You know who Milton Glaser is. His work will have undoubtedly entered your life at some point, whether on an album cover you own, a T-shirt you wear to bed or a poster you once had.
Born in 1929, Glaser grew up in New York City and is best known for his I <3 NY logo, however his reach in the design world is far, far greater than this one masterpiece. Having been described as the best graphic designer of our generation, he still runs a small studio in Manhattan and in 2009 was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama. He was recently also the subject of a documentary film titled To Inform & Delight: The World of Milton Glaser which took viewers through a rough chronological adventure of his life. He is a co-founder of New York magazine, has designed and illustrated more than 300 posters (including the iconic print of Bob Dylan for CBS records), created unforgettable logos for DC comics and even interior designed supermarkets. i-D online caught up with the living legend to talk all things NYC, designer’s block and his favourite comic book heroes and villains.
In what specific ways has New York influenced your work? I was born here, I have been living here as a consequence since 1929, practically a century and do you think I can figure out how the city has affected my life? I mean in every way conceivable. Everything I do, every walk I take, everything I think has some relationship to growing up here. But as you know, we don’t understand what forms us and everything is just speculation. So I have no idea how the city has influenced my life, but I can say that it has been totally pervasive.
Which other graphic designers do you admire? Well I admire many graphic designers, certainly many of them are admirable. Massimo Vignelli, who is a good friend and a wonderful designer is one. There are certainly designers of my generation but also of previous generations like Paul Rand who was a wonderful designer and historically very significant. But my interest goes back beyond the official beginnings of graphic design, I mean certainly back to the art nouveau and arts and crafts movement and in fact to the history of printed materials. My influences come not out of graphic design but really out of the history of visual phenomena which means it goes back to the earliest cave drawings in terms of ideas; what form it is, what content it is, what expression it is and so on.
Your work has been characterised by its directness, simplicity and originality. How else would you describe your style? Well I don’t think it is so direct, I mean I think I am very interested in paradox and contradiction, transgression and those things that are not direct but I am also interested in people understanding what I am trying to tell them. Very often the ultimate way to make people understand what you are telling them is to be oblique or transgressive and that basically destroys any simplification of the idea of graphic design as direct.
What is the most difficult design brief you have faced? Now that is an interesting question. I never think of them as being difficult compared to what people have to do to earn a living. I mean cleaning out a sewer is difficult, doing a graphical design for a newspaper layout is easy. There were complex jobs like working on the communications for the world trade centre for the windows of the world, but I can’t say that any of them were really difficult. The things that make jobs difficult are illiterate clients.
What cures do you have for designer’s block? How do you get inspired? I don’t know how inspired I am always, but I always have enough competence to solve a problem at least in partial terms. And if genius doesn’t come it doesn’t come. What I do know how to do is how to solve a rational partial problem in a way that will meet the functional requirements, what I don’t know how to do is make all of those designs inspired.
Where did you get the idea for the DC comic logo? Oh I don’t know. The idea of letterforms themselves and the idea of a certain kind of attitude that was prevalent in the sixties and seventies to comic books and so on. That was really a simple type of graphical design and the only idea that was interesting in it was that instead of having a fixed point of view about what it looked like I had the idea that it was hurdling through space and you could see it at different angles and then you would have to interpret different angles to recognise the frontal version of the logo.
Who is your favourite comic book hero and villain? It would still be Superman and the Joker. That shows you how old I am!
Milton Glaser ‘To Inform and Delight’ is currently on show at Farmingdale State College and the DVD documentary of the same name is available here.
Text: Paris Bennett