Brain Pickings

Legendary Graphic Designer Milton Glaser on Art, Purpose, and the Capacity for Astonishment

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“That’s the great benefit of being in the arts, where the possibility for learning never disappears.”

Today marks the 83rd birthday of Milton Glaser, considered by many — myself included — the greatest graphic designer alive, and frequently celebrated alongside Saul Bass as the most influential graphic designer of all time.

Today also marks 10 weeks since beloved Brooklyn-based designer, author, and filmmaker Hillman Curtis passed away after a fiercely fought battle with cancer. Last week, I joined much of New York’s design community in a celebration of Hillman’s films, among which is his extraordinary artist series profiling prominent creators. So, today, let’s take a bittersweet moment to celebrate a great legacy and a great life with Hillman Curtis’s beautiful and affectionate profile of Milton Glaser:

Glaser adds to this omnibus of history’s finest definitions of art:

Art performs this pacifying function in culture… Its practitioners create commonalities… I always quote a guy named Lewis Hyde, who wrote about primitive cultures, where there’s an exchange of gifts that cannot be kept but have to be passed on. And the passing on of gifts is a device to prevent people from killing one another, because they all become part of a single experience. And his leap of imagination occurs when he says, ‘And this is what artists do in culture — artists provide that gift to the culture, so that people have something in common.’

And I think that for all of us who identify with the role of artists in history have that intuition about things, and want our work to serve that purpose.

Glaser echoes other great minds’ insights on purpose, articulating something many of us relate to on a deep level:

There’s nothing more exciting than seeing someone whose life has been affected in a positive way by something you’ve said. There’s nothing more exciting than to see somebody change from a sort of condition of inertness or inattentiveness into a mind that begins to inquire about meaning.

I think if you don’t do something to project into the future that way, the possibility for total self-absorption and narcissism becomes very much greater.

Finally, he offers some invaluable advice on the progression of the creative life into old age, wrapped in a broader meditation on the universal power of art:

If you can sustain your interest in what you’re doing, you’re an extremely fortunate person. What you see very frequently in people’s professional lives, and perhaps in their emotional life as well, is that they lose interest in the third act. You sort of get tired, and indifferent, and, sometimes, defensive. And you kind of lose your capacity for astonishment — and that’s a great loss, because the world is a very astonishing place.

What I feel fortunate about is that I’m still astonished, that things still amaze me. And I think that that’s the great benefit of being in the arts, where the possibility for learning never disappears, where you basically have to admit you never learn it.

For the definitive collection of Glaser’s most memorable work, treat yourself to the 1973 tome Milton Glaser: Graphic Design.

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