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  • Milton Glaser

    Recognition
    1972 AIGA Medal
    Born
    1929, New York, New York

    Few designers evoke as much praise from their eminent peers as Milton Glaser. Over the last five decades, he has been one of the most internationally renowned and highly influential figures in design. Vastly prolific, his versatility as a practitioner spans many design disciplines, including graphics, exhibitions, interiors, furniture and products.

    To many, Milton Glaser is the embodiment of American graphic design during the latter half of this century. His presence and impact on the profession internationally is formidable. Immensely creative and articulate, he is a modern renaissance man—one of a rare breed of intellectual designer-illustrators, who brings a depth of understanding and conceptual thinking, combined with a diverse richness of visual language, to his highly inventive and individualistic work.

    Having initially trained as a classical fine artist, his historical roots in design were as co-founder of the New York-based Pushpin Studio in 1954, with Seymour Chwast, Edward Sorel and Reynold Ruffins. In Pushpin, Glaser was in the vanguard of a movement that reacted against the strict authoritarianism and austerity of modernism.

    Exploring and re-interpreting the visual material of previous era’s of both fine art and commercial art, (including that of Victoriana, wood-cut illustration, comic books, Art Nouveau, and Art Deco), they sought to bring fresh ideas, humour and a new decorative and illustrative approach to the design of record sleeves, book covers, posters and magazines.

    Immediately recognizable, the work of Pushpin Studio evolved to become an international force in graphic design during the 1960s and 1970s.

    British graphic designer John Gorham recalls initially encountering Glaser’s work in London in 1964:

    At lunchtime, a colleague and I would go to Zwemmers in Charing Cross Road. They had books and magazines from the United States that you couldn’t get anywhere else. We found early issues of Pushpin Graphic. Milton’s work was in there and we thought, ‘God Almighty! It’s incredible!’ We bought whatever we could find and indulged in the luxury of knowing that we were virtually the only people in London who had seen this kind of work. We thought we were light years ahead of everyone else! It was the fist time I had ever seen anyone thinking like Glaser. To me, he was the most exciting and influential designer of that period. He revolutionized graphic design throughout the world. What I admired was the brain behind the technique.

    Such was the international success of Pushpin that, in 1970, they were the first American studio to have an exhibition at the prestigious Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris, a show which subsequently travelled to other cities in Europe and on to Japan.

    Glaser eventually left Pushpin in 1976 to pursue other design work, and through his own company, Milton Glaser, Inc., has concentrated on expanding involvement as a multidisciplinary designer, undertaking exhibition, interior, product, supermarket and restaurant design projects.

    Developing a major interest in publishing design (he was founder of New York magazine), he established with Walter Bernard (former art director of Time), WBMG, a magazine and newspaper design studio. Among his publication credits are Paris Match, L’Express, Esquire, The Washington Post, Fortune magazine and Banaradia (Barcelona).

    As a lecturer, Glaser has taught at the Cooper Union and regularly (since 1961) at the School of Visual Arts in New York.

    Here he answers a series of questions, which give a rare insight to the man himself:

    On the subject of clarity of communication, would you say this is something which is missing from much of today’s design? 

    One must understand this relationship between clarity and ambiguity, because it is an essential component of communication. You can’t make everything explicit to people. There has to be work for the mind to do. Often the communication is not immediately clear but becomes clear quickly. That duration between seeing and understanding is always what you play with in communicating ideas.

    Do you think that there should be an initial ‘surprise’ in order for that communication to be effective?

    Well you would like that to happen, but it depends on what you can do to make people pay attention. In a culture like ours, everything is screaming for our attention, so at a certain point we become immune to the screaming. The question then is what do we do to penetrate people’s immunity?

    Has there been a particular approach to the diversity of your work?

    I have always thought that in order to stay interested in what you are doing, to some extent you have to operate in the realm of what you do not know; that professionalism moves you forward towards a kind of rote understanding, in the same way that academic activity leads you towards academic, or repeatable ideas. In design, what makes things interesting is moving around in the areas you are not a master of, so that you can surprise yourself and develop your own understanding. That development of one’s own understanding is, I think it seems to me, a critical issue in design activity—and life itself, I suppose. 

    As a designer are you still constantly learning?

    You should try to surprise yourself as you work, so that you don’t know all the answers in advance and simply repeat them. I have an approach I’ve been using throughout my life, which is to start first with the nature of the audience, second with the nature of what you want that audience to do and then third, the methodology by which you move that audience to action. I am a non-specialist. For professional reasons, the field is one of professional practice, which means that you diminish the possibility of error by knowing everything in depth about one subject. My aim is to have a broader view of design. I am certainly not unique in this way, but I like to think that it is possible to operate in many areas if your interest leads you that way.

    For example, I am very interested in the design of restaurants, so I’ve designed them. And I’ve designed supermarkets—which is usually thought of as a highly specialized activity, reserved for those who have the credentials to do it. I felt that it was possible to do some of this work without credentials. I have been opportunistic and through the years have sort of blurred the distinction a little between professional practice in architecture, product design, interior design, graphic design and magazine design.

    When you cross disciplines, from two dimensions to three, is it pure instinct that drives you?

    Yes. Knowledge that is replicable. After all, if you have some idea how color functions on a flat surface, you will have at least the beginnings of an understanding of how it operates on a three-dimensional surface.

    And so by using that knowledge, and your intelligence, you make comparisons. For instance, when I started doing interiors, I learned that the nature of light, and the nature of color, intersect in a very interesting way in three-dimensional interiors. It is very difficult to understand theoretically and you have to physically see it. As an example, I once painted a room in a restaurant a sort of French yellow and when that particular yellow was illuminated by incandescent light and turned the corner into shadow, it became this horrible green. Those kind of things you really have to learn on the job.

    Has design become a commodity to be bought and sold, and less of an art?

    I would say that is true to some degree. The idea of design as an artistic activity has changed over the last fifty years. Designers have always wanted to say that good design is good business, and that as a result it has moved more towards being a business than an art.

    I use the words art and design with some trepidation, because everybody has their own internal definition of what those words mean. What I call art is rarely what other people call art, but there is has to be some agreement on what those words mean? I would say that with the professionalization of the practice, the widespread use of the computer and the conviction of business today, design is an important marketing tool, which is orientated more towards effectiveness than beauty.

    Does this sadden you at all?

    Personally it saddens me, because I think that there is some cultural benefit in maintaining a position that aesthetics of beauty and ideas, of coherence by virtue of beauty, are important to that culture.

    It seems to me that once you reach a point where economics are the only criteria for what you do, you are basically in a bad situation. There has to be some kind of contravening notion that there are things equally important to money in the human experience.

    What advice would you give to today’s students and the younger generation of designers?

    I would say: take the responsibility for what you do. Design is an activity, which affects human consciousness, and the way people think and act. It also affects their value system, and you should take that seriously. I mean you don’t want to hurt people. You don’t want to injure people, you don’t want to misrepresent things, you don’t want to lie to them. In my view, the same principles involved in good citizenship should be applied to being a good designer.

    Is there anything in design you have yet to achieve?

    I think what I’m chasing after is what I’ve always chased after in my life, and that is how to see haw far I could go, how much more you could learn, how you can modify what you believe and how you can change what you believe. Basically it is a continuance. I have always been curious about what I was capable of doing- and I am still curious about that.

    It is a question of how much you can stay within the context of what you are, and what you and continually change or refresh that. I was talking to a student recently who came in for an evaluation, and that great thing about the practice of design is that you don’t ever learn it fundamentally.

    You never get to a point when you have understood what you are doing. You gat to a degree of understanding, but you always know there is more out there that you have not yet grasped. It is an ever-ending book, in the sense and you never get there. There is no point at which you say, ‘Ah! Finally I’ve got it!’ It’s like the search for the spiritual. There is no level in which you get there.

    Drawing has always been such an important part of your work, but is it a skill that fewer designers possess today?

    My feeling about drawing is that I have deeply invested in it because so much of my work is characterized by it, and I have used the skill as a means of developing a personal idiom which is harder to do through design alone. Although many designers have found another personal voice without using drawing, I feel it is at the root of everything, because it is essentially an intellectual activity. People think that it has something to do with the way your hand operates, but drawing is a decision by the brain to represent reality through any kind of means you choose.

    There doesn’t seem to be an alternative way to develop a neurological path from brain to hand without drawing. You can’t do it sitting and thinking about it, so what happens is that the body itself is involved in the thought process. I can’t see any other way of doing it, in the same way that I can’t think of a man becoming an athlete without developing his muscles. There’s no way of becoming an athlete by sitting thinking, or using a computer. I think drawing is one of the instruments by which the brain changes its perception of reality, and it also develops a kind of acuity in terms of colour, form, shape and proportion. I don’t know how you would get that information another way. Unless the brain is engaged in solving a problem, which is to say you look at something and you try drawing, there is no methodology to do that in a theoretical way. I don’t know of a substitute for the development of judgement, and judgement itself is of course a core element in design. I don’t know how you would develop judgement without going through this very primitive thing of sitting down in front of something and trying to represent it physically in the world. I’m a great believer in that as an objective, although I don’t think it is taught very well.

    What would you hope for the future of design?

    Nothing I wouldn’t hope for culture in general. There needs to be a return to a value system which suggests there are other values; that there is a sense of community; that beauty and doing things well are important; and the whole idea of craft and caring for what we do, simply because it is important to do so, rather than receiving economic benefit. I don’t see design as an activity removed from everything else in the development of culture.

     

    Once a design rebel whose imagery was totally synonymous with its time in recent decades, Glaser is now the greatly revered practitioner statesman of his profession. Steven Heller, a leading U.S. design critic, views his compatriot thus: “He is perhaps the most articulate of U.S. graphic designers, although ‘graphic designer’ is far too limiting a term to express what Milton does, and what he has accomplished. I think what he accomplishes in his work as a designer/illustrator is the pure articulation of an idea through form. Not only is he a brilliant aestheticist and form-giver, but one of the few designers whose social conscience, certainly in his latter years, has been a motivating factor in the kind of work he does.”

    In the 1990s, Glaser has continued to expand the diversity of his projects, the profusion of styles and eclecticism of imagery which have all been a key factor in his idiosyncratic approach to design.

    Viewing his work retrospectively, it his apparent that he is one of the very few designers who can knowingly, articulate visually, the most extraordinarily inventive and ambitious ideas in any style or form of his choosing. It is this dual capability of being able to execute all of his ideas himself, in combination with a prolific array of techniques, which is Glaser’s greatest asset.

    He is one of a handful of post-war designers whose approach re-defined expression in design: “He opened a new way of seeing things. He was the equivalent to graphic design that The Beatles were to music at the time,” adds John Gorham.

    Strikingly colourful, often outwardly exotic, and retaining the quality of a fine artist, much of Glaser’s prolific output of illustrative posters, blur the distinction between graphic design and painting. In contrast, his work in type design and corporate identity, display equal inventiveness in purer graphic forms. Over a period of four decades, the ever-artful Glaser has become the most celebrated of US designers, evolving a continually developing and uniquely personalised American style of graphic design, always defying the rigid constraints of any formal categorization.

    As Gorham succinctly describes the Glaser phenomenon: “Milton has always been one jump ahead of everyone else.”

     

    This article was originally published in CSD Magazine (August/September issue 1999) of the Chartered Society of Designers, London. It appears here with the author’s permission and has been modified slightly for this forum.

     

     

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