An Interview with Milton Glaser

An educator offers further wisdom about ethics and the design practice.

Martin Pedersen: You talked about how students today are searching for meaning, calling it “a return to beauty and excellence.” That’s a significant cultural shift, which touches on that constant struggle between design and business, art and business. How do you teach that mediation?
Milton Glaser:
I try not to be overly ideological about teaching, but I believe that thinking about the consequences of your work-the issue of ethics-is essential. Since we’re specifically involved in the transmission of cultural ideas-ideas about value-then we have to examine the meaning of what we’re proposing to our students. So I try to suggest that a designer’s role is one in which we have to be at least conscious of the consequences of what we transmit to others.

MP: How do you do that in a class setting?
MG:I do it by raising the question-what is ethics in design?-and then opening up the conversation. I try to keep the discussion Socratic, so everybody has to question. I did this piece for AIGA on the “12 Steps to Hell” that was an articulation of something I had been thinking about for a long time. In class I ask: Where would you draw the line? What would you be willing to do? The issue is not about telling people what they should be doing, but rather trying to make people conscious of what they’re doing. There’s a difference. And what you hope will happen is that a consciousness develops which relates what you do to the society around you. It’s a very old-fashioned idea: what you do has an effect on the world you live in. And if you’re concerned about the state of the world, there is no escape from the fact that you’re participating in it.

MP: Are students receptive to that?
Very much so. I’m always surprised by the degree of acceptance. On the other hand, I’m also surprised that there are some students who when you ask them if they would knowingly participate in an activity or an advertising that might cause someone’s death they say, yes, they would be willing to do it. That is a shocking thing, but often professional life has this kind of outline to it, where you don’t question the consequences of things. You simply do your job. And doing your job means following directions. If you have a cigarette account, you work on the cigarette account.

MP: Right, but most projects and products fall into a much grayer zone.
Of course. The reason that questions of ethics are difficult to deal with is because they’re often ambiguous. There’s no great, clear answer to these things. So much of it is simply a matter of individual consciousness, a perception of your own role in life.

MP: How does that transmit itself to questions of form? Or are these issues separate from form?
Over the last 15 or 20 years I’ve been collecting African art, and I’m very interested in African culture. One of the great things that the Africans observe is that although they may not have a word for art, they have a word for beauty. The word for beauty is often the word for good; the idea of the good and the idea of the beautiful are linked together by the language. And I’ve always believed that the idea of beauty and the idea of aesthetics are very much linked to a social benefit. That the species couldn’t survive without art, because art is a kind of mediating device in human culture. People need it to survive.

MP: Why do you teach?
I enjoy teaching. I love the act of being in front of a class. It makes me feel good. I have no other reason to teach. If I didn’t look forward to it, I wouldn’t do it anymore. But I find it gives me a lot of energy and makes me feel useful. For a large part of my life, feeling useful has been a dominate characteristic of what rewards me, whether it’s teaching or making things or being socially active.

MP: Let’s talk about drawing. You’ve always been somebody whose brain is wired to your hand. There’s now been a whole generation, and even a second generation, who have been much less wedded to that. Are you sensing a return to the hand?
I think so. There is no greater instrument for understanding the visual world than the hand and a pencil, because the idea of creating or recreating form produces a different neurological pattern than using a computer to find things. To understand the meaning of form-what a shape is, what an edge is, what space is-there’s nothing more instructive than the act of drawing. Why has it been abandoned? Partially it’s been given up because it’s so difficult-and also the advent of modernism introduced a whole new set of values that were not necessarily useful (some of them were, some of them were not). But like every set of principles you had to pick your way through them. Still the physiological act of trying to represent the world through drawing is enormously instructive.

MP: Can drawing be taught?
You can teach anyone to draw in a representational way. You cannot teach anyone to draw expressively. But you can set the stage for it. There are different kinds of drawing. Drawing for understanding is different than the drawing for demonstration. People also confuse drawing with illustration. Or think that the only people that have to learn to draw in this era are people who want to illustrate.

MP: If you could change one fundamental thing about the way design is taught, what would it be?
I would change the perception of the purpose of design that is deeply imbedded in design education. Because it’s linked to art, design is often taught as a means as expressing yourself. So you see with students, particularly young people, they come out with no idea that there is an audience. The first thing I try to teach them in class is you start with the audience. If you don’t know who you’re talking to, you can’t talk to anybody.

MP: So how is an audience different from a client?
There are usually three participants: a client, a designer, and an audience. Each of them has different needs. What you hope to achieve is an integration of all those needs. The client needs to sell more of his biscuits; the designer wants to do something fresh and original that also sells his biscuits; and the audience wants to feel that what you tell them about the biscuits is significant and will move them to action. So they’re three legs of the stool. What you try to do is get a little bit for everybody. To some degree the reconciliation of ethics, beauty and purpose is just one thing. The game is how you reconcile what some may see as contradictory impulses and make that all come together in a singular response to the problem.

MP: You’ve talked a lot about clients and how your best work has always been with people you actually like. Is this still true for you?
Yes. In continuing relationships with clients the only way that you can accomplish anything is by a sense of affection, by having a client like and trust you, and vice versa. Otherwise you beat your way up hill each time. You have to respect your client, your client has to respect you. But beyond respect, what you want to feel is that you can go out to lunch with somebody and have a nice time without thinking about your business.

MP: Is that the sort of invisible glue that holds it together even when you’re not working on the project?
I think it is. It’s very chemical. People just like each other. I can’t do good work with people I don’t like. And now, increasingly, I get very unhappy if I have to work with people I don’t like, even if I’m professionally interested in solving their problem. I just find I’m not working on all cylinders.

MP: How do you answer the student who says, “That’s easy for you to do, you’re Milton Glaser”?
I’ve done it all my life. And it is easier for me to say. I don’t know if I’d say it if I was totally desperate, out on the street, and had a child to send to school. I don’t know what I would do, because that’s not the life I lead. But it is pretty much what I’ve always done. Incidentally, even though some people feel like they don’t have choices about it, designers usually have more choices about projects than they think. I think you’ll find a lot of very good practitioners who live their life that way.

MP: We’ve all been trying to figure out where we are in graphic design now. It was clearer in the early ’90s when David Carson was making all the text unreadable that we were in that moment. I don’t know what moment we’re in now. You see a lot of student work that copies what’s out there. What are you seeing at the moment?
There’s a lot of stuff going on. I’m not sure there’s a mainstream in design, because we have access to all of history. There is a tremendous awareness of how to do things that didn’t exist in the beginning of the field. The field has become closer to-post-modern isn’t the word I want to use-to the idea that you can be more eclectic. You don’t have to be completely ideological.

MP: A lot of modernism was quite ideological.
Very much so, but that was also a misunderstanding of modernism. The ideology was one manifestation of modernism. After all, modernism started with art nouveau. The modernist movement had nothing to do with geometry or Swiss grids or anything else. But one of the things about it was, speaking educationally, it was easy to teach. All forms that can be codified and simplified and made academic are easy to teach. So everyone picked up on that, and it was very hip for a while to be speaking this new language. But it turned out to be not always true.

MP: You’re allowed a public role as a designer, but then you can still draw as an artist.
I’m doing a wall for the Rubin Museum in SoHo. It has something to do with drawing, but it’s far removed from drawing. It has something to do with graphic design, but it’s a step away from graphic design.

MP: Students today seem drawn to that kind of multi-disciplinary approach.
I think they like the idea, but one cannot overstate the difficulty involved in it. The nature of professional life is to keep you limited in what you do-for you to specialize. That’s the way you develop a reputation. It’s the professional path. You get to be the best within the category. You get known for something. It’s very hard to switch around, because people don’t like to be confused about what it is you do. The professional criteria does not encourage you to broaden your practice. So while a lot of people call themselves generalists, what they really mean is they’re in marketing. So it’s not easy. Also, people are not necessarily disposed to doing more than one thing. Some people do one thing, some do a lot of things. It’s the old hedgehog and fox argument. The only thing you have to watch out for is that you’re not a hedgehog working as a fox, or a fox working as a hedgehog.

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