A conversation with the legendary graphic designer at Big Think.
Milton Glaser (b.1929) is among the most celebrated graphic designers in the United States. He has had the distinction of one-man-shows at the Museum of Modern Art and the Georges Pompidou Center. In 2004 he was selected for the lifetime achievement award of the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum. As a Fulbright scholar, Glaser studied with the painter, Giorgio Morandi in Bologna, and is an articulate spokesman for the ethical practice of design. He opened Milton Glaser, Inc. in 1974, and continues to produce work in many fields of design to this day.
Question: When did you decide to become an artist?
Milton Glaser: I decided to become an artist at the age of five when a cousin of mine came into the house and drew a picture of a horse on a paper bag, and I was so astonished that somebody could replicate life that I said, “That’s what I’m going to spend my life doing.” And, of course, that’s what happened subsequently. Not so much of drawing horses on the side of bags, but actually making things. I suppose that was the thing that most attracted me about the idea of being an artist.
Question: What was the first design work you were paid for?
Milton Glaser: The first thing I did that I was paid for was, at the age of eight or nine, drawing pictures of naked girls for my classmates for a penny apiece. It was not high paying, but then again it developed my aptitude.
Question: Has your artistic career path surprised you?
Milton Glaser: That’s such a complicated question. I don’t know exactly what my expectations were when I was living in Bologna. I could say that the only real expectation I had that was meaningful was the opportunity to do good work. And so I didn’t know exactly what that path would be when I started. I knew there was such a thing as design as an activity that you could pursue, but what aspect of it I would specifically find myself doing, I really didn’t know. And the truth is that throughout my career as a designer I’ve done all these strange things that, frankly, I did not expect to ever do, like designing restaurants and publications and supermarkets and any number of other things that could not have been anticipated except for the fact that you encountered people who gave you that opportunity.
When I was in Bologna, I was toying with the fact of becoming a graphic artist in the sense of doing prints, [then] I discovered afterwards that the designation “graphic artist” is mostly used now to describe people who do book jackets and album covers and all other things that have only a casual relationship to the world of art. So at the beginning, I didn’t have a very clear definition of what I would be doing on a day-to-day basis, but I did have this sense that I wanted to be engaged in activity that would take objects that I saw around me and translate them into some kind of visual equivalent and communicate ideas to people. I know that sounds vague, but that was as specific as I was getting.
Question: How has your work evolved over your career?
Milton Glaser: Well, it’s interesting to look at the history of your work. Actually, one of the benefits of being in the world of making things is that you have an accurate record of what it is you’ve made. And for most of us the past is a mystery. I mean, I know that the mind is extremely unreliable in terms of memory and trying to recall what it is you’ve already done. If any of us goes back to the house that we lived in, we are astonished [at] the degree to which it has shrunken. The nice thing about a career in the visual arts is there is an accurate record of what you once believed and what you once thought about the world and how you perceived it. I think the most wonderful thing about being in this field is that you can continue to do it for a very long time and that you don’t have to do exactly the same thing for a very long time. The opportunities for change and the desirability of change becomes evident over a period of years.
I’ve been doing this for an awfully long time and the work in some cases is not recognizable from what it was forty or fifty years ago. And one hopes that the change is to become broader and deeper and simpler and more compelling as you go along. I don’t want to be immodest, but I think my work has gotten less complex, more direct, and I’m more effective at communicating ideas in a way where they remain potent. My work was also more illustrative, more interested in a particular manifestation of style, and so on, in the early years, and it became less involved with issues of style and more involved with issues of clarity and effectiveness.
Question: What historic art movements have most influenced your work?
Milton Glaser: In terms of art movements. Well, I’ve been persistent in using the history of art as my basic resource. And my favorite periods are certainly the Viennese Cessation and American Modernism and my attachment to Italy and the Renaissance and Piero della Francesca. And the two poles of my affection and experience and influence are Morandiva, studied with the fantastic show here at the Metropolitan that was profound and deep and incredibly moving. He was a man who wanted nothing. He didn’t want women or success or fame or money, and alternately, Picasso, who wanted everything. He wanted all the money, all the fame, all the women. And I find my personality in life bouncing between those two models.
Question: What is the difference between design and art?
Milton Glaser: There’s this stupid overlap between the two that no one understands. And the lack of distinction between art and design and art and non-art is so puzzling to people. And everybody wants to be an artist because, in terms of status, there’s almost nothing better you can be in almost any culture; basically, [this is] because art is terribly important as a survival mechanism for any culture. As a result, the people in primitive cultures who can create art as such are those who are highly respected. And that basically occurs in sophisticated cultures as well. But the only purpose of art is that it is the most powerful instrument for survival—art is so persistent in all our cultures because it is a means of the culture to survive. And the reason for that, I believe, is that art, at its fullest capacity, makes us attentive.
But if you look at a work of art, you can re-engage reality once again, and you see the distinction between what you thought things were and what they actually are. Because of that, it is a mechanism for the species to survive. And because of that, it is terribly important in human consciousness. I also believe, curiously, that beauty, which is very often something we confuse with art, is merely a mechanism to move us towards attentiveness. You realize we all have a genetic capacity and need to experience beauty, but beauty is not the ultimate justification for art. It is merely the device by which we are led to attentiveness.
Anyhow, this is all very complex. And I’ve been thinking about it most of my life and now I finally feel that I can distinguish between what is art and what is not. And my distinction is if it moves you to attentiveness, it is art. If it doesn’t, it’s something else.
Question: Is fine art losing its relevance to everyday life?
Milton Glaser: Well, you know, the odd thing about is to examine the art world, so-called, and examine [how] the art world is concerned primarily with money and status. And that’s linked to people’s need to elevate themselves, and also [a need] to invest in objects that will have a good return. Of course, that is not the standard by which people really interested in art would judge art.
And I’m always amused by the definition of “fine art” because I never knew what the word “fine” meant until I looked it up and found out that “fine” as it applies to art is a term used in metallurgy. It means that you apply heat to metal [with] sufficient intensity so that the impurities are burnt off. Well, with that definition, you begin to understand something about the subject. And also you say, “Well, what are the impurities of art?”
My belief is that the impurities of art are everything that does not contribute to its function of producing attentiveness. And, of course, those impurities are largely status and money. And then you look at what’s reported and talked about in the art world and it’s always about the money. The leading issue that people care about in the world of art is what the Bonnaud sold for, forty million dollars at the time, which broke all records. And so, well, who cares about what the Bonnaud sold for in terms of art? That’s one of the impurities—except that it is the focal point and the central issue in art as it is observed in our culture today.
Question: Describe a profound encounter you had with a work of art.
Milton Glaser: Well, there have been a million encounters at least, but certainly one of them was when a friend took me to the Frick, I was eighteen, to show me the first Piero [della] Francesca I had ever seen. And I almost fainted when I saw it. And that produced a lifetime of exploration of Piero, going all over the world looking for Piero paintings. And I think, finally, having seen most of them—fortunately, he did relatively few—I ended up doing a series of watercolors and drawings based on the work of Piero [that] was sponsored by the Italian government. That was actually shown a few years ago in Piero’s home, in Sansepolcro, which has to be one of the great things that could happen to anyone who was as obsessed as I was.
Question: As magazines move from print to the Internet, is their design potential lost?
Milton Glaser: Well, at the moment, the Internet is enormously limiting in terms of the capacity for innovation and variation. I mean, if you look at it, everything is pretty much the same because of the constraints of the screen and the lack of the peculiar things that happens with ink and paper—it is an enormously limiting medium. Not to say that enormously limiting mediums cannot produce great work. [They] can. If you stop to think about making an etching—you realize you have a plate of metal, you have to make little scratches, then you have to fill them with ink and then you have to put some damp paper on top of that. And given all of that, you can still produce the most extraordinary things.
You realize that limitation of materials and scale and so on are not the central issue, except for the fact that when you look at the electronic world, you just realize that the amount of repetition and images that are totally determined by the medium itself. Tools are tremendously powerful in changing the nature of what you were wanting to express. There’s a big difference between doing a drawing of something with pencil on a sheet of paper and trying to recreate that experience from existing material that you assemble on a screen. And curiously, the pencil and paper turns out to be the most potentially expressive medium for reasons that are very complex to understand.
So in truth, there is no profound limitation on what you can do in terms of the imagination on a screen electronically, but as it turns out, the material that you produce is so dominated by the peculiarities of electronic transmission that when we look at it, we see so many things that look exactly the same. It turns out to be, as is often the case, first, it feels like the most enormously potential instrument that any designer could have, and then it turns out to be something that so dominates your thinking process that you have to be very wary and very suspicious of its power.
Question: What do you make of the trend of crowdsourcing design?
Milton Glaser: Well, it’s a bigger development, I mean. And it exploits the innocent and it very rarely produces good results. I mean, it’s not that some very beginning person can’t do good work or even something about the fact that, statistically, if you get a thousand pieces you’re likely to find one that is excellent. My experience with all this sort of free work and general calls for submission is that they produce very low-level responses. It is also a real exploitation of the innocent. And people are so desperate to find a way of becoming visible that you can get anybody to work for nothing.
One of the curious things that happens in the field is that, because our activity is linked to the arts and the arts are not supposed to be concerned with money—after all, money is impure, it’s not fine—there’s a tremendous amount of inquiry about free work. You can—as I probably have in the last two weeks—get twenty calls from people who want and expect you to do something without being paid for it, because of visibility or because you’re not supposed to be interested in money. Well, that’s not exactly the case. And so it is, I think, fundamentally exploitive. You wouldn’t go into a butcher shop and ask for a pound of steak without anticipating that you would have to pay for it.
Question: Do you like the trend of people becoming designers without formal training?
Milton Glaser: Well, that’s a complex question. The question of the degree of skill and classicism in anyone’s makeup depends very much on context and capacity. People have different aptitudes. It is possible to be self-taught in any area, but the issue of whether somebody should have a classical education depends very much on genre. For instance, is it necessary to have a classical education in music? Well, if that means to develop skills and understanding about composition and also to be able to play a piano or any other instrument to where you can express your ideas, I would say you would be severely limited if you couldn’t do those things. I think the same thing is true in the world of design.
I’m totally obsessed with the idea of drawing as being the fundamental tool and instrument by which you understand what you’re looking at, and there is no replacement for that. The idea of looking at something, letting it enter your brain, transforming it, moving it down the neurological path to your hands, moving your hand to create something that can be evaluated by your brain and corrected, that iteration, that conversation between the mind and the hand, it seems to me, is the way we learn what is real. And the issue in the arts, very often is that question, “What is real?” And the distinction [is] between what we pre-imagine the world to be and what enables us to see it with clarity and understanding.
So there is nothing that I know of, or have experienced, that enables us to engage the world better than the act of drawing and being able to create form as we see it. And people spend their entire life trying to learn how to draw. And then, after years and years of effort, they discover that they can successfully replicate what’s in front of them. It’s a kind of drawing that appears in all the art classes and all the studios as people learn how to do it in the world. And then finally you learn that you can represent what is in front of you accurately [and] at the same time you learn that it’s not the point, that that is only the beginning of the real point, which is how to engage what is real.
Question: What is your advice to young artists who want to make a name for themselves?
Milton Glaser: My general advice to the young—you have to work like hell. There’s no issue about being a natural genius and then falling into opportunities that will support it. Nobody’s interested in supporting genius. Malcolm Gladwell’s recent book defined ten thousand hours as the amount of time anybody has to put in to attain mastery. I love the fact that he was able to quantify that, and I would quite agree that that is a good number before you begin to understand what it is you’re doing.
So the first thing I would say is put in your ten thousand hours. And after that, simply don’t get stuck in your own belief system. Continue to understand the issue is not about style or what’s going on at the moment, but things can be deeper, more profound, and more influential. And you can’t stop working. The only thing that matters is that you have to be engaged and consistent and you can’t give up and you can’t be lazy. And outside of that there’s no guarantee, even with all of that, that you will necessarily succeed—but as they say, that’s life.
Question: Are you ever annoyed by the prevalence of the “I Love New York” logo?
Milton Glaser: No, I am not, in any way, annoyed about that. I am astonished, but I am not annoyed. I mean, you very rarely do anything in your life that gets exploited, if you will, or recognized or observed or used to the extent that that has been. I don’t get it. I don’t know why it became an icon that moved around the world, where you can’t go out in the street—for instance, we’ll go out after this broadcast and we will encounter at least 20 “I Love New York’s” on the street as we walk across town. I did the bloody thing in 1975 and I thought it would last a couple of months as a promotion; why it has persisted in people’s consciousness for such a long time is totally miraculous. And since most of us were involved in design and were interested in having our work have an effect in the world, it is a great pleasure for me to see that it is still being used and it’s still around, that it still seems to be affective. It’s a great thing to have happened for me.
Question: Are you upset you don’t have the trademark to the image?
Milton Glaser: Well I think you get annoyed if something you had done had been exploited by others and they made insufferable amount of money doing it and you had done. So under those conditions I can see somebody getting angry because “I could have…” and so on. But for me it’s not the case. First of all, I have enough money and I’ve never worried about it. And just the pervasiveness of it is a great pleasure.
Question: Why did you choose to live in Woodstock?
Milton Glaser: Well, we’ve been in Woodstock for an extremely long time, but it always had this history of being an art colony, which was a good reason not to go there. As a result of that, everybody trendy didn’t go there. So back in the early ’60s when we were considering where we would like to be, we had friends who had a barn up in Woodstock and we used to spend weekends with them. We got to love the area and Woodstock itself. It was so unpopular at that time. Refreshingly cranky. There were no trendy cool people up there that we knew, except people who really interested in finding a cheap house, which is what we were interested in.
So we went there. Most of our other friends ended up in the Hamptons, but we found [Woodstock] was extremely compatible in terms of our own desires. We don’t like social scenes and we like to be alone. We got a beautiful house for no money because you could get a house for no money. It’s been one of the great satisfactions of our life.
Question: What keeps you up at night?
Milton Glaser: What keeps me up at night? Not much. Sometimes it’s just when you reach 80 you realize that everything is falling apart. Things that you didn’t know you even had begin to fall apart, but I don’t worry about many things actually. My life has been free of pain; I’ve had a marvelous life. I don’t have anxiety issues.
Question: You have no worries at all?
Milton Glaser: I don’t know. What I enjoy more than anything else is coming to work in the morning with a wonderful group of people, young people who are responsive and lively and full of energy; just the experience of sharing what you know with others and listening for different viewpoints and working collaboratively. It is so much fun. My great dread, if we must [talk] about what keeps me up at night, is the idea that some day I may have to stop working. The idea of dying at my desk is the most attractive thing I can think of.
Question: What is the biggest obstacle that you’ve had to overcome in your career?
Milton Glaser: The biggest obstacle I’ve had to overcome? Well I think everybody’s biggest obstacle is stupidity. I mean, not knowing what you were doing or being in over your head, but it’s an odd thing. I don’t say this with any great arrogance or anything, but I have had the most easy life. Everything I ever dreamed I would want to accomplish, excuse me for this, but basically, I have done. I do not, at this point, experience my life as having in any way been difficult.