Brain Pickings

Iconic Graphic Designer Milton Glaser on Art, Money, Education, and the Kindness of the Universe

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“If you perceive the universe as being a universe of abundance, then it will be. If you think of the universe as one of scarcity, then it will be.”

Milton Glaser — legendary mastermind of the famous I♥NY logo, author of delightful and little-known vintage children’s books, notorious notebook-doodler, modern-day sage of art and purpose — is celebrated by many as the greatest graphic designer alive. From How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer (public library) — the same fantastic anthology of conversations with creative icons that gave us Paula Scher’s slot machine metaphor for creativity and Massimo Vignelli on intellectual elegance, education, and love — comes a fascinating and remarkably heartening conversation that reveals the inner workings of this beautiful mind and beautiful spirit.

What E. B. White has done for writing — “A writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down,” he memorably asserted — Glaser has done for the visual arts, a legacy Debbie Millman captures beautifully in the introduction to the interview:

While other great designers have created cool posters, beautiful book covers, and powerful logos, Milton Glaser has actually lifted this age he inhabits. Because of his integrity and his vision, he has enabled us all to walk on higher ground, and it is that for which we should be especially grateful.

In fact, this ethos is reflected in Glaser’s timeless addition to history’s finest definitions of art:

Work that goes beyond its functional intention and moves us in deep and mysterious ways we call great work.

Glaser shares the wonderful and sweetly allegorical story of how he became an artist:

The story of how I decided to become an artist is this: When I was a very little boy, a cousin of mine came to my house with a paper bag. He asked me if I wanted to see a bird. I thought he had a bird in the bag. He stuck his hand in the bag, and I realized that he had drawn a bird on the side of a bag with a pencil. I was astonished! I perceived this as being miraculous. At that moment, I decided that was what I was going to do with my life. Create miracles.

His early childhood, in fact, was a petri dish for his genesis as an artist. He recounts another memory that presaged his gift for welcoming not-knowing in order to know life more richly as the muse of his mastery, a skill that would become the guiding principle of his creative ethos:

I was eight years old, and I had rheumatic fever. I was at home and in bed for a year. In a certain sense, the only thing that kept me alive was this: Every day, my mother would bring me a wooden board and a pound of modeling clay, and I would create a little universe out of houses, tanks, warriors. At the end of the day, I would pound them into oblivion and look forward to the next day when I could recreate the world.

[…]

I think that, to some degree, this is part of my character as a designer: To keep moving and not get stuck in my own past. This is what I try very hard to do.

I think at that moment in my life, I found a peculiar path: To continually discard a lot of the things that I knew how to do in favor of finding out what I didn’t. I think this is the way you stay alive professionally.

In the context of discussing those early memories, however, Glaser offers an important disclaimer about the limitations of our memory and its imperfections:

Memory is treacherous; you can’t depend on it. It is basically always recreated to reinforce your anxiety or to make yourself look better, but whatever actually did happen is totally susceptible to subjective interpretation. I absolutely don’t trust my memory.

Glaser seconds Alan Watts’s timeless wisdom on profit vs. purpose and gets to the heart of how to find your purpose so you can worry less about money:

I never had the model of financial success as being the reason to work. When I was at Push Pin, none of the partners made enough money to live on. It took ten years for us to make as much as a junior art director in an agency. We were making $65 a week! But money has never been a motivating force in my work. I am very happy to have made enough money to live as well as I do, but I never thought of money as a reason to work. For me, work was about survival. I had to work in order to have any sense of being human. If I wasn’t working or making something, I was very nervous and unstable.

Echoing Frank Lloyd Wright’s aphorism that “an expert is a man who has stopped thinking because ‘he knows,’” Glaser rejoices in the glory of keeping the internal fire of learning ever-ablaze:

That is a great feeling: when you feel the possibility of learning. It’s a terrible feeling to feel you can’t learn or have reached the end of your potential.

Touching on Sister Corita Kent’s 10 rules for learning and Bertrand Russell’s commandments for teachers, Glaser — a revered educator himself — goes on to offer an articulate vision for what the art of education really means:

What you teach is what you are. You don’t teach by telling people things.

[…]

I believe that you convey your ideas by the authenticity of your being. Not by glibly telling someone what to do or how to do it. I believe that this is why so much teaching is ineffective. … Good teaching is merely having an encounter with someone who has an idea of what life is that you admire and want to emulate.

Echoing Rilke’s counsel to live the questions, Richard Feynman’s advocacy of allowing for doubt, John Keats’s insistence on the power of “negative capability”, and Anaïs Nin’s faith in the richness of living with ambiguity, Glaser reflects on the immutable impermanence of everything, the very thing he once intuited in his childhood experience of sculpting and destroying his modeling clay creations:

There is no security in the world, or in life. I don’t mind living with some ambiguity and realizing that eventually, everything changes.

But the most powerful aspect of Glaser’s ethos, one all the more necessary as a lifeboat amidst today’s flood of cynicism, is his unrelenting optimism — an essential antidote to the zero-sum-game mentality of success that plagues so much of our modern thinking:

If you perceive the universe as being a universe of abundance, then it will be. If you think of the universe as one of scarcity, then it will be. And I never thought of the universe as one of scarcity. I always thought that there was enough of everything to go around — that there are enough ideas in the universe and enough nourishment.

In extending this conviction to the most tender aspiration of the human heart, our longing to belong, he echoes Ted Hughes’s poignant reflection on our inner child and adds to literary history’s most beautiful definitions of love:

Do you perceive you live your life through love or fear? They are very different manifestations. My favorite quote is by the English novelist Iris Murdoch. She said, “Love is the very difficult understanding that something other than yourself is real.” I like the idea that all that love is, is acknowledging another’s reality.

Acknowledging that the world exists, and that you are not the only participant in it, is a profound step. The impulse towards narcissism or self-interest is so profound, particularly when you have a worry of injury or fear. It’s very hard to move beyond the idea that there is not enough to go around, to move beyond that sense of “I better get mine before anybody else takes it away from me.”

How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer remains indispensable from cover to cover. Complement it with this lovely short film on Glaser by the late and great Hillman Curtis.

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