Ten Things I Have Learned by Milton Glaser

Ten Things I Have Learned
Part of AIGA Talk in London
November 22, 2001

1
YOU CAN ONLY WORK FOR PEOPLE
THAT YOU LIKE.
This is a curious rule and it took me a
long time to learn because in fact at the beginning of my practice
I felt the opposite. Professionalism required that you didn’t
particularly like the people that you worked for or at least
maintained an arms length relationship to them, which meant that I
never had lunch with a client or saw them socially. Then some years
ago I realised that the opposite was true. I discovered that all
the work I had done that was meaningful and significant came out of
an affectionate relationship with a client. And I am not talking
about professionalism; I am talking about affection. I am talking
about a client and you sharing some common ground. That in fact
your view of life is someway congruent with the client, otherwise
it is a bitter and hopeless struggle.

2
IF YOU HAVE A CHOICE NEVER HAVE A JOB.
One night I was sitting in my car outside Columbia University
where my wife Shirley was studying Anthropology. While I was
waiting I was listening to the radio and heard an interviewer ask
‘Now that you have reached 75 have you any advice for our audience
about how to prepare for your old age?’ An irritated voice said
‘Why is everyone asking me about old age these days?’ I recognised
the voice as John Cage. I am sure that many of you know who he was
– the composer and philosopher who influenced people like Jasper
Johns and Merce Cunningham as well as the music world in general. I
knew him slightly and admired his contribution to our times. ‘You
know, I do know how to prepare for old age’ he said. ‘Never have a
job, because if you have a job someday someone will take it away
from you and then you will be unprepared for your old age. For me,
it has always been the same every since the age of 12. I wake up in
the morning and I try to figure out how am I going to put bread on
the table today? It is the same at 75, I wake up every morning and
I think how am I going to put bread on the table today? I am
exceedingly well prepared for my old age’ he said.

3
SOME PEOPLE ARE TOXIC AVOID THEM.
This is a subtext of number one. There was in the sixties a
man named Fritz Perls who was a gestalt therapist. Gestalt therapy
derives from art history, it proposes you must understand the
‘whole’ before you can understand the details. What you have to
look at is the entire culture, the entire family and community and
so on. Perls proposed that in all relationships people could be
either toxic or nourishing towards one another. It is not
necessarily true that the same person will be toxic or nourishing
in every relationship, but the combination of any two people in a
relationship produces toxic or nourishing consequences. And the
important thing that I can tell you is that there is a test to
determine whether someone is toxic or nourishing in your
relationship with them. Here is the test: You have spent some time
with this person, either you have a drink or go for dinner or you
go to a ball game. It doesn’t matter very much but at the end of
that time you observe whether you are more energised or less
energised. Whether you are tired or whether you are exhilarated. If
you are more tired then you have been poisoned. If you have more
energy you have been nourished. The test is almost infallible and I
suggest that you use it for the rest of your life.

4
PROFESSIONALISM IS NOT ENOUGH or THE
GOOD IS THE ENEMY OF THE GREAT.
Early in my career I
wanted to be professional, that was my complete aspiration in my
early life because professionals seemed to know everything – not to
mention they got paid for it. Later I discovered after working for
a while that professionalism itself was a limitation. After all,
what professionalism means in most cases is diminishing risks. So
if you want to get your car fixed you go to a mechanic who knows
how to deal with transmission problems in the same way each time. I
suppose if you needed brain surgery you wouldn’t want the doctor to
fool around and invent a new way of connecting your nerve endings.
Please do it in the way that has worked in the past.
Unfortunately in our field, in the so-called creative – I hate that
word because it is misused so often. I also hate the fact that it
is used as a noun. Can you imagine calling someone a creative?
Anyhow, when you are doing something in a recurring way to diminish
risk or doing it in the same way as you have done it before, it is
clear why professionalism is not enough. After all, what is
required in our field, more than anything else, is the continuous
transgression. Professionalism does not allow for that because
transgression has to encompass the possibility of failure and if
you are professional your instinct is not to fail, it is to repeat
success. So professionalism as a lifetime aspiration is a limited
goal.

5
LESS IS NOT NECESSARILY
MORE.
Being a child of modernism I have heard this
mantra all my life. Less is more. One morning upon awakening I
realised that it was total nonsense, it is an absurd proposition
and also fairly meaningless. But it sounds great because it
contains within it a paradox that is resistant to understanding.
But it simply does not obtain when you think about the visual of
the history of the world. If you look at a Persian rug, you cannot
say that less is more because you realise that every part of that
rug, every change of colour, every shift in form is absolutely
essential for its aesthetic success. You cannot prove to me that a
solid blue rug is in any way superior. That also goes for the work
of Gaudi, Persian miniatures, art nouveau and everything else.
However, I have an alternative to the proposition that I believe is
more appropriate. ‘Just enough is more.’

6
STYLE IS NOT TO BE TRUSTED.
I think
this idea first occurred to me when I was looking at a marvellous
etching of a bull by Picasso. It was an illustration for a story by
Balzac called The Hidden Masterpiece. I am sure that you all know
it. It is a bull that is expressed in 12 different styles going
from very naturalistic version of a bull to an absolutely reductive
single line abstraction and everything else along the way. What is
clear just from looking at this single print is that style is
irrelevant. In every one of these cases, from extreme abstraction
to acute naturalism they are extraordinary regardless of the style.
It’s absurd to be loyal to a style. It does not deserve your
loyalty. I must say that for old design professionals it is a
problem because the field is driven by economic consideration more
than anything else. Style change is usually linked to economic
factors, as all of you know who have read Marx. Also fatigue occurs
when people see too much of the same thing too often. So every ten
years or so there is a stylistic shift and things are made to look
different. Typefaces go in and out of style and the visual system
shifts a little bit. If you are around for a long time as a
designer, you have an essential problem of what to do. I mean,
after all, you have developed a vocabulary, a form that is your
own. It is one of the ways that you distinguish yourself from your
peers, and establish your identity in the field. How you maintain
your own belief system and preferences becomes a real balancing
act. The question of whether you pursue change or whether you
maintain your own distinct form becomes difficult. We have all seen
the work of illustrious practitioners that suddenly look
old-fashioned or, more precisely, belonging to another moment in
time. And there are sad stories such as the one about Cassandre,
arguably the greatest graphic designer of the twentieth century,
who couldn’t make a living at the end of his life and committed
suicide.
But the point is that anybody who is in this
for the long haul has to decide how to respond to change in the
zeitgeist. What is it that people now expect that they formerly
didn’t want? And how to respond to that desire in a way that
doesn’t change your sense of integrity and purpose.

7
HOW YOU LIVE CHANGES YOUR BRAIN.
The brain is the most responsive organ of the body. Actually it is
the organ that is most susceptible to change and regeneration of
all the organs in the body. I have a friend named Gerald Edelman
who was a great scholar of brain studies and he says that the
analogy of the brain to a computer is pathetic. The brain is
actually more like an overgrown garden that is constantly growing
and throwing off seeds, regenerating and so on. And he believes
that the brain is susceptible, in a way that we are not fully
conscious of, to almost every experience of our life and every
encounter we have. I was fascinated by a story in a newspaper a few
years ago about the search for perfect pitch. A group of scientists
decided that they were going to find out why certain people have
perfect pitch. You know certain people hear a note precisely and
are able to replicate it at exactly the right pitch. Some people
have relevant pitch; perfect pitch is rare even among musicians.
The scientists discovered – I don’t know how – that among people
with perfect pitch the brain was different. Certain lobes of the
brain had undergone some change or deformation that was always
present with those who had perfect pitch. This was interesting
enough in itself. But then they discovered something even more
fascinating. If you took a bunch of kids and taught them to play
the violin at the age of 4 or 5 after a couple of years some of
them developed perfect pitch, and in all of those cases their brain
structure had changed. Well what could that mean for the rest of
us? We tend to believe that the mind affects the body and the body
affects the mind, although we do not generally believe that
everything we do affects the brain. I am convinced that if someone
was to yell at me from across the street my brain could be affected
and my life might changed. That is why your mother always said,
‘Don’t hang out with those bad kids.’ Mama was right. Thought
changes our life and our behaviour. I also believe that drawing
works in the same way. I am a great advocate of drawing, not in
order to become an illustrator, but because I believe drawing
changes the brain in the same way as the search to create the right
note changes the brain of a violinist. Drawing also makes you
attentive. It makes you pay attention to what you are looking at,
which is not so easy.

8
DOUBT
IS BETTER THAN CERTAINTY.
Everyone always talks about
confidence in believing what you do. I remember once going to a
class in yoga where the teacher said that, spirituality speaking,
if you believed that you had achieved enlightenment you have merely
arrived at your limitation. I think that is also true in a
practical sense. Deeply held beliefs of any kind prevent you from
being open to experience, which is why I find all firmly held
ideological positions questionable. It makes me nervous when
someone believes too deeply or too much. I think that being
sceptical and questioning all deeply held beliefs is essential. Of
course we must know the difference between scepticism and cynicism
because cynicism is as much a restriction of one’s openness to the
world as passionate belief is. They are sort of twins. And then in
a very real way, solving any problem is more important than being
right. There is a significant sense of self-righteousness in both
the art and design world. Perhaps it begins at school. Art school
often begins with the Ayn Rand model of the single personality
resisting the ideas of the surrounding culture. The theory of the
avant garde is that as an individual you can transform the world,
which is true up to a point. One of the signs of a damaged ego is
absolute certainty.
Schools encourage the idea of not
compromising and defending your work at all costs. Well, the issue
at work is usually all about the nature of compromise. You just
have to know what to compromise. Blind pursuit of your own ends
which excludes the possibility that others may be right does not
allow for the fact that in design we are always dealing with a
triad – the client, the audience and you.
Ideally,
making everyone win through acts of accommodation is desirable. But
self-righteousness is often the enemy. Self-righteousness and
narcissism generally come out of some sort of childhood trauma,
which we do not have to go into. It is a consistently difficult
thing in human affairs. Some years ago I read a most remarkable
thing about love, that also applies to the nature of co-existing
with others. It was a quotation from Iris Murdoch in her obituary.
It read ‘ Love is the extremely difficult realisation that
something other than oneself is real.’ Isn’t that fantastic! The
best insight on the subject of love that one can imagine.

9
ON AGING.
Last year someone gave
me a charming book by Roger Rosenblatt called ‘Ageing Gracefully’ I
got it on my birthday. I did not appreciate the title at the time
but it contains a series of rules for ageing gracefully. The first
rule is the best. Rule number one is that ‘it doesn’t matter.’ ‘It
doesn’t matter that what you think. Follow this rule and it will
add decades to your life. It does not matter if you are late or
early, if you are here or there, if you said it or didn’t say it,
if you are clever or if you were stupid. If you were having a bad
hair day or a no hair day or if your boss looks at you cockeyed or
your boyfriend or girlfriend looks at you cockeyed, if you are
cockeyed. If you don’t get that promotion or prize or house or if
you do – it doesn’t matter.’ Wisdom at last. Then I heard a
marvellous joke that seemed related to rule number 10. A butcher
was opening his market one morning and as he did a rabbit popped
his head through the door. The butcher was surprised when the
rabbit inquired ‘Got any cabbage?’ The butcher said ‘This is a meat
market – we sell meat, not vegetables.’ The rabbit hopped off. The
next day the butcher is opening the shop and sure enough the rabbit
pops his head round and says ‘You got any cabbage?’ The butcher now
irritated says ‘Listen you little rodent I told you yesterday we
sell meat, we do not sell vegetables and the next time you come
here I am going to grab you by the throat and nail those floppy
ears to the floor.’ The rabbit disappeared hastily and nothing
happened for a week. Then one morning the rabbit popped his head
around the corner and said ‘Got any nails?’ The butcher said ‘No.’
The rabbit said ‘Ok. Got any cabbage?’

10
TELL THE TRUTH.
The rabbit joke is
relevant because it occurred to me that looking for a cabbage in a
butcher’s shop might be like looking for ethics in the design
field. It may not be the most obvious place to find either. It’s
interesting to observe that in the new AIGA’s code of ethics there
is a significant amount of useful information about appropriate
behaviour towards clients and other designers, but not a word about
a designer’s relationship to the public. We expect a butcher to
sell us eatable meat and that he doesn’t misrepresent his wares. I
remember reading that during the Stalin years in Russia that
everything labelled veal was actually chicken. I can’t imagine what
everything labelled chicken was. We can accept certain kinds of
misrepresentation, such as fudging about the amount of fat in his
hamburger but once a butcher knowingly sells us spoiled meat we go
elsewhere. As a designer, do we have less responsibility to our
public than a butcher? Everyone interested in licensing our field
might note that the reason licensing has been invented is to
protect the public not designers or clients. ‘Do no harm’ is an
admonition to doctors concerning their relationship to their
patients, not to their fellow practitioners or the drug companies.
If we were licensed, telling the truth might become more central to
what we do.”

 

This can be found on his site:
http://www.miltonglaser.com.

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