Milton Glaser: we talk drawing, ethics, Shakespeare and Trump with the graphic design legend

Milton Glaser is ready to talk ethics. It’s not the first time, either. Ours is one of a few recent interviews with the graphic designer and creator of the I ❤ NY logo, in which he addresses some of the moral demands of his trade — questions of whether graphic design ought to compromise its integrity for the sake of meeting a client’s demands. On the subject of advertisers and the designers who work for them, Glaser is clear. “Your obligation is to the client, and not necessarily the public. In some cases, you’re encouraging people to buy things that they don’t need, or encouraging them to move in a direction that does not serve them. Frequently in advertising — and PR and journalism as well — we have to persuade people to do things that we don’t really believe in and that they don’t really believe in. Should you participate in something that encourages people to do something that is not good for them? I consider that a core question for journalists and practitioners of graphic art, but it’s too frequently overlooked because it is too painful to answer.”

Navigating that conundrum is “part of growing up” Glaser insists, but nevertheless remains a daily struggle even in his career. “You try to maintain a view of your own purpose in life — for your own integrity — and recognise the fact that it will be compromised on a regular basis.” I am surprised, and mildly perturbed by the pragmatic direction in which our conversation seems to be heading. After all, here is the man who designed the poster to accompany Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits in 1966, the World Health Organisation’s official Aids awareness poster in 1987 and a series of covers for the now highly sought-after Signet Classic Shakespeare plays.

Yet Glaser, who seems perennially driven by the contemporary, is less interested in discussing all that — the same subjects discussed with a thousand interviewers since the 1960s. Instead, he seems keen to impress a sense of duty on those pursuing his chosen career. He is eager to assert the importance of integrity at a time when unprecedented influences stand to jeopardise it; and none more so than the development of faster and faster technology. I follow his lead.

“Drawing is based on observation, observation is central to design. For me, drawing is the only way of understanding the world. When it comes to applying graphic design to the surface, it doesn’t seem directly related, but it is. The only way you understand form — in my mind — is to create its equivalent in a drawing. In the same way that practising the piano — doing scales — is to producing a melody, drawing is essentially a tool for developing the skills to produce a form.”

With the rapid expansion of branding as a discipline through increased digitisation, the question of whether careful observation (and by default, clear ethical judgement) has been compromised, remains unclear. “Computers are developed for a business function, because it speeds up the process of developing designs for commerce. Drawing on the other hand, has to do with transforming the mind. The two things have nothing to do with one another.”

Still, one can’t help but wonder if there is the time, given commercial demand for drawing to enjoy the same importance it once did. Then again, some of Glaser’s finest work was borne of more haphazard circumstances than his preoccupation with drawing might imply.

“It was strange,” he says, of the I ❤ NY logo and the most successful city branding exercise of all time. “The slogan went beyond any expectations I had of its reach. For reasons that are not fully understandable, it’s still everywhere.” At the time that it was famously conceived during a cab ride to the very meeting in which Glaser would present the idea, New York was suffering. “In 1977, people were moving out by the thousands because the city had become unsafe,” he recalls. Image-wise, he can only describe New York of the late 1970s as “self-despairing.”

“What the city needed at that time was an affirmation, a restoration of the feeling that New York was an important place to be. Now unfortunately, people see the city as too good a place to be and we’ve become incredibly overburdened with a population of rich people.” Glaser returns to the point of ethics, “You have to be careful about the consequences of what you do.”

His assessment of the role played by the logo in the city’s present housing crisis might be overstated, but it is nevertheless reassuring to hear someone of his stature consider the wider implications of his work. “Graphic designers hope that their work will have an effect. Well this did, and on one level at least, the affect of that logo was positive. If I had done something just as successful promoting the use of cigarettes, I would not be happy about it. From a humanistic point of view, it would be a disaster.”

“I’m not really conscious of having done very much that is objectively bad for the people who followed my intention. Though I’m sure you could point out some.”

Milton Glaser

On the subject of regrets, Glaser admits, he has a few. “But I’m not really conscious of having done very much that is objectively bad for the people who followed my intention. Though I’m sure you could point out some.” Trump Vodka, being the obvious example, though even then Glaser’s involvement was cursory and hardly contributed much to the Trump brand. He is dismissive of his experience with the property tycoon turned Republican candidate, who approached him during the mid-2000s to create a bottle for his eponymous line of Vodka. “Trump said he had a product that he’d like to discuss, came to the office and asked if we could do something appropriate. I think I only did one sketch for it. He liked it, paid me and that was the end of it. He was an easy client.” The resulting gold, cuboid phallus emblazoned with a large “”’ might be the smallest but most succinct assessment of America’s most problematic public figure. It is also, on account of Trump’s (regrettable) dominion over the city’s skyline, also quintessentially New York. As is Glaser’s design for the Brooklyn Brewery logo and his typeface for the cover of New York Magazine.

Glaser’s literary works (including covers for series of both Herman Hesse and John Updike), presented challenges. “I like Shakespeare. I frequently misunderstand Shakespeare but a lot of the content of what I have done over the past 20–30 years has been, for one reason or another, Shakespearian.” He explains. “I’m still doing Shakespeare things for a theatre company. I like Shakespeare because of the latitude of possibility in his language and imagery. But there is always a problem of translating the literary into the visual. Sometimes you create an equivalent and sometimes you don’t.”

“I like Shakespeare. I frequently misunderstand Shakespeare but a lot of the content of what I have done over the past 20–30 years has been, for one reason or another, Shakespearian.”

Milton Glaser

All of Glaser’s literary works toy with convention. His Shakespeare covers seem only half finished, depicting loose illustrations reminiscent of Aubrey Beardsley, that trail off in swirling lines to the outer edges of the page. Like his famous poster for the Society of Newspaper Design, which includes the graphic depiction of a folded corner, or his advert for Campari Soda, whose shape is dictated by the perspective of the image, he is always cerebral, prompting the viewer into thought. It’s an approach that can be traced to his time in Bologna, studying with artist Giorgio Morandi. This defining moment led to a career-long fascination with omission, or of “What you leave out,” as Glaser puts it.

“The question of why things persist in the culture is an extraordinary question, which is very difficult to answer,” he says, going back to the I ❤ NY logo. “It’s clear that at the time it was created, everyone was wanting to say, “I love” something and had not quite found a way of doing that. The logo created a methodology for expressing that, in a way that required a little problem solving and participation from the viewer, because you have to solve the problem of translating a noun into a verb.”

Like the bard who continues to evade him then, much of Glaser’s success lies in the drama that takes place off stage.

Originally published at on May 17, 2016.