The Designer/Citizen

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 international terrorism.

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 human survival.

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 violated?

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.

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