How I Got Here: Milton Glaser

We talk to renowned graphic designer Milton Glaser about turning 90, what’s wrong with design today and why retirement is the furthest thing from his mind

In June this year, American graphic designer Milton Glaser turned 90 years old. In the years preceding this landmark birthday, Glaser cemented himself as “the embodiment of American graphic design”. Born and bred in New York, Glaser co-founded the innovative Push Pin Studios in 1954 with Seymour Chwast, and co-founded New York Magazine with Clay Felker in 1968 as a competitor to The New Yorker. Six years later he established Milton Glaser Inc, where he continues to create work today.  

Glaser has an incredible archive of books, posters and prints and his artwork has been featured in exhibitions all over the world including a solo show at both the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He is perhaps best known as the creator of the iconic I Heart New York logo, which has become synonymous with the city, and demonstrates Glaser’s intention for his work to be a force for change. As such, it comes as no surprise that in 2004 he was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, for his “profound and meaningful long-term contribution to the contemporary practice of design”. 

A designer, illustrator and visionary, here CR talks to Glaser about embracing doubt, the consequences of design and why retirement is an illusion.

I (Heart) NY concept sketch by Milton Glaser, 1976. Part of the Museum of Modern Art, New York collection

On finding his path I don’t know what it means to become interested in design, I’ve always liked to make things, which I suppose is the equivalent of becoming interested in design. I discovered drawing from my cousin, who came to the house to babysit when I was five-years-old and he drew a horse for me. I realised you could create life and at that moment I decided I would spend my life observing and creating life. 

At around eight- or nine-years-old I got sick and was confined to my bed. My mother would bring me a board and a pound of clay and I would make a little city on the board and then at the end of the day I would smash it back into clay and wait for the following day to rebuild the city. I suspect that was my earliest training. 

On early mentors I was interested in art and science. There was a [question] between where I would go to high school, either the high school of music and art, or the high school of science. I picked music and art, which was the most essential decision I made as a child. 

I was encouraged by my science teacher who wanted me to be a scientist. When I told him I had gone to take the test for the music and art school, he reached into his desk and pulled out a box of crayons and said “do good work”. Those words and his generosity of spirit have stayed with me forever. 

New York Magazine Covers, 1968 and 1969, by Milton Glaser

What the word ‘design’ means Design is the act of making something from a preconceived idea or from an objective you want to reach. So there’s nothing in human existence that’s without design. What you’re going to have for lunch is a design. I was interested in all aspects of making things primarily, I didn’t know what the word ‘design’ meant, nor do I know what it means now. For most people it means corporate identity and logotypes, which is absolutely a trivialisation of what it is. Design is the essential component of the human brain, we are problem-solving creatures. So we have a process of solving things, finding solutions. Under that heading, design is a good word to use, but it’s not about the way things look. 

The idea of retirement so that you can go to Florida to go fishing or look at a TV set is reprehensible. If I ever retire, I hope I will die the following day

On not caring about job titles I don’t care what people call me. All I can say is I try to keep an open mind as that’s all I’m capable of doing as a result of my mother’s complete belief that I could do anything I wanted, which was transmitted to me at an early age. And the feeling that as soon as you learn something, it is wise to discard it and move onto something else. One thing that occurs in a professional life is that you become a specialist and you do one thing, and then you’re doomed to do it forever until you lose interest in it. I’ve tried hard not to fall into the trap. 

I’ve been working for a very long time, I still look forward to coming to work and finding out something I didn’t know previously. So I suspect that impulse to pursue an objective you’re not quite certain of is beneficial. It certainly keeps your brain active in a way that sitting in front of a TV set doesn’t. 

1984 Winter Olympic Games, Sarajevo poster by Milton Glaser

On his time in Italy as part of the Fulbright Scholarship in 1952 My trip to Italy made me aware of how little I knew about everything: food, architecture, life, friendship. In the presence of glorious information, personalities and artifacts, I suddenly began to realise how closed my view of the world was and how little I understood, and how many preconceptions I had about the world.

But I was in the presence of a great man, the artist Giorgio Morandi, who provided a model of how to be in the world – serious, committed, not driven by insatiable ego needs or the pursuit of money. He became a great model for me in terms of restraint and humility, which I hope I occasionally experience. 

I think doubt should be embraced. There is no life without doubt. Certainty is the killer of imagination

On setting up Push Pin Studios It was a great collective. It was one of the few times a bunch of us got together in a common search for a certain aesthetic. We worked happily and were driven by the idea that the work could have a social impact and effect, that there was such a thing as beauty that was beneficial. We stayed together for 20 years, Seymour [Chwast] and I were the essential partners, but there were a lot of wonderful designers and artists who joined us along the way, and it had a profound effect on the development of contemporary design. 

It was a real departure from modernism and the introduction of more storytelling and more narration, illustration, and more historical references than modernism permitted. The reductive nature of modernism was an insult to me and I wanted to broaden the range of experiences one could have before expressing some ideas that you didn’t know you had.

United Nations Day Peace Works poster by Milton Glaser, 1984

On the I Heart NY logo The I Heart NY logo was a freak occurrence, it came about almost accidentally. I did one solution that I rejected and then submitted a second which was then accepted. It became so pervasive and impactful that it has endured since 1977 without diminishing in intensity, and has become a kind of iconic reference to expressing affection for anything. No one could have anticipated the distribution or the impact that particular image has created, I certainly couldn’t have. 

Although it’s been subject to any number of analysis by people, you still don’t know why people remember and hold onto that imagery. It was of course significant to me that it became socially useful and that it helped in the restoration of New York from a point of despair to one of optimism. It still surprises me how omnipresent it is. 

I wish my mother was around to have seen it, only because it would’ve reflected her faith in me, but outside of that it’s just something you do that is totally out of your hands after you do it.

I (Heart) NY Presentation Board by Milton Glaser, 1976

On what’s wrong with the world today One of the things I am most concerned about these days is that most of the people involved in advertising and marketing have no idea of the consequences of their work, nor do they ever raise the question of what the consequences are of the work. The thing I’m most concerned with in terms of my work is whether it harms the public or it does not – that question is primary in all the work that we do. 

The world is shaped by advertising, marketing and capitalism, and the idea of profitability being the only attribute worth fighting for is monstrous. I mean the sense of responsibility towards your fellow human beings and the survival of us all is primary at this point, like no other time in history. 

Before, there was room for the nature of beauty and the search for being positive in developing a community of common belief. Now it’s all about selling stuff. The only criteria for evaluating what I do is the increase in sales, that is despicable. 

I’ve had a wonderful life, a wonderful career and I’m still in the middle of it. I’m still trying to find out exactly what it is I don’t know

Why doubt is a good thing Have I doubted myself? Oh all the time. I think doubt should be embraced. There is no life without doubt, and you should acknowledge that you have doubt, that you’re not certain about everything. Certainty is the killer of imagination. Doubt is essential to produce new things or things of consequence. So I embrace doubt and I look forward to experiencing it, because if I’m not doubting, I’m no longer experiencing. 

Dylan by Milton Glaser, Columbia Records, 1967

Advice for the next generation The first thing I say is a reiteration of the Hippocratic oath: “Do no harm”. The first thing you have to think about is consequence. There are three people involved: you, the client and the audience. It’s never you first, it’s you in relationship to your community. That is the great missing piece in our times, that the idea of self-gain and narcissism is accepted has destroyed the texture of human intercourse and that has to be restored. 

On overcoming challenges Other people are obstacles. People that you don’t like are obstacles. Stupidity is an obstacle. Your own limitations and lack of understanding is an obstacle. The thing about the human brain is that it is programmed to overcome obstacles, in fact without obstacles there is no activity, so we need obstacles and problems. We are a problem-solving mechanism. 

Brooklyn Brewery logo by Milton Glaser, 1988

Choosing the people you work with Early in life I made the observation that you should only work with people you like. So I’ve made every effort throughout the years of being in the business of working with people I look forward to seeing. If you’re with somebody you don’t look forward to seeing, work is hell. That works for clients as well. 

I used to have 60 or 100 people working on projects, like big theme parks. Now, I have two or three people working with me, helping me every day and they’re wonderful to work with. You can accomplish a lot with smaller groups. Once you get past a certain size, everything becomes a bureaucracy with a hierarchy of importance and so on. That is the real impediment to doing good work.

Leaving a legacy The value of your work, ultimately, whether you’re an artist or a professional, is a historical evaluation made by people that you do not know at the moment. So some time in human history, maybe 100 years from now, somebody will look at something someone has made and say “well that really is a work of art”, as anything can become when so anointed. So Chinese vases are a work of art, the Persian rug is a work of art, and sometimes even a piece of graphic design is anointed as a work of art, but it has to be anointed after the fact. So what you do now, from my point of view, has to be evaluated on whether it is a positive influence on human existence. 

The Gourmet Guide by Milton Glaser and Jerome Snyder, 1967

On turning 90 and getting older I went to dinner with my wife at our favourite restaurant. And I tried not to do anything unusual or novel. Like a normal day.

It’s both horrifying and wonderful to be old, because you basically begin to lose some of the inhibitions that you’ve experienced in your life that you didn’t even realise you had. You become both more cynical and more optimistic. Besides that I don’t think of myself as old. 

I’ve had a wonderful life, a wonderful career and I’m still in the middle of it. I’m still trying to find out exactly what it is I don’t know. 

On retirement The idea of retirement is the idea of death. Retirement is so cold, it’s an illusion created by capitalism, which means as soon as you need more young people you can exploit more easily and pay less money to, you get the old folks out of the way. Our view of retirement is ridiculous. I mean, people in retirement at 65? What a pathetic idea when they are at the fullness of their understanding in how they could be helpful. What there should be is a transition from an active work life to a communal work life, so that everybody who retires can pursue how to bring benefits to the existing community and to everyone they encounter. 

So the idea of looking forward to retiring is horrifying, except for the fact that most people live a life of desperate work that they don’t choose, and that they despise. So there you understand that getting away from this horrible work you’re forced to do is advantageous. But the idea of retirement so that you can go to Florida to go fishing or look at a TV set is reprehensible. If I ever retire, I hope I will die the following day.