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Milton Glaser presented the following as part of “Since Then: Two Points of View,” a presentation at the 2005 AIGA Design Conference.
What has happened to our field since our first conference 20 years
ago cannot be considered without examining the more troubling question
of how the world has changed. Since I have less than 15 minutes, I will
not attempt to objectively summarize that question, but say that
speaking subjectively, the world seems more fragile and imperiled than
it did in the mid-eighties. Perhaps the world always seems at risk. In
my lifetime, I’ve witnessed a world war, the Holocaust, McCarthyism,
Vietnam, Korea, the threat of nuclear annihilation, the Cold War—and in
these times, AIDS, genocide in Africa and Bosnia, 9/11, global warming,
the war on Iraq, the acceptance of torture, the Patriot Act, the
tsunami, the devastation of New Orleans and the gulf coast and
overshadowing everything else in our minds—the emergence of
The political exploitation of the fear of terrorism is as alarming
as terrorism itself. It has caused me to examine my role as a citizen
and to think about whether designers as a group have a dog in this
fight, to use a pungent, down-home cliché. Our dog in this fight may be
My personal response to this condition has led me to become more
active in civic life. As designers, we’ve been concerned about our role
in society for a very long time. It’s important to remember that even
modernism had social reform as its basic principal, but the need to act
seems more imperative than ever.
After 9/11, I produced a poster that was distributed around the city
by students from the School of Visual Arts as well as wrapped around a
million copies of The Daily News. It seemed to reflect what all
of us were experiencing after the tragedy. Of course, the design
problem, in the case of personal interventions, is how to become
visible; how to enter into the bloodstream of the culture.
About a year afterwards, I produced a series of buttons for The Nation—the magazine that is, not the country. They expressed ideas that I felt should be made explicit.
I’ve been occasionally described as a left-leaning or liberal
designer—which is certainly true within our current political
atmosphere—but consider the elusive nature of words. A few weeks ago,
the provisional government of Iraq was being criticized by our
government spokesman for being too conservative in regard to woman’s
rights with the hope that a more liberal view would prevail. In Iraq,
conservative is bad and liberal is good. Here our government tells us
that conservative is good and liberal is bad. How the word “liberal”
became stigmatized and avoided by politicians is worthy of a doctoral
thesis. I am also fascinated by the derision that accompanies the words
“do gooders” as if only the naive and inept would consider “doing good” a
principle. I think artists tend to be liberal because their view of the
world has to include doubt and ambiguity as well as generosity and
optimism. In recent years, I’ve come to believe that the world is
divided between those who make things and those who control things.
Recent behavioral thinking suggests that one’s political stance, be
it conservative or liberal, might be largely genetic. No wonder logic
turns out to be so ineffective in political discourse. Our last election
was won largely on the basis of fear and personality. If one’s
political beliefs are driven by our instincts and not by our
intelligence, we can all be a bit more generous to one another. Of
course, the issue becomes: if we hold our beliefs lightly, can we still
maintain our passion and indignation when our sense of fairness is
During the last Republican convention, I distributed this proposal
around the city in an attempt to deflect the violence that confrontation
might produce. It reads in part:
“On August 30, from dusk to dawn, all citizens who wish to end the
Bush presidency can use light as our metaphor. Imagine, it’s 2 or 3 in
the morning and our city is ablaze with a silent and overwhelming
rebuke... Light transforms darkness.”
Buttons, flyers, posters, postcards, T-shirts and books. How
primitive are the means we have to dissent. And yet I believe these
modest tools can help change history. This spring, Mirko Illic and I
created a book for Rockport Press we titled the Design of Dissent,
that documents the graphic resistance to institutional power over the
last 10 or 15 years. It received a surprising amount of press and
television coverage for a book that we thought would be of interest
mostly to design professionals. In June, an exhibition opened at the
School of Visual Arts that will travel across America. In fact, there
will be two shows in circulation. As you know, the “Graphic Imperative”
is a survey of socio-political posters from 1965 to 2005, put together
by Elizabeth Resnick, Chaz Maviyane-Davies and Frank Baseman. This is
not a coincidence. It’s a case of breathing the same air.
Many of us have been troubled by the passivity of the American
people towards the events of our time. Part of this condition must be
attributed to the cynical use of fear our government has employed to
control peoples’ judgment after the trauma of 9/11. This was made
possible in part by television, my favorite whipping boy, and the most
persuasive means of indoctrination in human history. George W.S. Trow
said this about television in a book called Within the Context of No
Context: “The trivial is raised up to power in it. The powerful is
lowered toward the trivial ... No good has come of it.”
Perhaps the most obvious loss is what we call our sense of reality.
Television combines news about the war, Paris Hilton’s career, global
warming and Geico commercials into events of equal importance. The
result is an enormous population that believes nothing matters.
Our discussion on the ethics of designers always gets impaled on the
issue of whether a client’s desire for profit can be reconciled with
our ethical desire to do no harm. Or, put another way, can we serve a
client and the public at the same time? The difficulty of these
questions explains why the AIGA and other design-based organizations
have found it so difficult to define a designer’s obligations to the
public. But this is not the horse I want to beat today.
I very much believe that whatever special respect exists for people
in the design profession comes more from their relationship to the role
of art and making things than their service to business. When I was five
years old, I decided to become an artist. I had no idea where that
decision came from, outside of the pleasure I experienced making things.
In teaching, I’ve discovered that many students of design had a similar
epiphany at an early moment in their lives. I became a designer, but
like many of us, I’ve always struggled with the relationship of Art and
Design, and the question of what precisely separated the two activities.
“Can Design be Art?” is a question that has always obsessed me. Not
long ago, I reread E. H. Gombrich’s magisterial survey of art history,
which begins, “There really is no such thing as Art. There are only
artists.” How liberating; the question is finally answered: If there is
no Art, Design cannot be considered Art.
Then again, it is reasonable to imagine that there are many artists
living undercover, in a kind of witness protection program, in the realm
of design. I’ve carefully called myself a designer all my life in part
because I fear being pretentious, and also because I realized I would
never surpass Vermeer. But I feel ready for a conversion. I am thinking
of changing my self-definition from a designer who occasionally
practiced art to an artist who practices design. This is an easy claim
to make because being an artist is a case of self-anointment, and there
is no entry exam. More than anything else, the designation represents a
view of life. History, of course, has its own standard.
If we need a definition of art, the Roman literary critic Horace
provided an elegant one. “The role of art is to inform and delight.”
Form and light are hidden in that definition. It’s an idea I
enthusiastically embrace. Of course, informing is different than
persuading. When one is informed, one is strengthened. Persuasion does
not guarantee the same result.
Delight is the non-quantifiable part of the definition that speaks
to the role of beauty. What artists make is a gift to humankind; a
benign instrument that has the possibility of affecting our
consciousness through empathy and shared symbolism. We are affected not
through logic but by a direct appeal to our limbic brain, the source of
our emotional life. Although we don’t fully understand how it functions,
I’m drawn to this mysterious part of our work, which we frequently
describe as metaphysical or miraculous. These words may simply mean that
we still do not understand what our brain is capable of.
The most important function of art through history has been to work
magic, to change the very nature of those who experience the work—in
these cases beauty transforms as well as informs. Searching for the
miraculous strikes me as being a good way to spend my time. I’ll show
you two examples of what I mean.
A woman interested in Buddhism asked me to design stationary for
her. In the course of doing the work, I made a discovery. A folded piece
of paper could operate like a printing press. There are three faces of
the Buddha on the left hand side of the page printed in red yellow and
blue. When folded the faces align to create a full-color head of the
Buddha that smiles at you through the envelope. My client added the line
at the bottom of the page, “when discarding please burn.” After all,
you don’t want to throw the Buddha in the garbage.
About the same time, I received an assignment from the Holocaust
Museum in Houston to design a poster marking their tenth anniversary.
“Don’t make it too dark,” they specified; “we don’t want to frighten
children.” I took the assignment seriously, but I must admit it took me
months to deal with it. Discovering the meaning of the Holocaust is not
designing a cereal box. Someone at the studio gave me a book called Man’s Search for Meaning,
by Victor Frankl a psychotherapist who lived through Auschwitz. At one
point, he realized that, though he had no control over any aspect of his
life, what he ate, what he wore, what he did each day, or anything
else, he had one choice: The choice of how to react to his condition. To
accept it and be crushed, or to transcend it and find meaning in it.
This is perhaps the only meaning of the Holocaust, and it enabled me to
design something that was not a reflection of despair but a tribute to
the human spirit. It’s intent is to elevate and enlarge consciousness in
the way a work of art does through the use of light and form. I used a
quote of Frankl’s as the text for the design although it is not evident
or readable until you are 10 or 12 inches away. He describes the day he
left the camp and how he progressed step by step, until he once again
became a human being.
After finishing the poster, I had a realization. For years, I’ve
wondered how most of the world ignored the Holocaust even though they
knew terrible crimes were being committed against the innocent. How
could people be so callous and unresponsive? I have contempt for such
people. And then I realized with a chill that our time has been marked
by events of incomprehensible brutality and evil, and I have done almost
nothing. I’m speaking of events in Africa.
I must say that all the recent images we have been seeing from the
Gulf Coast—the deaths, the inferno, the people who lost everything, the
helplessness, the despair, the children—are all echoes of the horror in
Africa. It is not coincidental that the victims of Katrina are the
poorest members of our society. Both situations are a poisonous
combination of natural disasters and political indifference.
I am embarrassed by the possibility that another generation will
point at us and say, “How could they have been so callous and
unresponsive?” That thought led me to create a poster that the School of
Visual Arts produced and to be distributed around New York. The
telephone kiosk people voluntarily tripled the number of locations the
school had paid for. I consider this a good sign. The campaign will be
up for the next month all over the city. As I speak, the UN World Summit
is in session in New York as well. Our hope is that it will be seen by
most of the delegates to that summit. Financial aid is essential, but
what is even more significant is a change of human consciousness. We can
participate in this change.
In the course of writing this piece, I’ve also changed my mind again
about my self-designation. “Designer/Citizen” seems like a more
satisfying description. There has been no better time for all of us to
assume this role. We are all at risk, but like Victor Frankl, we can
choose how to react to our circumstances. We can reject the passivity
and narcissism that leads to despair, and choose to participate in the
life of our times. It’s 20 years since the first AIGA conference. Things
have changed, and there is much work to do.
Sylvia Harris was recognized with a 2014 AIGA Medal for an unerring commitment to using design to improve the civic experience and for influencing a generation of designers as a teacher and mentor.
Section: Inspiration -
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