MILTON GLASER DESIGN ICON.
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Famous designer and author Milton Glaser recently celebrated his 88th birthday. A few years back, we had the pleasure of interviewing him about his long career in the industry, including creating arguably one of the world’s most iconic logos – we’re rerunning it here, along with our best wishes to this influential designer.
When it comes to achievements, Milton Glaser has certainly racked up an impressive CV.
He has created pieces of art so pervasive in the public consciousness that he is credited for kick-starting the psychedelia movement (with his well-known Bob Dylan poster) and has seen his most famous logo (I heart NY) adapted for use the world over.
When researching for the interview, the thing that struck me about what his friends and peers would most often say about Milton is his desire to do work that benefits the community. Indeed, Milton himself has said he realised he “didn’t have the right to be indifferent about big issues”, and has said his ‘I heart NY’ mark makes him “very, very proud to have taken part in a shift in the city’s confidence from indifferent to itself to realising they love the place”.
So why does he feel the need to work to the benefit of others, and has this influenced his work over the years?
“The way that question usually comes is ‘what’s the role of a designer’, and the responsibility is good citizenship, so in turn it’s ‘what is a good citizen’. A good citizen is someone who cares about others and wouldn’t cause harm. When you do things that you think causes harm, like advertise a product that you know doesn’t work or, worse, poisons the user, you should feel like a jerk. I know I’d feel like a jerk”.
After explaining that the real challenge facing young designers is not causing harm when advertising tends to involve working for potentially harmful clients, he adds: “The most interesting thing for me in the creation of work is the creation of beauty, otherwise I can’t justify my existence – it has nothing to do with selling tomatoes.
“What’s the meaning of this? What’s the idea of beauty? Is it functional? My theory is that art is a survival device. It was invented to prevent people from killing each other. It works because it affects the brain. Art creates an explosion of neurons that makes you feel better, and when you feel better I believe you are slightly less likely to kill somebody. I believe that is the real purpose of art.
“I’m interested in the activation of pleasure; those people who cause that, we call artists, and those who receive it, we call humankind. The role of an artist is to help us survive by giving us a commonality of pleasure and beauty.
“That’s a big thing to do and maybe that’s why artists are held in such high esteem – otherwise it would be difficult to justify their existence. That’s the theory I arrived at for myself after thinking ‘why am I doing this?’”.
With that in mind, I wondered if this sense of commonality was why his ‘I heart NY’ logo had been so successful at lifting the city’s spirits from a very low point, and if the sentiment behind it was what made it imitated worldwide. “It’s not my place to comment on that myself, but others have said it, and maybe you can see it in the incredible persistence of that mark” explained Milton.
“I went down to Chinatown with my wife a year or so ago, and the whole of Chinatown was covered in it, every store, every restaurant, just covered in it, and I turned to her and said ‘where did all this come from?”.
And is it the simplicity of the mark that made it successful? Milton doesn’t seem to think so – not only did he intend it to be a bit of a puzzle, working the logo out rather than having it spelt out clearly, but he also feels that “simple is meaningless”.
“I have always been in opposition to reductivism – it’s too simple-minded to be true,” he explains. “The idea of less is more, which is the mantra I grew up with half a century ago, may be a simple phrase but is untrue. I changed that phrase to one maybe not as easy to understand, but it’s ‘just enough is more’.”
As well as his design work for brands and magazines, Milton’s love of art has seen him exhibit work worldwide, produce stunning work for the ‘Purgatory’ section of the visualisation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and create, under commission of the Italian government, a tribute to Pierro della Francesca. His collaboration with French artist Jean Michel Folon (in which either Jean or Milton would start drawing and the other would continue it, like a visual improvisation piece) is to some extent a riff on misunderstanding – one of Milton’s favourite artistic tools.
He explained: “I use misunderstanding in my work all the time. When I start something I like to reach the point where I’ve forgotten where I started, because at that point my unconscious mind makes connections that my conscious mind can’t. Art is the closing of the mind. Everything you know starts to act as a block to things you don’t know. I once started to draw my mother and I sat down in front of her with my pad and pencils, and I looked at her with the intent of drawing her and I realised that I had no idea what she looked like. The person I could see sitting in front of me was blocked by the image I had of my mother in my mind.”
So does this create a tricky balancing act between improving your understanding of art but still leaving room for ‘things you don’t know’?
“You have to maintain a sense of innocence. The more sophisticated you become, the less innocent you become,” he explains, adding that experts in any walk of life become so specialised they end up working solely on one small aspect of their job. “For artists, and I learnt this from Picasso, the thing is that as soon as you lose interest, move on. He went through it all and then just gave it up, because the experience wasn’t about selling goods.”
And as he explains that, while art, money and beauty are now so intertwined that trying to “pick apart the threads would send you crazy”, he adds: “There’s a connection between all phenomena. One of the things you learn is that nothing is unconnected. The work I’m doing now is trying to establish links between things that seem unconnected. That’s one of the most exciting things in the arts. Even in the field of painting you find all sorts of things that have nothing to do with painting that have everything to do with painting.”
Theme Group would like to thank Milton Glaser for his time taking part in this interview.