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10 Design Career Lessons From Milton Glaser

10 Design Career Lessons From Milton Glaser
Laura Busche April 19, 2024 · 7 min read
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Milton Glaser was, without a doubt, one of the most influential graphic designers in history. Most famously known for his I♥NY logo, he also designed for DC Comics, Stony Brook University, Bob Dylan, and hundreds of businesses in virtually every industry. The Cooper-Hewitt Museum recognizes him as “the dean of American graphic design” since the 1970s and granted Glaser its prestigious National Design Award in 2004. In 2009, US president Barack Obama commemorated his career and iconic contributions with the National Medal of the Arts.
Glaser passed away on June 26, 2020, but his contributions to the field of graphic design are diverse and everlasting. Throughout this article, I’ll share ten career principles Milton Glaser lived by and emphasized every chance he got.
A collection of his work is available at miltonglaser.com

1. Design to inspire

Graphic design has an undeniable impact on the way we perceive messages and build the stories that help us make sense of our surroundings. Milton Glaser recognized and celebrated this role. In an interview for The Talks, he shared that designers must exercise good citizenship by preventing further mischief, poverty, and ignorance in society. His famous I♥NY logo was, in fact, an attempt to reframe residents’ and tourists’ perceptions of the city’s condition. Back in 1977, New York City was facing record-high crime rates and the possibility of bankruptcy. The campaign was commissioned by the NY Department of Economic Development and continues to be the official state slogan to this day. Glaser delivered the concept pro bono and the envelope he used for the original sketch now lives in the permanent collection of MoMA.

2. Put your work out there

Literally. As in take your work outside. Milton Glaser didn’t care what he was called, as long as his work and ideas became material. Real. Visible. He was interested in how his work intertwined with the city and became richer through its interaction with human beings. Staying connected to culture was crucial to him and made his work feel consistently relevant and timeless.

3. Be flexible and willing to try new mediums

Truly powerful design is interdisciplinary. It brings together ideas from different fields into a visual solution that effectively communicates what it intends to. Glaser created more than 300 posters for publishing, music, theater, film, institutional, civic, and commercial brands. His constant creative cross-pollination allowed him to develop a prolific body of work without losing that signature freshness he is now known for. Stretch your creative muscles. Expand your range. Depart from the known and venture into a new space. There are possibilities within your talent that you may otherwise never discover.

4. Teach what you know

Meaningful design work sends ripple waves across society, but design educators make sure we’ll feel new waves for decades to come. Milton Glaser dedicated his entire career to awakening our minds. He never missed a chance to offer his answers to design’s most fundamental questions, the types of topics you can easily miss when you’re knee-deep in production mode. Aside from a valuable contribution to future generations, Glaser believed that teaching helped him stay focused and prevent senility.

Glaser teaching a remote lecture to University of Buenos Aires, via @miltonglaserinc

5. Develop a distinctive voice

In 1968, Glaser co-founded New York Magazine, an iconic publication that has since inspired vernacular, irreverent takes on cities around the world. In launching the magazine, Glaser developed an outlet for his one-of-a-kind voice. His visual storytelling prowess met an opinionated love for the city, turning New York Magazine into an instant urban icon.
A poster Glaser designed for the magazine’s launch, which you can purchase from his studio
But Glaser’s voice wasn’t just about surfacing New York’s best-kept secrets, he was keen on making design more vocal about political issues. The Design of Dissent, a book he co-authored with Mirko Ilic, is solid proof that it can be done. Per the introductory text, “Dissent is an essential part of keeping democratic societies healthy, and our ability as citizens to voice our opinion is not only our privilege but our responsibility.”

6. Stay astonished

Normalizing your surroundings hurts your ability to create great work. In Glaser’s own words: “What I feel fortunate about is that I’m still astonished, that things still amaze me. And I think that that’s the great benefit of being in the arts, where the possibility for learning never disappears, where you basically have to admit you never learn it.â€

7. There’s no art vs. design. There’s good work and bad work.

In an interview for Commercial Art magazine, Glaser was asked about his point of view on the difference between a poster and “high art”. His answer gets at the core of graphic design’s role in society, dismissing the distinction between “high art” and commercial pieces as a merely theological issue that doesn’t serve the piece’s final purpose. He closes with a bold proposal: “Why don’t we discard the word ´art’ and replace it with the word ´work?’ Those objects made with care and extraordinary talent we can call ´great work’, those deserving special attention, but not breathtaking, we call ´good work’. Honest, appropriately made objects without special distinction we name ´work’ alone. And what remains deserves the title ´bad work’. One simple fact encourages me in this proposal; we value a good rug, a beautiful book, or a good poster over any bad painting.

8. Say more with less

Glaser believed strong ideas could stand up for themselves. Whenever you’re adding layers, effects, or ornaments to something you’re working on, consider the strength of the original concept. Does it really need this additional element? Am I trying to distract from the core idea here? Is there something I need to address before adding more depth or visual interest? In his own words, “the next time you see a sixteen-color, blind-embossed, gold-stamped, die-cut, elaborately folded and bound job, printed on handmade paper, see if it isn’t a mediocre idea trying to pass for something else.â€

9. Trust your instincts

Decades after his initial rendering of I♥NY, Milton Glaser admitted it took him about 10 seconds. He claimed his inspiration came from memories of romantic carvings in tree trunks, where lovers mark their initials and usually connect them with a heart pierced by an arrow. This sense of serendipity and trusting the moment is repetitive throughout Glaser’s career, also coming to life in his posters. When referring to his 1960s monoprint work, Glaser stated that “works that are too preconceived tend to go dead. To become inert” (in Milton Glaser: To Inform and Delight).

10. Cultivate a mindset of abundance

In an interview for Debbie Millman’s “How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer”, Glaser shared his perspective on scarcity and abundance. “If you perceive the universe as being a universe of abundance, then it will be. If you think of the universe as one of scarcity, then it will be…I always thought that there was enough of everything to go around – that there are enough ideas in the universe and enough nourishment.” In a society where novel ideas seem increasingly hard to come across and develop, Glaser is of the opinion that we should shift our consciousness to envision the opportunities that lie ahead. It’s about cultivating a mindset that empowers you; believing doors will open for those who knock and that there are enough doors for all.

Learn more about Milton Glaser’s work

In “Milton Glaser: To Inform and Delight”, filmmaker Wendy Keys explores Glaser’s life and contributions to the field of graphic design. His namesake studio offers information about his career and reprints for his most iconic posters.


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About the Author
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Laura Busche

Brand strategist. Creating design tools to empower creative entrepreneurs. Author of the Lean Branding book. MA in Design Management from the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD).

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