“Design is Not Appearance:” My Interview with Milton Glaser
He created “the look of the 60s”—and at 90, he floored me with his insights on design, work, and human nature.
Milton Glaser died yesterday on his 91st birthday. He was a gifted, influential, an astonishingly prolific designer and thinker. “He can be said to have created what became the look of the 60s: flowing lines, rainbow colors, strong patterns,” goes a great obituary in The Guardian.
Over the course of his 70-year career, he designed hundreds of posters, album covers, logos, magazines, and newspapers. You may know him as the designer of the “I ♥️ New York” logo, the psychedelic Bob Dylan poster, the logos for DC Comics and Brooklyn Brewery, the “Mad Men” TV show, and hundreds of magazines and newspapers.
Only a few months ago, I interviewed him for a “CBS Sunday Morning” story about the fiftieth anniversary of “New York” magazine — and came away amazed, entertained, and inspired.
As is always the case, though, there was far more great material from the interview than we could fit into the broadcast. For anyone who’s interested in design, New York City, longevity, or the thoughts of a profound, hilarious creative genius, I’m offering a lightly edited transcript here of the full interview.
The beginning of “New York”
POGUE: We are here to talk about the 50th anniversary of New York Magazine, which I understand you had something to do with. (Laughs.)
GLASER: I co-founded it with Clay Felker. We did it in this building. It was one of the great periods of my life.
Everybody walked four flights. There was no space for anything and no corporate offices. Nobody had an office. We were all in this big room together. Clay had a little corner with a door on it. That was the only door on the floor.
And we stumbled badly, I should say, for the first year. It took us about a year to figure out what we were doing.
But it was a wonderful time for me, mostly because when you’re in the magazine business, you think you’re at the center of the universe. (laugh) We were attracting all the sort of emerging writers — Pete Hamill and Tom Wolfe and Gloria Steinem — all these wonderful people who later became important in the culture were gathering.
And there was a real sense of fellowship and effect. You really felt what you were doing was affecting life in the city. And that was exhilarating. I mean, the idea that you would do something, and things would change? Wow, that’s a fabulous thing.
POGUE: Was that unusual? For a words guy and a design guy to get together to start —
GLASER: Yeah, because very often they’re antithetical. The words guys always think that the visual is decorative. Most of the world, it’s controlled by the narrative. The narrative is not the essential thing. The idea is to produce an effect in the reader or the viewer that comes out of the union of the visual with the literary. I have to say that not many people practice that way.
When you get those things operating together, you have something extraordinarily powerful. And probably the great works of history occur when those ideas are unified.
POGUE: When the magazine began, then, you must have said, “Wow, this is carte blanche for me.”
GLASER: Well, we were both trying to achieve something. Clay is — was — a boy from the Middle West whose nose was pressed against the windows of the rich and famous in New York, wanting to see how they ticked, and join them, if possible.
And I was a Jewish boy from the Bronx who knew how the city operated and was interested in the working class and left-wing politics. And for some reason, as you know, people in political life hate each other when they’re not on the same side.
But Clay and I were completely in tune when it came to ideas we wanted to express. He also had this enormous outsider sensibility that made him wanna find out things that were going on. And I had this insider’s sensibility, where I could select things that I thought were of interest to me and my community. And it’s one of the reasons I started writing “The Underground Gourmet,” which was about cheap food in the city.
We both realized that everybody in New York was looking for a cheap restaurant (laugh) that also served good food. So that idea of finding a cheap restaurant, in a neighborhood that wasn’t your own, suddenly materialized, and people began going to all parts of the city because they no longer felt it was inappropriate.
“Design is not appearance”
POGUE: Now, what does that kind of service journalism have to do with design?
GLASER: Everything’s about design. I mean, because everything’s about intent. Here, for instance, in the case of a magazine and an audience, we knew that everyone wanted this service. They wanted to find out where they could go to a cheap Chinese restaurant and eat well and pay little. But no one was providing that — information to them, because cheap restaurants don’t advertise.
Design is not appearance, but a way of thinking about information and conveying ideas to others. That’s really what I do. I am so interested in having ideas. That idea that your role in the culture is to inform and delight is so sweet. Not to persuade, not to persuade!
The fundamental question — that designers never answer for themselves, because it’s too painful — is, “What are the consequences of your work? Are the people improved by virtue of what you’re telling them, or are they diminished?”
That’s very hard for people to ask — very, very hard.
POGUE: Well, because if the answer is negative —
GLASER: You have to admit it. Admit what the reality is. And then if you choose to go on with it, that’s your choice. I mean, but at least you’re not stupid. (laugh)
“Belief is the end of observation”
POGUE: In your new book “Mag Men,” the front inside cover shows all the hate letters you’ve received about your magazine designs over the years — -and the back inside cover has the love letters for the same designs!
GLASER: Yes. Absolutely.
POGUE: What is it about magazine and newspaper redesigns that drives people so crazy?
GLASER: Ideas drive people crazy. (laugh) I mean, when you challenge somebody’s assumption of what’s going on in the world, very often they get really pissed off at you.
This whole issue of belief is a fascinating issue. I mean, why believe anything? (laugh) What you do is you have an idea, and you hold it in your mind as long as it’s useful. And then when it turns out not to be useful, discard it. But the idea of clinging to belief as a basis for your life — which is what most people do — is terrifying, ’cause belief is the end of observation. You believe something, you stop seeing everything else. Clearly, that is not desirable. And yet it’s the way most people live.
The great American lie
POGUE: Do you ever look back on some work that you did and say, “Pfff, boy, that wasn’t good”?
GLASER: Oh, I’ve done hundreds of mediocre things. (laugh) Well, you have to, when you keep producing stuff, and a lot of it where you don’t know what you’re doing. I mean, I never designed a magazine before I started doing it. And that’s true of almost everything. But eventually, you learn something about the process, and now I know a lot about what people respond to and what they don’t.
POGUE: Do you not have an ego?
GLASER: Oh, of course! Oh, I’m very realistic about whatever I’ve accomplished. I mean, my father, who ran a dry-cleaning store, worked every day of his life. He went to work at 6:00 or 7:00 in the morning, started the fire so that he could do the pressing, and worked 12 hours a day, all his life. That was his life. And I guess it was a good model for me, that you just do your work.
You have to be able to step aside and say, “That was a real piece of egocentric crap.” Awareness of what you’re doing is essential to everybody’s life, but it’s hard to do. It’s hard to do.
POGUE: You’ve managed it.
GLASER: There’s a sort of question that comes about when artists are working: the question of, “Who’s looking over your shoulder?” And it’s usually Daddy or Mummy or (laugh) whatever it is. There’s always that presence, even long after they’re gone.
POGUE: You have achieved great longevity, both biologically and in your work. What’s the relationship?
GLASER: I’ll tell ya what the relationship is: I come to work every day. And I’m full of ideas. And my brain has not stopped working or imagining things. But that comes about from endless practice and activity. I mean, it’s like working out if you were a gymnast or something.
One of the great lies of American culture is the lie of retirement: that at a certain point in your life, at 65 for god sakes, you’re ready to go to Florida and stare out the window for the next 30 years. Where in the world did that idea come from? (laugh)
Well, we know where it came from. The government was trying to have young people enter the workforce, right? So it invented this thing called retirement where people stop doing the most essential things of their lives. I mean, lose their purpose. I have so much purpose left. (laugh)
The Glaser style
POGUE: What was the design philosophy of Push Pin studios [the design firm that Glaser and colleagues founded in 1954]?
GLASER: Push Pin Studios was a counterpoint to Modernism. It was really the next iteration of what design was. And it — first of all, used illustration a lot. And the Modernists hated illustration. (laugh)
It used reference from history, instead of the idea that you are now in a new era where everything has to be clean and reductive and geometric. It said, “Why?” It said, “Let’s do a picture of George Washington,” or whatever else it was. (laugh)
And it also felt what I have always believed, that you could use anything that occurred in history as source material for what you wanted to do, if you knew how to integrate that in a way that was understandable.
So Push Pin became an alternative to sort of this Modernist vocabulary that had preceded it — and then became important in the general history of graphic design. So in that sense, I was isolated as somebody beginning something else.
POGUE: I see. Well, it seems to have worked, in principle.
GLASER: As far as I’m concerned, it worked fine. (laugh)
“New York” at 50
POGUE: Could you have ever imagined that, 51 years later, the magazine would still be —
GLASER: No. No, you have no idea. (laugh) And also because a lot of these start-ups, magazine start-ups, just collapse after six months if they don’t find the right combination of an audience, of an advertising base — in many cases, nothing to do with the editorial.
The original plan was, you know, like a movie. “Let’s do a magazine!” (laugh) And this — soon enough, we were all sitting in one room, bullshitting. (laugh)
POGUE: Well, you came up with some good ideas that lasted.
GLASER: Occasionally. Yeah. We did a couple nice things. (laugh)
David Pogue is a five-time Emmy winner for his work as a “CBS Sunday Morning” correspondent. He’s the author of 100 books, a contributor to the New York Times, and the host of 17 “NOVA” specials on PBS. You can sign up here to get his stuff by email.