Milton Glaser

Milton Glaser: “We’re all in it together”

Short Profile

Name: Milton Glaser
DOB: 26 June 1929
Place of birth: New York, United States
Occupation: Graphic designer

Mr. Glaser, in the seventies you designed the iconic I Heart NY logo to foster tourism in the wake of the city’s negative publicity and high crime rates — and it worked. Can art and design change the world for the better?

All I know is that we, as designers, have the same responsibility any good citizen has. Because if you are a citizen — and we all are — what we don’t want to do is cause further mischief, further poverty, further ignorance and so on. We want to improve the existing condition so that everybody benefits. But first you have to separate these activities and not generalize them, design and art are not the same thing, and their roles are different.

How would you define them?

Well, art attempts to transform human perception. In fact, at its root is the idea that through art you can understand what is real. And the question of what is real is very complex because we know that we create our own reality and that for every human being, that reality is not the same — that is why there is so much disagreement in the world, because people don’t agree on what is real. In design you have an objective, you want to create something for a purpose. In our culture, the purpose has usually been the sale of objects or profitability of a product or an attempt to entertain in order to sell.

“The question of what is my effect on the public has to be raised now more than ever. It is too dangerous to ignore it.”

Does that hold true for you as a designer as well?

I have access to people’s minds, and I want to use that access in the most beneficial way possible. And that is a role that a designer can assume because they are connected to the public and they communicate to that public. The question is whose desire they reflect: should they reflect only the powerful, the rich, the manipulators and make the public do what they want? Or should they reflect all of us and the general good of everyone else? For me, there is no doubt about what the answer to that question is.

It seems like this ethical question is relevant today more than ever.

In the case of commercial work, when you separate yourself from your audience, what you are doing is you are considering yourself and your own expressive capacity, your client and your client’s objective to make money — what you don’t consider is what affect it has on the audience. In the world of advertising and marketing, for instance, they don’t regard the public as anything except a large mass to manipulate in a way where they’re willing to buy something they don’t really need or perceive something they don’t really believe. That’s why, the question of what is my effect on the public has to be raised now more than ever. It is too dangerous to ignore it.

In your keynote speech at the American Institute of Graphic Arts in 2001, you talked about the 10 lessons that you learned in your career as a designer; number 10 was to tell the truth. How do you think about the idea of truth in design today?

I’m from a generation where the idea that there was such a thing as truth existed! Now, unfortunately, there’s no such construct anymore. The idea of truth itself has been destroyed and the idea of the validity of truth has been destroyed. There was a sense, in my generation, that the search for the truth is one of the aspects of life that you want to embrace; that if there is no truth, then there is no direction, no purpose, no construct that you could use as a backstop to your own activities. If you can’t believe that there are some things that are true as opposed to things that are obviously false, then you don’t have a direction in your life.

When did you first start thinking about the importance of telling the truth in the design field?

It was an assumption that I grew up with, that there was a kind of certainty that somewhere there was a thing called truth. And you were responsible for reflecting that! And if you would deliberately miss-state the truth for your own purposes, that you could then divide that activity into good and evil.

“I believe that the difficulty in all human experience is preconception: that people think things are a certain way — and as soon as you think something is a certain way, it becomes that.”

Do you think that people have become more cynical as a result of all the contradictory information out there?

Well, there are people now, universally, who don’t care if there’s such a thing as truth or not. And of course, they have reasons to do that, because for a long time in human history, the idea of an ultimate truth coming from outside was something that had been predetermined by religion or by other belief systems, and it was very pernicious: it was basically something you had no control over, but that you had to believe in, and this turned out to be extremely mischievous in human behavior. However, I believe that the difficulty in all human experience is preconception: that people think things are a certain way — and as soon as you think something is a certain way, it becomes that.

Can art and design challenge those preconceptions?

Here’s my belief: I believe that everything that has ever occurred since the birth of the matter, everything that ever existed in the human history is in all of us. Everything is connected, there are no things or experiences in the world that haven’t some hidden connection, and the role of design among other things, is to discover that connection.

Do you still pursue that connection in your work today?

I’m trying now increasingly — although I’ve done it to some extent all my life — to work on things that I find compelling and interesting, and for people that I like. If you are working with people you don’t like, the work is bound to be destroyed. So what I try to do is to find clients that I am harmonious with, and have the sense that we’re a part of a singular system, that we’re all in it together. What we have to do is find those things that keep us together and unify us, rather than the things that we find threatening or different. What is going on in the polarization of the world now is that so much of the world now thinks that the rest of the world is their enemy. And how you can basically make everyone understand the commonality of all human experience, is the appropriate problem for designers.