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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
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:
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.
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
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.
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
cross disciplines, from two dimensions to three, is it pure instinct that
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
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.
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.
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
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.
advice would you give to today’s students and the younger generation of
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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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