It was a privilege to be asked to conduct this interview with Milton Glaser who has been a liberating force in the fields of design and illustration. He taught so many of us to take risks, explore new mediums and fall in love with the professions of illustration and design. Affectionately smudged and torn, his books served as my teachers and I share them with my students and even my children for their essays, stories, philosophies and inspired imagery. About eight years ago, I boldly called on Milton for advice when we were building The Illustration Conference, knowing of his long association with The International Design Conference in Aspen (since 1972, president 1990-91). Not only did he give me the advice I was seeking, but he treated me as his equal; I don't know why this surprised me, for I have learned that he is one of the most generous, kind, positive and curious people that I have ever been honored to meet.
I was introduced to Milton’s work during my senior year at the University of Illinois; my professor, Carl Regehr, designed a course based on the methodologies in his first book, Milton Glaser Graphic Design. Regehr encrypted the methods of that book into the simplest of forms with stick figure drawings; not unlike a children’s book (he must have really wanted us to get the messages of that book into our heads) and asked us to use it as a basis for developing our concepts for a poster assignment on “Man the Explorer.” At that moment, how I approached my work changed forever and a foundation was laid for critical thinking skills for problem solving, both professionally and personally.
Glaser, sometimes referred to as the embodiment of American graphic design, still works four full days a week running an active eight-person (four designers, four office personnel) studio and continues to produce an astounding amount of work in many fields of design. As the interview came to a close, I was left pondering all the titles that have referred to him over the years: our “Yoda,” our “Joseph Campbell,” “the greatest living graphic designer of our time” and simply as “Milton.” These are all reverent titles, but there is no title to describe what Milton is for he remains the kind and generous renaissance man so many love and admire. “Man the Explorer” may be an apt title, for he is still on a quest for the unknown with an insatiable appetite for beauty, work, awe and knowledge.
CA: Your first compendium, Milton Glaser Graphic Design, offered artists and designers a revolutionary and concise way of understanding the vocabulary of image-making as well as a whole new way of solving visual problems. It had a revolutionary impact on the graphic design and illustration professions and was a tremendous gift to all of us. What gifts did this book bring to you?
MG: It was basically a way of doing two things. One, I was able to clarify my own thoughts on the subject and actually find a way of expressing ideas in a literary way that I had never really done. A lot of the ideas that I used in teaching had not been put into any form and in the process of doing the book I only made it clearer to myself. The other thing is that it became a public document and I reached a lot of people that I would not have been able to reach any other way. I did not think it would have wide interest. Truthfully. I thought it was going to be like most books on graphic design, a small circulation product that people would find if professionally interested in the subject, but it went beyond that, and it has been kicking around forever.
CA: It was a tremendous textbook for professors, at least it was for me.
MG: I never thought of it that way. I did think of it being aimed at students and professors who wanted to be clearer about what they were doing.
CA: I understand that some of your influences were Picasso, your former teacher Morandi and your teacher from Cooper Union, Nicolas Marsicano. What did they offer you?
MG: Picasso was a man who wanted to know everything, do everything, own everything, have all the money. He wanted all of the fame, all of the women. He was a man with a totally unreasonable appetite and almost achieved all of his goals. He was driven by an extraordinary persistence for egocentricity—he was a terrible man in many regards because like a lot of people of great accomplishments he was enormously self-centered and narcissistic and had many women.
CA: (laughing) ...So what did you learn from him?
MG: His incredible willingness to abandon his own accomplishments, which I thought was [the] most important thing you can learn from Picasso; this incredible desire to give up what you know and always move toward uncharted waters. That ambition, is what I thought was extraordinary.
CA: What about Morandi? His work is so austere and still as compared to Picasso’s.
MG: He was the opposite. He didn’t want women. He wanted nothing. He didn’t want money. He didn’t want fame. He didn’t want anything that Picasso wanted. He only wanted to do his work and to teach. He taught high school kids etching. He would teach, go home and paint, his whole life was circumscribed by that. I like to tell this story about him: If you wanted to buy a painting from Morandi he would take down a small canvas, he would write your name and address on the back, he would charge $200 for it. Years later, when he had finished the painting, he would turn it over and then send it to you.
CA: So you had a real duality of influences?
MG: It is the ying and yang...you realize that everything is defined by its opposite.
CA: Tell me about Nicolas Marsicano.
MG: I just got a postcard from him actually. He is having a show in SoHo. He never achieved the success of the Abstract Expressionist leaders, but he was in that genre. As a teacher he was totally open-minded about the way he was teaching. If you wanted to paint like a Flemish Master, he would say let’s look at van Eyck. If you wanted to paint like an Impressionist, he would think about that. He had no ideological stance that said what he believed was more important than what you believed. But he would accept your point of view and say, “Let’s make it better.” A great model for teaching. I never found many teachers like that.
CA: Who else in your life has served as one of your “muses”—then and now?
MG: Many people, both on a personal and professional level. I have had many extraordinary, rich relationships. Silas Rhodes, the director of the School of Visual Arts. Also, working with Dr. Shirley Strum Kenny at Stony Brook University, who was enormously supportive.
CA: Tell me more about that client.
MG: We have worked with her a long time. We documented part of that in my last book, Art is Work. We did anything that involved visuals in all aspects of campus life: communication, interiors, signage, advertising, products and publications. We did all of the communications for the University and still do. She is there only until the end of the year...it will be a sad parting for me. But our responsibility was to act not only as the hands where the decisions had already been made, but to objectify what had to be done.
CA: Let’s talk about your new book Drawing is Thinking.
MG: The idea is to experience the book as a melodic line instead of as a narrative, like a comic book without the words. The idea of the book was connections to be made intuitively and subconsciously and so there is one narrative that goes throughout. One image moves to the next one in some kind of relationship. And there is a secondary thing that happens when the facing pages comment on each other.
CA: (paging through the book) Yes, you definitely go into a dream space and just let your imagination roam, being that there are no words. I really like that. This is beautiful!
MG: I came to a decision not too long ago: That in your mind, the experience of art and the experience of meditation are very related; that they each free you from the incessant chatter of the brain that you can't control and allow you to experience reality without the interference of judgment. When you meditate you basically stop judging and, in the act of not judging, you can find that you see clearer, because judgment is an impediment to perception. The idea in the book is to have an experience like that—where the relationships are not literary but where they are implicit...and where your brain moves them. The brain has to be moved to actions and what moves the brain to action are puzzles and difficulty. You have to activate the brain.
CA: Did you consult neuroscientists on this as well?
MG: One of my best friends is Gerald Edleman, who now heads neuroscience at Scripps Institute in La Jolla, but I have been interested in how the brain works for many years. Art has a role in survival and I never was able to quite figure out what that role was, but now I think it is attentiveness. The Buddhists talk about attention, which means seeing without precondition. When you are meditating you are in a state of attention. And I think in the presence of art, you also are in a state of attentiveness. That means paying attention to where you are and understanding your reality. So then you can understand why attentiveness is related to human survival—being aware of where you are and what you are doing. And if that is the case, then I thought, there is the other component: beauty.
CA: What is the role of beauty?
MG: Beauty is a trick of nature to move us toward attentiveness in the same way that sexual desire is a trick to move us toward producing children. The aesthetic seems to be in our genetic code. Nature used attentiveness.
CA: What do you think the future of beauty is?
MG: It doesn’t go away. There is an argument of what beauty is. We respond as a species; we have always responded to beauty all through history, whatever the standard was. I think that is the role of the aesthetic. Because it is all related to how the body functions; you cannot separate the mind from the body or the body from the mind.
CA: I had this revelation in the last body of work that I did that was centered around beauty, searching for beauty and preserving it.
MG: But if you don’t think beauty is the aim, it changes your perception. It seems to be that in most of the philosophy around art, beauty was the objective and I don't think this is true. Beauty is the means by which you move towards attentiveness. And art does have its purpose and that is for survival.
CA: From what I know you draw continually in social settings and when you travel. Is drawing a natural or intentional response to how you interpret your world?
MG: I have always drawn. It has always been the center of my activity. I always thought that drawing was the fundamental instrument to understanding form. In professional life, they separate drawing as an activity for illustrators. But from my point of view, drawing is essential to anyone that puts something together.
CA: Do you think that computer tools have made graphic design and illustration “public skills” like writing? There was a time when skills with tools made one an artist immediately. Can training and experience overtake talent now?
MG: That is too general of a question and has to be more localized. One thing is the reason you draw, and a limitation of the computer. Drawing illuminates the brain. It activates the brain through action. The act of drawing, moving the hand in response to a thought, is an essential part of brain development. There is a wonderful book, The Hand by Frank Wilson. Interesting facts: If you prevent a child from drawing when the child is young—just take the materials away—the brain develops differently. The brain develops in a certain way through the act of drawing that allows it to be changed. The creation of the model that exists in the mind in a material form, is the same way that the Suzuki violin geniuses play by trying an imitation method. There must be something there that changes the brain. So that is why, in a physical way, not doing that, seems to me, is an impediment to certain kinds of brain development.
I use the computer all day, but never touch it. But I work with other people who do and the great thing about working on the computer with others, is that it is collaborative, i.e., trying out colors, “I like that blue and not the red, etc.” It’s like a dance when you use the computer that way. And it is a benefit that something has been added to your point of view. Of course, you have to like and respect the person you are working with.
CA: You recommended Lewis Hyde’s book The Gift to me a few years ago. He claims that all of the arts are interrelated: music, dance, art, design, writing and even cooking, and that art pacifies culture and creates commonality with the passing on of their gifts. What purpose do you think artists play in society and what are the barriers that keep us from playing that role?
MG: One of the most profound barriers is the economic system where art has been transformed into a materialist object. John Berger said there can’t be any art in our time because it is impossible to think about without its material value, and the purpose of art is not about material value. All you ever hear is $40 million spent for Jeff Koons or somebody and then you realize, if that is the point of interest, you can’t examine art without its relationship to culture or its desire or needs. So now you can say that the interest in this pacifying role has basically been replaced by the idea of its preciousness. When the culture is saying that, it is very difficult to produce art. Fundamentally, it is always the same though, art functions to provide commonality.
CA: So how do you see illustration integrating with graphic design in the future—in terms of the profession of illustration?
MG: Illustration has a very discrete purpose, and it is not produced by people who desire to play that role in society necessarily.
CA: Well, they are storytellers.
MG: It really depends on what kind of illustration, whether it is for a children’s book, magazine, etc. Usually the purpose of the illustration, if you are working for a commercial organization, is intended to produce a particular result linked to sales. So I think that you can play that role in society.
CA: Do you think it is possible to be a painter and be a storyteller or to be a visionary and draw people into an idea?
MG: From my point of view, I am more interested in what you can’t tell a story about. Which is to say, the overtones of our subconscious, the connections that are made below the level of narrative. For instance, when I was designing The Rueben Museum of Tibetan Art, I tried to convince them not to put a sign explaining everything about the painting next to the painting because reading literal material destroys the experience of looking at the painting. The more you know about the narrative, the less you are capable of experiencing what you are looking at.
CA: That’s true, the purpose of art is to bring your own experience and interpret it in your own way. One of the most important things you said to me about four years ago was that if I get an idea, I should not wait too long to execute it. This proactive comment became a force in my life and really motivated me to accomplish a lot more. When did this become your mantra and have you ever fought procrastination?
MG: Oh yeah, sure, I procrastinate.
CA: Well, you are extremely prolific.
MG: But when I work, I really work.
CA:That is what I loved about your philosophy in your second compendium, Art is Work, which highlights many of your essays, conversations and speeches as well as showing a comprehensive collection of work throughout your career.
MG: I think it represents me well.
CA: You have built a lot of partnerships and you collaborate quite a bit. You have been able to achieve independence as a creator while in the context of commerce and in the context of a group. What personal and professional attributes do you feel are necessary to be successful at convincing others of your ideas?
MG: It is a complicated thing. First, the work itself has to be right. It has to answer to the needs of your client. Then you also want to try to do it in terms where it is a benefit to you and the public. You have the responsibility to the people you are talking to, to do no harm and encourage them to see things in a different way when you can. Finally, reflect on your own capabilities and sense of righteousness. I found this quote that I have been using a lot over the last year from the Roman philosopher Horace: “The purpose of art is to inform and delight.” It is to inform and delight, not to persuade and delight and there is a difference between informing someone and persuading someone. Persuasion weakens people, but informing strengthens them. It is a very profound distinction. It is also another reason why it is hard for me to work in advertising and I don't do it very often. Ultimately, the profession is bound by its persuasive intent, but you have to think about what that means.
CA: What do you think are some of the most defining experiences of your life?
MG: Oh, sweetie I don’t think that way about anything...
CA: Do you think of yourself as a legend?
MG: No, I don’t know what that means.
CA: Well, who are some of the legends before you that you admire?
MG: Paul Rand invented a new vocabulary for us all; I admire so much that came out of the Arts and Crafts movement; so many great practitioners like Leo Lionni, whom I knew; and there are still very good people in the field.
CA: As graphic design evolves, I am curious what you think about the budding field of cultural anthropology as it is being added to many schools as part of their curriculum.
MG: Look, you have to be interested in everything in the world. The problem with graphic design is that the practitioners are too insular, too narrow, not literate. They don’t read...and what you find in life is that the most exhilarating thing is to find ideas that have never been thought of and they don’t come from graphic design. I mean the nature of perception doesn’t come out of graphic design. All you get is a bunch of rules. This whole idea that you can spend your life in a professional context and be only interested in that is brainless. The interesting thing in life is to discover things about the nature of language, the nature of human affection, how the brain works, what happened in history... Geez, you can’t be an idiot all your life and just think that you are going to learn everything you need out of personal practice.
CA: So I am curious, have you thought of writing an autobiography with a biographer?
MG: No, why in the world would I want that?
CA: Because I think society needs another Joseph Campbell.
MG: You know, I think my work is my autobiography. I mean my life has been very boring.
CA: (laughing) You can’t possibly think that. Well, you have had tremendous staying power.
MG: Well, that’s true!
CA: And what sustains that?
MG: Curiosity. An active mind. Reading and thinking. I love to think, I love to read, I love to talk about ideas. What else is there in life for god’s sake? I mean, what are you going to do...knock out a couple of illustrations when somebody calls you on the phone? Come on, wake up...
CA:You enjoy all of these people around you. The solitary life of an illustrator probably didn't attract you.
MG: No I love working in the studio, but I also love weekends doing things by myself. I love both.
CA: Do you spend time away for your personal work...in the country?
MG: I do nothing except work. I go to the country. I might have a job that I can't get done in the office.
CA: Do you have some recent things that you want to share?
MG: We are designing a movie theater for the School of Visual Arts. We are doing rugs as a studio project, which are being made in Tibet, through a company called Lapchi. Also, we have been involved in a successful ad campaign for the Templeton Foundation called “The Big Question,” as well as a campaign for The Big Picture Schools, a group of alternative high schools with an individual approach toward students.
CA: What challenges do you foresee in regards to the protection and respect of authorship?
MG: I used to do a lecture on imitation, influence and plagiarism. And the problem is that these are all terms not easily defined. Influence we celebrate and everybody is interested in influence as part of the flow of human culture. Imitation we are ambivalent about, yet we still admire it in many cultures. For instance in the Chinese culture, if you can imitate something it is held in the same regard as the original and in other places where the material value is not the first thing that matters. It is the spiritual value that is more valued. Lewis Hyde said that art’s purpose is to create an atmosphere of generosity in terms of the recipient. A guy I studied many years ago, Albert Rudolph said works of art are containers of the energy of the maker and they can never be destroyed and what you see in art is the energy of the maker and that is what you get and that's what you respond to. That seems a very vague definition of art but you can't really improve on it.ca