Milton Glaser, the great designer, illustrator, artist, and educator, died this past Friday, on his 91st birthday. Glaser helped shape 20th century American visual culture, first at Pushpin Studios, a firm he started in 1954 with Cooper Union classmates Seymour Chwast and Edward Sorel. Later he founded (with Clay Felker) New York Magazine, designed the iconic Bob Dylan poster that hung in millions of dorm rooms, created the iconic “I Love New York” logo, which was reimagined 34 years later in the wake of 9/11 to read “I Love New York More Than Ever.” In addition to a ceaseless output of artistic and design work, Glaser also taught for more than 50 years at the School of Visual Art, dispensing what his students called “Glaserisms.” I was lucky enough to have worked with Milton on a number of projects (he designed a Metropolis cover in 2007). Because he was a bottomless well of wisdom, a kind of design oracle, I took advantage of every opportunity I could to talk with him. Here are excerpts from an August 2003 interview I conducted with Glaser for Metropolis.
On drawing: “There is no greater instrument for understanding the visual world than the hand and a pencil, because the idea of creating or recreating form produces a different neurological pattern than using a computer to find things. To understand the meaning of form—what a shape is, what an edge is, what space is—there’s nothing more instructive than the act of drawing. Why has it been abandoned? Partially it’s been given up because it’s so difficult—and also the advent of modernism introduced a whole new set of values that were not necessarily useful (some of them were, some of them were not). But like every set of principles you had to pick your way through them. Still the physiological act of trying to represent the world through drawing is enormously instructive. You can teach anyone to draw in a representational way. You cannot teach anyone to draw expressively. But you can set the stage for it. There are different kinds of drawing. Drawing for understanding is different from drawing for demonstration. People also confuse drawing with illustration. Or think that the only people that have to learn to draw in this era are people who want to illustrate.”
On why he taught for more than 50 years: “I enjoy teaching. I love the act of being in front of a class. It makes me feel good. I have no other reason to teach. If I didn’t look forward to it, I wouldn’t do it anymore. But I find it gives me a lot of energy and makes me feel useful. For a large part of my life, feeling useful has been a dominant characteristic of what rewards me, whether it’s teaching or making things or being socially active.”
On the ethics of design: “I try not to be overly ideological about teaching, but I believe that thinking about the consequences of your work—the issue of ethics—is essential. Since we’re specifically involved in the transmission of cultural ideas—ideas about value—then we have to examine the meaning of what we’re proposing to our students. So I try to suggest that a designer’s role is one in which we have to be at least conscious of the consequences of what we transmit to others. I do it by raising the question—what is ethics in design?—and then opening up the conversation. I try to keep the discussion Socratic, so everybody has to question. I did this piece for AIGA on the “12 Steps to Hell” that was an articulation of something I had been thinking about for a long time. In class I ask: Where would you draw the line? What would you be willing to do? The issue is not about telling people what they should be doing, but rather trying to make people conscious of what they’re doing. There’s a difference. And what you hope will happen is that a consciousness develops which relates what you do to the society around you. It’s a very old-fashioned idea: what you do has an effect on the world you live in. And if you’re concerned about the state of the world, there is no escape from the fact that you’re participating in it.
On why it’s easier to work for clients you actually like: “In continuing relationships with clients the only way that you can accomplish anything is by a sense of affection, by having a client like and trust you, and vice versa. Otherwise you beat your way up hill each time. You have to respect your client, your client has to respect you. But beyond respect, what you want to feel is that you can go out to lunch with somebody and have a nice time without thinking about your business. … It’s very chemical. People just like each other. I can’t do good work with people I don’t like. And now, increasingly, I get very unhappy if I have to work with people I don’t like, even if I’m professionally interested in solving their problem. I just find I’m not working on all cylinders.”
MILTON GLASER’S “12 STEPS TO HELL”
- Designing a package to look bigger on the shelf.
- Designing an ad for a slow, boring film to make it seem like a lighthearted comedy.
- Designing a crest for a new vineyard to suggest that it has been in business for a long time.
- Designing a jacket for a book whose sexual content you find personally repellent.
- Designing a medal using steel from the World Trade Center to be sold as a profit-making souvenir of September 11.
- Designing an advertising campaign for a company with a history of known discrimination in minority hiring.
- Designing a package aimed at children for a cereal whose contents you know are low in nutritional value and high in sugar.
- Designing a line of T-shirts for a manufacturer that employs child labor.
- Designing a promotion for a diet product that you know doesn’t work.
- Designing an ad for a political candidate whose policies you believe would be harmful to the general public.
- Designing a brochure for an SUV that flips over frequently in emergency conditions and is known to have killed 150 people.
- Designing an ad for a product whose frequent use could result in the user’s death.
Featured image via Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.