Interview By Ella Rue
Interview first appeared in UCDA’s Designer magazine (Vol. 33, Issue 1, Spring 2008)
Milton Glaser was born June 26, 1929, in New York. He studied (1948-51) at the Cooper Union Art School and (1952-53) as a Fulbright scholar. He attended the Academy of Fine Arts, in Bologna, Italy, under Giorgio Morandi. He is one of the single most celebrated and prolific designers in history. From 1954 to 1974 Glaser was the founder and president of the Push Pin studio (with Seymour Chwast, Reynold Ruffins, and Edward Sorel) in New York, and from 1955 to 1974 the editor and co-art director of the Push Pin Graphic magazine. In 1968 Glaser and Clay Felker founded New York Magazine. Glaser was president and design director until 1977 (as well as its “underground gourmet”-writing about good, cheap restaurants in New York). In 1974 Glaser founded his current studio, Milton Glaser Inc., in Manhattan.
The work produced at his Manhattan studio has encompassed a wide range of design disciplines—print graphics; identity programs for corporate and institutional marketing purposes; logos (among them the “I ‘heart’ NY” logo for the New York state department of commerce, that became by far the most frequently imitated logo design in human history). He has designed and illustrated more than 300 posters, including the Bob Dylan iconographic poster for CBS records; environmental and interior design, including: exhibitions; interiors and exteriors of restaurants; shopping malls; supermarkets; hotels; and other retail and commercial environments. From 1975 to 1977 Milton Glaser was the design director of Village Voice magazine.
From the beginning of his career, Milton Glaser has been an active member of both the design and education communities, as well as exceptionally generous with his time and talents to charitable worthwhile causes. He continues to teach design at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Milton Glaser has been the subject of solo exhibitions at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; the Lincoln Center Gallery, New York; the Houghton Gallery at the Cooper Union, New York; the AIGA gallery in New York; and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. His work is included in the permanent collections of many international art museums. Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum chose Milton Glaser to receive the 2004 national design award.
His designs are far reaching and although his humility defies people to admire him, his commitment to continually work to aid the public good is most admirable. Despite his disdain for professional admiration, he remains one of the lasting greats of modern design. Milton allowed me the unparalleled honor of coming to his studio to speak to him about his vast experiences in the world of design and we spoke about his commitment to philanthropic work, and his belief in the need for people to commit themselves to being “good citizens” of the world.
Milton has always understood the need to offer a visual voice to organizations that might not otherwise have the ability to make their voice heard. He firmly believes in social change, and makes it evident in the work he does, ranging from work done for the United Nations, to messages supporting peace. Milton’s ethics and morals are his compass, and his commitment to philanthropy is unsurpassed.
Photo credits. Top (left to right): Scott Reinhard, Brad Hamann, book cover by Milton Glaser, unknown. Bottom (left to right): Paul Underwood, Ella Rue, Brad Hamann, Neo-Futura font designed by Milton Glaser, Julien “Julius” Mourlon.
What follows is the conversation I had with Milton Glaser. I hope it offers an insight into the soul of an artist, an illustrator, and a design legend, but more so my hope is it might inspire the reader to work with a similar ethic; to commit to working towards social, political and/or personal change.
Q: Do you think pro bono work can be integrated into a daily work environment? If so, how?
A: Well, first of all there has to be the will to do it. The question whether it can be, of course it’s obvious, that yes you can. But then the question begs to what extent and how successfully, and what are the real situations that people can choose to integrate it. But the question can it be integrated, is clearly answerable, yes it can.
Q: What contemporary designers inspire you and why?
A: I wouldn’t want to single them out, because there are many, but I also can’t say that my inspiration comes from contemporary designers generally speaking.
Q: What does inspire you?
A: History. Continuity. And almost everything else one experiences in daily life.
Q: Who or what has inspired you with regards to doing work for the public good? (be that pro bono or philanthropic work)
A: Oh, basically it’s a response to my personal history growing up during a time of activism in the United States with the emergence of the labor union, in the sense of the “utopian society” and the ideals of social reform. All of which was a great part of my earliest childhood; growing up in an immigrant community of Eastern European refugees who had the idea that there could be a better society. They were sometimes communist, socialists, Trotskyites, but what they had in common was the idea of the perfectibility of the human condition, particularly through social reform. I think that’s basically the context I grew up in, which was basically the idea that things could get better if the people put their mind to it. I never lost that sense.
Q: When did you start doing philanthropic and/or pro bono work?
A: Seems to me ever since I started my career there was always good causes that had to be represented that had no money. Since the early fifties when I started my career.
Q: How about your family? Did they have a great impact on your decision to commit to doing work for the public good?
A: Well, yes, because I came from a Jewish family. There is a philosophy in the Jewish tradition that if one were to examine the roots for the idea that we are all responsible for our brothers/sisters/others it is very much ingrained in religious history.
Q: Can you speak a bit about your history with pro bono work? I know some of your pro-bono work, including possibly your most famous logo: “I ‘heart’ NY” as well as “I ‘heart’ NY More than Ever”... I imagine based on your oeuvre of work there have been many others. Can you list some of your other examples, and can you explain why you chose to do these projects pro-bono?
A: Oh that’s too complicated a question to wrap my mind around. I have always done pro bono work for peace groups, the United Nations, for Health initiatives, most recently for Darfur, issues involving Africa. We are now working on a campaign for Iraqi refugees. I’ve been doing (pro bono work) for a very long time. It’s what I believe in.
Q: Do you feel artists and designers today do more or less pro bono work than in years past?
A: I would say most recently, say in the last ten years there has been an interest in the design community to participate in pro bono, socially engaged work. Certainly much more so than when I entered the (design) field, when the idea was being a “professional” and being a professional meant you asked no questions about the meaning of your work, you just did the job. I think more recently everyone has become more cognizant to the fact that we are all related to the others in our community, and I think that idea is a growing idea in the design community.
Above left: What Happens in Darfur Happens to Us. Designed by Milton Glaser, this poster was produced for the International Rescue Committee, to raise funds and bring awareness to the terrible situation in Darfur. Above center: We Are All African. This poster was produced for the School of Visual Arts to help improve conditions in Africa and fight world poverty (visit one.org). Both posters (and many more) are available at miltonglaser.com.
Q: Do you think that is relative to the political climate?
A: It certainly has something to do with the political climate. It has something to do with growing concerns about global warming, and the growth of ecological concerns.
Q: Do you think you would be able to identify what you feel your greatest gift has been to others?
A: No, well, maybe, I think I have been a good teacher, and I think through teaching I have taught my students not to believe what anyone tells you, including me, but to instead learn to understand the world by observing it. That may be the most significant thing I have done.
Q: Do you feel your design work has impacted society?
A: I don’t know if it has or not. But I would like to think it has.
Q: Ideally, how would you like to think it has?
A: I think people who make things have a different relationship to the culture than people who control things. I think there is something about the act of making things that is on the side of eros (life), as opposed to the side of death. I think there is something very affirmative about making things. It is a way of affecting people in their own imagination.
Q: In a society where we are barraged and bombarded with a myriad of media messages, what responsibilities do designers have? What do you feel specifically is your responsibility with regards to society, or within your community?
A: Well, the responsibility of anybody and everybody is the responsibility of citizenship. If you were to ask me if the role of a designer differs from that of a good citizen than I would have to say “no.” But then you would have to ask what is the role of a good citizen. And I think the role of a good citizen is to partake in the life of his or her times. So it’s moving any culture or society towards a more satisfying life.
Q: Why do you feel it is important to do philanthropic work?
A: Basically, the most important difference between doing it and not doing it, is I feel better when I do it.
Q: Where are your boundaries? Specifically, are there clients you would not accept because of moral or ethical reasons? If so, what are they and why?
A: Yes, all the time. Clients who I believe that in aiding them would cause harm. Anything that is detrimental to people’s lives.
Q: Design is about making and packaging things and ideas. Historically, design has been seen as a force for changing the world. How do you feel design and/or art has changed the world? Or maybe more locally; society, a community, or even an individual?
A: Too complex of a question. The separation between art and design is very complex. Design is essentially the process of planning, so you cannot really separate the idea of design and the idea of planning. So it’s really impossible to separate that from the world.
Q: Can you offer any local examples?
A: Certainly, the “I ‘heart’ NY” campaign certainly changed things.
Q: That’s true. How have you seen the “I ‘heart’ NY” campaign evolve in New York?
A: It appears every day with great frequency, and it has been used to fulfill its original intention to make the city attractive; to make people feel good about being here; or attract people from overseas and generate a sense of commitment and morale to the people who live here.
Q: What do you feel about all of the knock offs? The “I ‘heart’ my Chihuahua,” and the like?
A: (smiling) I guess it’s an indication that it’s found an audience.
Above: UCDA’s Milton Glaser Best of Show Award. At the 1976 UCDA Conference, attendees learned that office supplies used by the conference planning volunteers cost a grand total of $19.42. The treasurer’s report also documented that the welcome dinner set the budget back $38.65. But the highlight of the conference happened when Milton Glaser, who had given an inspiring talk earlier in the conference, presented the Best of Show Award at the ending session. Glaser selected the catalogue from Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, as the winner. The two-person shop consisted of a director of publications, Ann Bennett, and graphic designer Joe Erceg. Bennett was particularly proud that award-winning material could be created with limited resources and a small staff. “Two people can do this,” she stressed. Winning the Milton Glaser Best of Show was “the greatest honor.” Photo credit: Hugh S. Tessendorf.
Q: Do you feel that designers and/or artists can galvanize others to take action? If so, how?
A: Sometimes. The issue in design is how you enter it into the culture, and you have to be very imaginative; not only with the concept behind your design, but also how to make it public. I’ve been successful at doing that from time to time. I did the “I ‘heart’ NY more than ever” and I managed to get someone from the Daily News to take it to the editor who then used it as a front and back cover for the Daily News, and then it became visible a million times the next day. Basically, that’s what you have to do. You have to figure out the methodology for entering it into the culture. But that’s more of a design problem.
Q: Of all of your achievements, what do you feel is your crowning one to date? And what makes it so important?
A: Duration. I’ve been around for a long time. I come to work every morning thinking there is something new to learn. I suppose that’s my crowning achievement.
Q: Are there other designers you admire for their philanthropic work?
A: Stefan Sagmeister is doing some very interesting and significant work. But I hate to make a list, because what I would end up doing is omitting dozens of people just because they didn’t come to mind or because I didn’t have enough time to think about the subject. Plus, I am not really certain if I understand the question.... if I think a designer is dong significant work, what does that have to do with anything?
Q: Has there been any particular moment in your teaching career that has made a great impact on you? Do you feel the students have the same opportunity to teach you as you do to teach them?
A: Well, I don’t believe in that concept. It’s a banal observation of people in the teaching profession to say: “I learn as much from the students as they do from me.” I just don’t think that’s true. If you are a good teacher, the most important thing is the situation you create for others. You learn something from teaching, for sure, for one thing you learn how to clarify your ideas, and you also learn how to make things understandable. But you don’t necessarily learn from the students, as though they have ideas that you haven’t thought of. Learning really comes from the fundamental act of trying to communicate clearly.
Q: So what has been the most powerful experience of teaching for you?
A: The most durable and powerful experience is when you see that something that you are tying to convey is perceived by someone else and there is an awakening process, and someone actually understands something that you have been trying to convey. That is, by far, the most thrilling part of teaching.
Q: I imagine it keeps you young.
A: (smiling) I don’t know about that. There doesn’t seem to be anything around that can keep me young...