I Love Milton Glaser

Thoughts on design education from a master teacher.

Milton Glaser has spent the better part of his long and illustrious design career teaching. He began 42 years ago and has seen student attitudes, styles, and tools change significantly since then. Through it all, though, Glaser’s moral and ethical standards have remained unchanged. He continues to teach at the School of Visual Arts, in New York, where his keen cultural insights continue to inspire new generations of designers.

On students today:
“Earlier generations were more concerned about beauty and aesthetics, about accomplishing extraordinary things. Around twenty years ago a change occurred when the concern shifted to a vocational line. Everybody was thinking about how to make more money. Now, in the face of a struggling economy, there’s been a return to beauty and excellence. But professional life doesn’t seem enough for them. The prospect of building a business, making a good living, and having your work in the art director’s show still leaves them with a sense of vacancy. They want to feel that what they’re doing has a larger purpose. We all have to make a living, all want to be esteemed by our colleagues. But at a certain point you want it to add up to something bigger. Young people now are searching for something.”

On artists and educators:
“There’s a wonderful book called The Gift, where an anthropologist talks about a custom in one society where gifts are exchanged, but they cannot be kept. They have to be passed on. The idea behind it is that everyone involved in that process—either receiving the gift or passing it on—becomes engaged in a relationship. If you give something to someone, they have a relationship to you. They pass it onto someone else, and that person also has a relationship to you. For me, artists and educators perform this function in society, creating what I would call a receptiveness to community.”

On the lost art of drawing:
“It seems to be coming back. Why? From a visual point of view, drawing is the most fundamental way of understanding the world in front of you. There is nothing more direct. It is the way you understand what you’re looking at. I always tell students that when I look at someone and think, ‘I have to draw that person,’ I’m seeing them for the first time. The physiological act of drawing makes you conscious of the visual world. And in pragmatic terms, when you want to show something—How about this idea?—if you can’t draw, then you’re always using pre-existing material. This is a kind of built-in difficulty. You’re always looking for stuff that already exists to demonstrate what it is you want to do. Clearly that’s not the best way to start anything.”

On “isms” and doctrines:
“In terms of beauty, I never understood why designers felt they had to believe in anything. Because one lesson of history is, even the most contradictory movements turn out to be beautiful. You can’t trust style. It’s only a device for encoding material in a certain form, so why develop a sense of allegiance? It’s a kind of design fundamentalism. I mean, the old slogan ‘Less is more’ was bullshit. What does that mean? Sometimes less is more; sometimes less is less. A Persian rug is not less beautiful than a solid-color rug.”

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