America's Most Legendary Designer Distills His Wisdom Into a Slim Book

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Milton Glaser's In Search of the Miraculous or One Thing Leads to Another shows what he's learned in his decades-long career—and how his perspective has shifted.

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Milton Glaser, America's most well-known graphic designer—thank him for the "I ❤ NY" image—could easily sit back in a comfy chair and rest on his logos. But that's not in his grand plan.

He's still in demand as designer and teacher, and his words and deeds still inspire, even though his styles are no longer commonly mimicked as they were in the early '60s when his work helped define the eclecticism of the burgeoning youth culture. Now inching into his mid-80s, Glaser has evolved from exemplar to eminence. Why do design students and practitioners fill lecture halls when Glaser is scheduled? While his legacy has something to do with it, more relevant is his uncanny ability to touch people through soft-spoken conviction, whether relating to his political and social belief system or his creative passions. This continues to inform his work, and has fueled his substantial output of articles and books in recent years.

"In this book I've reduced what I've learned to a few hundred words. My sense is that I'm doing less 'showing off' and more 'passing things on.'"

In 2010, he reached a distinct turning point with a small exhibition he called "In Search of the Miraculous or One Thing Leads to Another" at the AIGA gallery in New York, which became the basis and title for his most recent book. A self-analysis of his creative process, this elegantly designed, uncharacteristically thin volume is arguably his proudest accomplishment. "I suppose everyone in their declining years wants to tell their story," Glaser told me about his motivation, "which explains why all my friends are now in the process of finishing memoirs or at work on some form of autobiography. I've been teaching and practicing for 50 years, and I think this book is an attempt for me to understand what I've been doing all that time."

Although he has written considerably about the nature of design, Glaser says "in this book I've reduced what I've learned to a few hundred words. My sense is that I'm doing less 'showing off' and more 'passing things on'."

The Zen theme of one idea leading to another on a continuum of creative activity derives from Glaser's observation that "there doesn't seem to be such a thing as an unconnected event. Certainly, in my own life and work, the inevitable consequence of one thing influencing another is apparent. Of course, you only have time to realize this retrospectively."

For his exhibition, Glaser created an accordion-folded "Users Guide" to understanding examples on the wall. The book version is more akin Ways of Seeing by John Berger, a critic whom Glaser deeply respects "and who has certainly influenced my thinking." The book uses some of his favorite work as examples of what Glaser believes are the most fundamental issues of design: "intentionality and consequence."

"I'd like to believe a design practitioner or student could feel that by dealing with some fundamental questions, the less useful considerations could be subordinated," Glaser says. "It seems to me that so much of the design practice is overwhelmingly about marketing and sales. While undoubtedly professionally significant, these are the least interesting aspects of professional life."

Glaser is clearly at a point in his life his view of the client has shifted. "The right client (or one that shares your view of the world) can be your greatest asset," he says. "The wrong client, who wants to use your skills to accomplish his sales objectives, can destroy your sense of yourself. Like good friends, good clients are hard to find."

While this idea contradicts the traditional service relationship between client and designer, Glaser has long attempted to select clients based on mutual need and respect. Nonetheless, since writing this book, Glaser's view of the field of commercial art and design, which he has dominated for so long, has definitely changed. He speaks confidently about the negative cultural and political role of capitalism in the world. "We're clearly at a point in human history where the idea of unrestrained competition and a 'dog eat dog' atmosphere are no longer beneficial or relevant," he says. "This shift has certainly affected my view of a designer's role in civilization and culture, and made me more concerned about the consequences of my daily activity. My two prevailing beliefs are still: Do no harm. Do good work."

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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