coast, to this day i can hear Michael Cronin telling me something that has endured as my professional mantra – YOU GET WHAT YOU DO.

it took years for me to really understand what Michael was trying to instill, but those five simple words still carry truth and express it with such clarity.

Michael, thank you, thank you.

please know your wisdom and creative spirit will be passed on and all around forever.

rick valicenti

Thank you Michael B. This is yet another Michael in SF morning the loss of one of our profession's bright lights. To me Michael Cronan was one part Robin Williams, one part Milton Glaser, and one part whoever invented the game Scrabble. He always affectionately treated me like his design kid-brother, and I liked it like that, and always looked up to him. After knowing one another and working in the same city and design community for 30+ years, I never did tell him that I am actually 2 weeks older. He would have laughed and in the same breath launch a hilarious quip for which there would be no comeback– only laughter. We will miss you Michael. Rest in Peace.
Michael Osborne

Michael was the first design teacher to sit me down and give me a talking-to about the difference between being a design student, and a Designer. It maybe didn't sink in right away, but that conversation was a pivotal moment in my life, and has a huge impact on where I am today.

Three years ago, while spending time in the Bay Area after the passing of my own mother, I called on Michael to visit with him and seek his council about my newly composed portfolio and upcoming job search. What I thought would be a 30 minute meeting turned into a two and a half hour long visit with Michael and his wife Karin. They were genuine and warm people, who gave solid advice and gracious encouragement. I left feeling like I knew much more about myself and my career than I did when I arrived.

He will be missed.
Andy Outis

Back in the late 70' and early 80's I worked at a small printer in San Francisco named Mastercraft Press. Max Strassman had hired me to run production, do the estimating and sell on the side. Michael Cronan was an early adopter and loyal customer of ours as well as the other "Michael's". I learned a lot about design through their eyes, sensibilities and feel and felt as if I was a part of this fantastic design community. These folks gave me an opening into their world and I am forever thankful that I was blessed to be able to cross pass with them all. Mr. Cronan sir - you will be missed
Bob Lewis

I fondly remember his mischievous humor at the Aspen Design Conference, the year its theme was designing for children. We all brought our cubs along. We were all tasked to touch our own inner kid. He exuded being in his element. Now I realize he did that everywhere he went. Sincerest condolences to his fine family.
Joy Chu

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