Milton Glaser Questions Design’s Relationship with Art—and Finds an Answer

For Centennial Voices, part of AIGA's Centennial celebration of the past, present and future of design, we've invited industry leaders to write short essays that spark conversations within the design community and beyond by sharing personal experiences, reflecting on design history, examining the practice today or imagining the role of designers in the years to come.

The ability to make things is a gift. The ability to make things beautifully is a blessing.

I can no longer remember or attribute my most frequently quoted definition of design: “The act of moving from an existing condition to a preferred one.” The sentence itself well exemplifies its subject. It’s direct, reductive, clear and understandable. It gracefully avoids engaging the several thousand other issues that rise to the surface when the subject comes up. Since no human activity can disengage itself from design issues, such as effectiveness, style, money, appropriateness, understandability, originality and memorability all swarm around the subject, blurring and confusing its outlines.

Since I was a child, my own recurring question about design has been its relationship to art (beauty). At this late point in my life, I perceive them as two separate intentions that under the right circumstances can be brought together. These occasions are to be celebrated. Design and Art are independent coordinates that provide their greatest satisfactions when experienced simultaneously.

The purpose of Design is to accomplish an objective task. The purpose of Art is to help the mind understand what is real. Every once in a while, if we’re lucky and persistent, we stumble onto a solution that embodies both desires. What happiness!

About the Author: To many, Milton Glaser is the embodiment of American graphic design …. 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. * * Excerpted from CSD, August/September, 1999 — Milton Glaser: Always One Jump Ahead by Patrick Argent