Graphic design plays a sinister supporting role in Steven Soderbergh’s film Side Effects (2012), starring Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Channing Tatum, and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Mara plays an emotionally distressed junior designer with problems much bigger than kerning type. Slammed with depression, her professional life rapidly falls apart in several crucial scenes that were shot in the New York offices of Pentagram, the international design firm. Among the works on view in the office is a mysterious poster whose overlapping letters emerge from darkness; Mara rushes past it not once but twice to violently puke in the bathroom.

The bathroom does not belong to Pentagram, but the poster in the hallway most certainly does. It is Michael Bierut’s 1999 piece Light Years, created for the Architectural League of New York’s annual Beaux Arts Ball.  While sketching and playing with the text, Bierut noticed that “light” and “years” are both five-letter words. It occurred to him to run one word on top of the other. He handed over his sketches to Nicole Trice, then an intern at Pentagram from the University of Cincinnati, who then used Photoshop to create various solutions implying light, shadow, and transparency. The typeface Interstate, designed by Tobias Frere-Jones, gives the poster its suitably architectural solidity. Light Years shows how a simple idea can interact with digital effects to create an image rich with implied temporality.

Poster: der Film, 1959-60.  Josef Müller-Brockmann. Museum purchase from General Acquisitions Endowment Fund. 1999-46-2.

Bierut cites among his influences the Swiss modernist designer Josef Müller-Brockmann, whose famous poster Der Film (1959-60) superimposes white letters over gray ones in order to translate the principle of cinematic montage into type. Another influence is the American artist Ed Ruscha, known for his industrial-strength typography, his subtle word play, and his cool documentary eye. (Read more about Bierut’s design process and influences at http://observatory.designobserver.com/entry.html?entry=3557.)

We asked Bierut if he was pleased to see Light Years play a bit part in a major motion picture. Yes, he was very pleased indeed, but being a stage dad comes at a price. For every single poster or piece of graphic ephemera that appeared in Side Effects, Pentagram had to get a signed release from the project’s client.

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