Michael Bierut | Essays

Everything I Know About Design I Learned from The Sopranos


This essay was originally published on June 11, 2007, and appears in the new essay collection, Now You See It and Other Essays on Design, available now from Princeton Architectural Press

Last night, after eight years, 86 episodes, and untold quantities of gobbagool, The Sopranos finished its run on HBO.

And this is what we've learned.

On client relationships:
"When you're bleeding a guy, you don't squeeze him dry right away. Contrarily, you let him do his bidding, suavely. So you can bleed him next week and the week after, at minimum."

One of my partners once described two designers he knew. One was determined to maximize the profit of every project he undertook, a quest that was accompanied by massive arguments with clients, and occasionally lawsuits. Another would concede every reasonable point to his clients, making less on each job, even losing money every once in a while. Which one never had repeat business? Which one worked with the same clients for decades? Take a guess. Of course, clients don't want to be bled, but they do appreciate a little suaveness.

On creative blocks:
"My advice? Put that thing down awhile, we go get our joints copped, and tomorrow the words'll come blowing out your ass."

Paulie's advice to frustrated amateur screenwriter Christopher is pretty much exactly the same as every book on creativity I've ever read: if you're struggling with a problem, put it aside and inspiration will come when you're not expecting it. While it may not be possible to follow Paulie's prescription to the letter — my lovely wife Dorothy is generally unsympathetic when I ask for this kind of assistance — going to a museum will usually do the trick.

On the creative professions:
"Event planning? It's gay, isn't it?"

On The Sopranos, interest in certain things, including but not limited to event planning, fashion design, literature, and certain psychological theories, are considered indications of effeminacy. A not unsimilar macho attitude often obtains in corporate boardrooms when it comes to design. A lot of executive decision makers are comfortable with spreadsheets. Show them colors and shapes, on the other hand, and you can see the panic in their eyes as they frantically grope through their memories for that time they helped pick out the fabric covers in their beach houses. Part of your job is making these fellows comfortable with their softer sides.

On professional behavior:
"You don't think. You disrespect this place. That's the reason why you were passed the fuck over."

For reasons too complicated to explain here — aside from the obvious point that they sound somewhat alike — the design equivalent to disrespecting the Bing is doing spec work.

On appropriation:
"Fuckin' expresso, cappucino. We invented this shit. And all these other cocksuckers are gettin' rich off us."
"Oh, again with the rape of the culture."

By his own admission, Howard Schultz was inspired by the coffee houses of Venice and Milan when he created his own little version in Seattle. The designers of the graphical use interface at Apple were influenced by work developed at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center. And some people think that the Flintstones are just the Honeymooners except set in the Stone Age. Imitation, influence, and iteration are crucial to design development. The only requirement is that the goal is transformation, not replication.

On the unintended consequences of technology:
"It sounds to me like Anthony Jr. may have stumbled onto existentialism."
"Fucking internet."

Okay, advanced technology may have introduced the idea of a godless universe to the Soprano household. Designers, however, believe that advanced technology is our best proof that God exists — and that He lives in Cupertino, California.

On commitment:
"I came home one day, shot her four times. Twice in the head. Killed her aunt, too. I didn't know she was there. And the mailman. At that point, I had to fully commit."

I heard this back in design school, and I still forget it every now and then: if you're going to make something big, make it really big. If you're going to make it simple, make it really simple. Or really small, or really fancy. If you're going after a project, if you're trying to win a competition, if you're serious about getting the job done, don't bother unless you're willing to fully commit.

On aesthetics:
"Not in the face, okay? You give me that? Huh? Keep my eyes?"

Designers like to think that it's not about how it looks. It's about how it works, or how it communicates, or how it changes the world. All true, except it's also about how it looks. The artifacts we make are the Trojan Horses that deliver our ideas to an unsuspecting public. Making them look beautiful — or engaging, or funny, or provocative — is anything but a superficial exercise. We all get whacked now and then. Just make sure you get to keep your eyes.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Business, Media

Comments [58]

Great 'fucking' post. You forgot this one though, from Tony.

"More harm is done by indecision than by wrong decision."

This is great Michael! About your third point (On the creative professions:"Event planning? It's gay, isn't it?", here's a dialogue that might help: Paulie: He said the guy killed 16 Czechoslovakians, and he was an interior decorator.
Christopher Moltisanti: Interior decorator? His appartment looked like shit.


Thanks for this post. Really great.
Ansel Olson

While all of us are still recuperating from last night's brilliant, but heart attack-inducing ending, it was nice to come to D.O. this morning and "remember the good times." Thanks.
Teddy Blanks

Spot on! I love it when design and popular culture are intertwined so brilliantly. Thanks.

Brilliant! You nailed it Michael.
Joey Pfeifer

Excellent, excellent post! Love the show, love my job. This post brings the best from both worlds :P.
Francis Wu

A friend sent me this in an email and I thoughtit sounded like Bierut. Great analogies. Enjoyed the interview in the Helvetica film as well.
H. Todd Duren

Great analogy! By the way, love your new book, just received last week and read all trough the week-end!
Philippe Archontakis

Very nice. 'on commitment' has a particularly special place in my heart, as a UC alum as well who is among the many who will never forget a certain gordon salcho shouting 'BE DECISIVE!' in the early and anxious days of our second year. ah, yes.

The Napoleanic painting of Tony that Paulie had done: "it's museum quality work."

The new book is incredibly good by the way. Can't put it down.
Patrick Cahalan

Great post,
and btw, I thought the Sopranos ending was...

Simply brilliant.

Heh, funny and true. And Best. Show. Ever.
John C

"not unsimilar"

That's an extremely annoying phrase... is "unsimilar" even a word?

Good article though.

So what about "wacking" your competitors or non-paying clients?

I never watched the Sopranos. It would have been like watching "Donny Brasco" for eight years: too much of a bad thing. Not funny, not sophisticated, just criminal. You are what you watch.

GIGO = Garbage In, Garbage Out.

Why did you delete my post? Didn't like the thought that consuming murder as entertainment might contribute to real world violence?
Murder Is Fun To Watch

I wonder how you know the show is a "bad thing" if you never watched it?

"murder as entertainment"

You mean like Hamlet and Macbeth and Titus Andronicus and The Revenger's Tragedy and Crime and Punishment and....?

Need I continue?
John C

One to add:

On pizza
Take that shit outside! Don't ever disrespect the pizza parlor.
-Christopher Moltosanti, after getting his button in season 3

What does pizza have to do with design? What doesn't pizza have to do with design.
Sam Potts

Superb! Thanks!
It would be interesting to see this discourse expanded to design fanfic!
Ryan Pescatore Frisk

@ John C

"You mean like Hamlet and Macbeth and Titus Andronicus and The Revenger's Tragedy and Crime and Punishment and....?"

No, obviously I mean the Sopranos. BTW, like something is not the same as something.

"Need I continue?"

No, you just need to say something relevant.

Need I quote US gun crime statistics?
Murder Is Fun To Watch

Whichever way you slice it... as long as its 360 (deep dish? no thx).
felix sockwell

In case you weren't awares...

Micheal Beirut slings gun in today's New York Times letters to editor section. art director: Bend it like BrianRea

felix sockwell

"Need I quote US gun crime statistics?"

Quote what you like, I live in the UK. But I'm sure there was no gun crime in America before films and TV, right?
John C

Quote what you like, I live in the UK. But I'm sure there was no gun crime in America before films and TV, right?

Well, at least there were none on T.V. ;-)

I live in Canada. We consume as much murder as entertainment as in the US. I don't know the exact stats, but we don't even get half the numbers of gun ownership/murders/etc... (proportionnally of course, since the US has 10 times our population).

There has to be at least one other factor for those US gun statistics, huh?

As for commenting the original post, well, great analogy, I think i'll go buy myself a gun, should do good for my business.
C Bedard

"But I'm sure there was no gun crime in America before films and TV, right?

There has to be at least one other factor for those US gun statistics, huh?

Did I say there was NO gun crime before TV violence? No.
Did I say TV violence was the ONLY factor in levels of US gun crime? No.

What I actually said was...
"consuming murder as entertainment might contribute to real world violence"

If your attention spans are that low I'm surprised you can recall how to find this website. Obviously some people are incapable of rational debate when you point out the possible downside of their 'drug of choice'.
Murder Is Fun To Watch

God, I'm sick of hearing about "the Sopranos."

I didn't expect it here.

"Murder" is onto something; What's so great about murder and extortion?

"GoodFellas" is a great movie, but the Mob-infatuation it has inspired is disappointing. Get over it, already.


I loved the scene where that guy 'cleaned up' the university campus. Oh, that was for real, wasn't it?
Murder Is Fun To Watch

Keeping our creative focus:

"I'm not a cat! I don't shit in a box!"

Uncle Junior's response to using a bedpan. Sometimes we got to breakout of what's expected of us and maintain some dignity.

If anyone here thinks the Sopranos is just about murder and the mafia then it skimmed over your head completely.

Ron Domingue

Very well, some rational debate via a personal anecdote.

In the mid-90s I found myself defending my work against obscenity charges in a UK court. Charges were against a publisher I was working for but I was involved because I was one of their illustrators. The argument of the police and prosecution was that our fiction could (and, in their eyes, would) lead directly to real-life violence. They had no evidence for this beyond their own opinions but the onus was on us to prove the contrary. There'd been much media hysteria here throughout the 80s about violent horror films on video. We were unfortunate to catch some of the tail-end of that hysteria.

During this period I met several academics who were paid to research the effects of media on the public. One of them, who appeared as an expert witness, had been commissioned in the early 90s by the then Conservative Home Office to produce a new report into the effects of film and TV violence on young offenders. The Home Office at that time was being pressured (yet again) by the tabloid press to "do something" about films, computer games and gangster rap, despite the UK having the most stringent media censorship in the western world (still the case, I think). The Home Office was dismayed when the report was unable to find any correlation between screen violence and real life violence. Subsequent studies have produced similar results.

One of the people I talked with was a guy named Martin Barker, an academic continuing the work of Stanley Cohen and others who had written studies of moral panics, including a pair of books examining the "video nasties" hysteria in the 80s and the campaign against horror comics in the UK in the 1950s. (The latter leading to legislation which forbad the import of horror comics into the UK. I still have a passport application notice warning you about importing horror comics, along with drugs, weapons, explosives, etc.) One of the things Barker (and Cohen, et al) noted was the perennial, cyclical nature of these arguments, how they go through phases according to the media of the period--in the Victorian era the concern was over "Penny Dreadful" pulps; in the 1920s Hollywood was to blame; in the 50s it was comics and rock'n'roll, and so on... The basic argument was always the same: media X will cause effect Y if it isn't stopped now. Obviously, these claims are still with us.

Until very recently there was no freedom of speech defence in UK law so governments here could (and often did) pretty much ban what they liked. If there had ever been any hard evidence that films, TV or any other media inspire rape or violence, the shutters would have come down long ago, and would have stayed down, regardless of commercial interests.

Anyway, we lost our case and my work was duly banned. The magistrate preferred the confidence of her own unfounded opinions over the testimony of experts who'd actually studied the issue in detail.
John C

"If anyone here thinks the Sopranos is just about murder and the mafia then it skimmed over your head completely."

Yeah, like I'm too dumb to realise that.

You make the usual spurious defensive point which justifies nothing.

The fact that The Sopranos is not just about murder does not mean it is not about murder. If it did not contain murder then it would not have been made and it would not have been so popular. Capisce?
Murder Is Fun To Watch

John C, everything you said is completely reasonable.

But just because experts are unable to find any correlation between screen violence and real life violence doesn't mean there isn't any. I would suggest the variables involved are too many and varied to make a direct and singular link anyway.

But also the hysteria of the Home Office, the media and the magistrate is equally unfounded.

However, I still think violence, in all it's forms, breeds more violence, in all it's forms. Not just murder. I could be wrong though. Maybe I'm a hippy.
Murder Is Fun To Watch


You're not alone - lots of experts are working overtime to pin this issue down. I did some major research myself with regard to 'teletopology' the study of the surface of the TV screen- with the following really interesting takes in mind:

The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life by Erving Guffman (1959)

Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman (1985)

Anything ever written by Barrie Gunter (he's obsessed with TV violence)

How about: The Case FOR TV violence, Jib Fowles (1999)...?

Jessica Gladstone

Probably the best post I've read on this site. Cheers.
Dan Collins

Well, there's nothing like some torch-to-burn poster to take the fun out of a harmless post. Seriously, why would you compare one thing to another? If we check the stats - yes, murder and Journey went up this weekend.

Thanks Michael - funny stuff. And farewell to a great show.

I don't have HBO and I have only seen a few episodes of the Soprano's. That however was enough to determine I didn't need to fill my mind with more so maybe I can't appreciate the finer points made in this design analogy? I suppose much of Michaels comments were tongue in cheek?

I do however find both methods as described in 'On client relationships' equally wrong. Most of life is a balance, give and take and extremes in any direction are never wise.

The theme of the Soprano's in terms of 'Murder', 'Violence', 'Drugs', 'Booze', 'Sex', 'Greed' etc. are nothing new. These themes have been around forever and have been reflected in every culture at some level for all ages. Before modern entertainment such as film and TV you could find them in plays, a little later on you'd hear them broadcast worldwide in radio dramas. If you think about it, it's no wonder that many cultures in the middle east view the western culture as they do when all they've heard coming from our entertainment since day one has been these types of themes.

It's ironic really because Hollywood goes out of their way to place blame on others for those who hate America, but it's Hollywood who has spawned this mindset globally and continues to do so.

Von Glitschka


I really appreciate your post on the Sopranos I find it tongue-in-cheek obviously. I'm sorry I find violence entertaining.
Ron Domingue

Well said Von Glitschka. We reep what we sow. Globally.

But some people appear unwilling to see any possible connection between their freedom to 'harmless fun' and other peoples freedom to go to school without being shot, or to go to work without being hit by aircraft, or to not have their homes and families blown up by invading armies.

But hey, I shouldn't spoil the fun with my irrelevant torch burning, I should just post some postive, but vacuous, remark...

Great show, gonna miss it, shame it's over, it was very funny, yadda, yadda, etc, etc.
Murder Is Fun To Watch

Further to Murder's point: It's probably worth noting that series creator David Chase is thought to have had a very ambivalent attitude towards that portion of "The Sopranos" audience that tunes in just for the "whackings."

The final two episodes were marked not just by particularly gruesome murders, but by lingering shots of shocked and sickened, but obviously fascinated, onlookers. It's hard not to see these as surrogates for the audience, and not in a good way.

"It won't be cinematic." - Patsy Parisi to Gloria Trillo
Michael Bierut

Well "Murder", you missed my overly-wordy point entirely. I was trying to demonstrate that researchers have been looking at whether there's a link with violence in the media and violence in life and their studies have failed to establish this. Yet you insist there is some connection without offering any evidence beyond your own opinion. On that score you're no different to the magistrate I mentioned. This is like trying to argue evolution with a Creationist.

Why is the Sopranos violent? Because it's a drama based on life, American life at that. This week I finished reading Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men. The violence in American life is a recurrent theme in McCarthy's work. Near the end of the book one of the characters (a Texan Sheriff) says:

"...it just seemed to me that this country has got a strange kind of history and a damned bloody one too. About anywhere you care to look."

The violence in that book is the result of a Tex-Mex drug deal gone wrong. It so happens that this week I was also reading in the Guardian about the increasing violence among Mexican drug gangs:


McCarthy (and David Chase) is reflecting the world with his fiction; this is one of the things that art does. This is one of the things that it's there for. And it's depressing having to point out such an obvious fact.

That's my last word on this matter. I've got better things to do.
John C

John C, how could I have missed your "overly-wordy point entirely" when I referred to it in my reply? I just didn't agee with you. There was no need to repeat the point. I'm well aware that experts have failed to find a link between screen and real violence. I was simply suggesting that maybe their tools aren't up to the job.

"Yet you insist there is some connection without offering any evidence beyond your own opinion"

I have insisted upon nothing. I said 'I think' there is a link. I even said I could be wrong.

Evidence of violence breeding more violence is everywere. How can screen violence be exempt from that fundemental truth? Violence comes in many forms. Violence escalates. Screen violence is still violence and just because it's on screen doesn't change that. Violence is not just a physical act. Non physical violence can lead to physical violence. If I call somebody a c**t I'm likely to get punched in the face. Do I really need to provide evidence for that?

"McCarthy (and David Chase) is reflecting the world with his fiction; this is one of the things that art does. This is one of the things that it's there for. And it's depressing having to point out such an obvious fact."

Yeah, like I needed you to point out that obvious banal fact. Reporting or documenting the world would be something else entirely. Artists can do what they choose but the world doesn't NEED their art. Their art exists in an environment of supply and demand as much as anything else. What's depressing is that their violent art is the most popular on the menu.

You know perfectly well that far more is going on in The Sopranos than merely an attempt to portray real life. Because if that's all it is then it can't be called art. You can't have it both ways.

"That's my last word on this matter. I've got better things to do."

Evidently not. So sorry to have kept you.
Murder Is Harmless Fun To Watch


So I see connections between violence portrayed on television and violence in the real world. I just don't believe that removing the first will remove the second. I think that's a kind of slippery slope to saying that removing alcohol from media will remove alcoholism, or removing content that portays physical intimacy between people would remove sexual harrasment/assault from the world.

I guess maybe the world doesn't NEED any 'art' but the people who respond to it appreciate it.

And why can't art simply portray real life life? I don't think The Sopranos did that, I think the show did a lot more in expressing a lot of contemporary issues/agendas/fears that most middle class families experience/feel. But art can merely attempt to portray real life, can't it? If not, why not?


What I also don't get is how nasty these debates get. Different opinions don't have to be treated with derision.

A little understanding, a little humour, perhaps.

Also - murder isn't fun to watch, but that doesn't make it a less valid event to capture/watch.

here is how I learned about the Sopranos.
And it only took 7 minutes.


Matt - Perhaps this blog could address the possible roots of the nastiness you refer to. I agree that something has gone amiss when an opinion differing from one's own is treated as a strange bee in the hive.
Personally, I believe there is a pervasive sense of insecurity which creates this defensiveness; perhaps it's the state of the graphic arts profession, or the state of the creative arts in general.
It seems to me that one's readiness to listen to the ideas of others and possibly entertain altering one's own opinion is a critical pre-requisite in our professions, and is subject matter that seasoned and successful professionals might address; particularly important to those who exhibit such vitriol in their monologue. A little pre-mature maturity, cleverly administered, might help change the all-too-common negative opinion of designers held by the rest of the world.
Perhaps this is too serious a subject for blogging but lessons regarding one's practice and professionalism explained using TV serial plotlines/dialogue is a clever way to capture the elusive attention of that same ADD crowd who so desperately need such enlightenment.

I am still in mourning over this show. Thank God "The Wire" will be back on in the fall. Although I am the only person I know who watches it.

I loved brand references on The Sopranos, like Carmela's Lladro, the snobby neighbors complaining of "all that goombah Murano glass" (-Dr. Melfi - "I happen to like Murano glass."), "It's a HER-MEEZE. It's supposed to be the best," etc.

Carmela's budding house-flipping career was fun to watch as well. She came a long way from trying to help Furio at Color Tile. Perhaps nothing was more fascinating to watch from a city design standpoint than Tony's HUD scams in Orange and other areas.

GREAT FREAKIN' POST! I was trying to think of a way to somehow connect Sopranos to my blog after the finale but am not as clever as you are!

What does "get our joints copped" mean exactly? Is that something I can have done?
Ellen Shapiro

Ellen, from the context in that episode ("The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti," (Episode 8, Season 1), I'm pretty sure it has something to do with sex, although upon reflection I can't say for sure if a specific act is being referred to.

Although Paulie Walnuts probably would not agree, there is probably a way for a woman to get her joint copped, in a general sense at least.
Michael Bierut

Yeah, I'm sure it has something to do with sex, too. But I don't think they approve of sex-change operations, either way around. Listen, do you have all the shows catalogued and know them by season, episode and title?
Ellen Shapiro

Amazing analogies. I love both The Sopranos and Design. Great work, Michael!

So picking on from what one of the comments said ...y do designers have this habit of getting defensive when crticised...maybe all professionals do...but designers are particularly difficult to deal with....they hide under cloak of subjectivity...

Wow the sopranos are getting a ton of attention. I've seen about 10 pics of tony in the globe this week. great article.
design blog

So the nastiness I refer to may just be the default tone of 'comments' conversation. You see a lot of it about, I just expect a little better from Design Observer and it's readers. The very reactionary comeback of "well that's not what I actually said, maybe if you could read you'd understand that" pops up time and time again.

Don't know if it's a task for the Observers, but definitely an interesting trend in internet dialogue.

Ans as for designer's defensiveness, maybe it's the fact that what designers produce often has a subjectively successful result. Just because you like it doesn't mean anyone else will, or anyone else will stand up for it when it gets criticised.


On creative choice:

"That's a bad decision."

It's gone. Black. Nothing.

Heart racing with anticipation of the end, the voyeur's life was snuffed out at the whim of David Chase, while expected at some point, was abrupt, harsh and silent.

Perhaps his greatest creation is in the end--nothing.


Yeah, It's a bit ironic that 'Murder' gets violent while argumenting about how we should be careful with it.

The last episode of The Sopranos suxed!
If their is a movie they can fix it.
The last season was good untill that dumb ending.
Can't wait to get the season's DVD and view the other 2 endings they made.
I'll meet Michael Bierut tonight and the font .mov.
I might hear gunshots in the distance because the C.I.A. is near a bed nieghborhood in Cleveland. I'm a Quadraplegic so if I had a gun to defend myself I couldn't. I spent a year in the V.A. hospital down the Street from the C.I.A. and went to the museams there and watched the C.I.A. student piant in the grass field. It was very insperational to watch them create beauty.
I watch "Goodfellas" once in a while for insperation. {bout 30 times now";
I hope Michael inspires my brain-cells.
Hal Pittaway

well the mov on the history of that swiss font was very good. great editing!
Micheal it was nice to meet you, I'm that guy with Sheila Hart, very nice lady as you know.
I loved your wit & humor and strait-forwardness in the mov & in person answering the crowd....
you & andrea levey the illustrator from the plaindealer in the last 24 hours have inspired me to play a lil in photoshop as i watch the rain fall.,...

ok one more quote...

Bobby Baccalieri: "To the victor belongs the spoils."
Tony Soprano: "Why don't you get the fuck out of here before I shove your quotation book up your fat fucking ass."

Hal Pittaway

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