Why the world needs more poetry


(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 3 2015)

Milton Glaser is regarded as one of the most significant graphic designers, illustrators and poster artists of the modern era. His works range from architecture to furniture design. One of his most well-known works, and now a much-desired collector’s item is the famous poster of Bob Dylan in 1967. In addition, the designer created many signets such as the legendary New York rebus logo from the year 1975, which has since then been adapted many times. He allows us, the creators of the Produktkulturmagazin, not only a deep insight into his world, he also created the cover of the current autumn edition. Thanks Milton!

Mr Glaser, what does your work and art mean to you?

Milton Glaser: Making things has always been the centre of my life. There is nothing more meaningful to me than the act of translating an idea that exists in the mind into physical reality. This, of course, may also be the greatest attribute of the human species. Whether this activity comes under the heading of “art” is a judgement of history, but as a survival mechanism for the species it is undeniable. Nothing gives me more satisfaction, or more pleasure, than this activity 

Where do you think you have your talent and ability to identify the essentials from?

m. G.: If you mean, ‘how do you go about solving a problem?’, part of all problems is objectification and the attempt to identify what the real issues are, as opposed to the apparent ones. It begins in the realm of the rational, but it might be that extraordinary answers arise from the unconscious and the ability of our brains to connect seemingly unrelated events. Apparently my mind is good at this. On the other hand, I always remember that the mind is the slayer of the soul.   

You once said that the world of art didn’t want democracy. What did you mean exactly?

m. G.: I don’t remember ever having said that the art world didn’t want democracy. First of all, I have difficulty imaging what the art world is. Who’s in it and who’s out of it? Is it the world of gallery dealers, museums, rich donors, and pretentious journalists? Or is it everyone who makes things, regardless of their designation? In any case, we know that decisions made by groups are complex and frequently self-contradicting. The great works of art in human history have, by and large, been created by unfettered individuals. Actually, I don’t feel this question can be answered…  

To what extent can culture influence people in terms of mutual respect, tolerance and acceptance?

m. G.: I’ve always believed and occasionally written about the fact that art is a survival mechanism; that if you like Mozart and I like Mozart, we have something in common. Art is one of the few ways we have of transcending our ego and sense of isolation from others. In addition, because it is a shared experience, it creates a model of generosity that many of the other artefacts of civilization do not. It offers an antidote to the selfish, self-absorption that one encounters in every day affairs.  

What is the difference between art and design?

m. G.: In simple terms, design is the act of going from an existing condition to a preferred one. Design begins with purpose. Art’s principle intentions are to enable people to understand what is real and as previously noted, to develop a sense of commonality.   

How important is poetry in all that you do?

m. G.: If you mean by “poetry” the discovery of invisible relationships that are not rationally observable, then it is not only important, it is essential.  

How could we shape the world more simply with poetry?

m. G.: The first thing to do is to forget about shaping the world. The second is to express your feelings and observations in a powerful and authentic way.  

When does something attract your attention? What warms your heart?

m. G.: What attracts me is any time an unexpected truth is revealed. What warms my heart is the experience that my perception of the world has changed.  

Why did you decide for Italy as your second study location?

m. G.: I received a Fulbright Scholarship from the American government. It was a study project that required me to be in Florence and Milan. The government thought that Bologna would be an appropriate site because it is between those two cities. Quite by chance, Giorgio Morandi was teaching etching at the Academy at the same time that I became one of his students.  It was the best thing that ever happened to me. 

What fascinated you about your teacher and mentor, Giorgio Morandi?

m. G.: The most important thing about Morandi, as it is in all great teachers, was not what he said. It was, in fact, who he was. As a teacher he said little, except for “’coraggio’ as you plunge your metal plate into the acid bath.” I suppose to some degree, that word represents one of the most profound guides of how to live a life. He was a man who simply wanted to do his work. As someone said,’ he lived modestly and produced monuments.’

What comes to mind when you think of the Italian mentality and the architectural feats lasting over a century, which also represent a form of art?

m. G.: One might consider the entire nation a work of art. Its paintings, architectural works, monuments, food, language and everything else one encounters seems to me now to be instructive about the essential rewards that life can offer. Living in Italy changes your view about the relationship between life and art.  

Just after your degree you founded the design agency ‘Push Pin Studios’, which the Milton Glaser Incorporation evolved from in 1974. What was the motivation for taking the risky step into self-employment?

m. G.: I basically left Push Pin studios because it had become too successful and was attracting work that conformed to what it had already done. As usual, professional life prefers successful repetition to risky innovation. As a result, because I had lost interest in much of what we were producing, I decided to start over with a blank slate. Changing yourself is a fundamental issue for anyone who becomes visible and successful. There is always risk in starting all over. The alternative being to continue to do something until you have lost interest in it. 

What advice can you give young people who also want to found their own companies?

m. G.: It depends on your motivation, but it seems to me that the fundamental issue is to produce great work. This is not easy, particularly because it gets confused with making a lot of money, but those are very different objectives.  

How can an employer manage to successfully pass on their own spirit to their employees?

m. G.: Just as Morandi didn’t attempt to indoctrinate his students, a good employer will, through his very being, inspire those who work with him. This is not necessarily always the case, but it’s the only way to begin.

In 1968 you produced the one-minute cartoon ‘Mickey Mouse in Vietnam’, a statement against the war. How did the idea occur? What resonance have you received?

m. G.: I was friends with a man named Lee Savage who produced movies and we both wanted to do an anti-war film with no budget. For whatever reason, I thought of the idea of Mickey Mouse going to Vietnam and then getting killed. The idea of killing Mickey Mouse seemed so incomprehensible that it provoked a powerful effect. We see Mickey leaving the boat and walking into Vietnam, a shot rings out, the camera comes close to Mickey’s face as his eyes close and the music changes from Mickey Mouse’s music to the Brahms’ Requiem. It was all done crudely in pencil but turned out to be extremely powerful, and moved many people.  

In the same year you created the legendary ‘New York’ magazine. What visions did you have for the magazine at that time? What message was it to convey?

m. G.: I started New York magazine with Clay Felker, a good friend of mine, who first worked for a Sunday supplement called “New York” that was produced by the Herald Tribune. The Tribune went out of business in New York and the name became available. Clay found a group of sponsors who were interested in buying the name and starting a new magazine. It represented two different sensibilities: Clay was a Midwestern boy who wanted to find out about high life in New York, wanted to look into the windows of the rich and powerful and discover what their lives were like. I was a Jewish kid who grew up in the Bronx, born of Hungarian immigrants, was interested in art, cheap restaurants, and popular culture. The two of us made a perfect combination to reflect the contradictions and complexity of New York life. I guess one of the messages we wanted to convey was ‘it’s a great party.’ 

In your opinion, how has it developed both in terms of content and layout?

m. G.: Obviously, the magazine has changed in many ways, responding to the surrounding atmosphere. It still retains some core elements of its beginnings but otherwise, like all literary periodicals, it has adapted to a new world.  

What defines a good magazine for you? 

m. G.: I guess I would use the same definitions as the paraphrased quote I once used to define the role of art, as originally stated by Horace, and that is “to inform and delight” 

What potential influence does the modern media have on us in your opinion? 

m. G.: The effect of technology on human behaviour and culture is entirely too complex to understand, except, perhaps, retrospectively. We know that a single technological change, say, the automobile, transformed everything in America and the world in ways that could not have been understood. The profound changes in Technology, wich that we are now surrendering to, are affecting every aspect of our desires and behaviour in ways that will not be evident for another 50 years, and perhaps not even then. Of course, the most significant question is what effect does it have on the brain and the heart?

You have worked with pencil and paper for over 60 years despite digitalisation. Why is there no real alternative for you? 

m. G.: Working with pencil and paper and above all learning to draw in order to understand what I am looking at is fundamental to everything else I have accomplished in my life. As a consequence, I am less likely to be a victim of technology than to exploit it for my own objectives. I love the computer because I can impose my will on it. It is an enormous time saver and I don’t feel I have very much more time.


Milton Glaser was born on June 26th 1929. The American graphic designer, illustrator and typographer studied at the Cooper Union in New York between 1948 and 1951, and from 1952 to 1953 at the Accademia delle Belle Arti in the Italian city of Bologna. His teacher was Giorgio Morandi, who became renowned worldwide, predominantly for his still life paintings. Following this, together with Seymour Chwast, Reynold Ruffins and Edward Sorel, Milton Glaser became founding member of Push Pin Studios, a New York design agency from which the Milton Glaser Incorporation later emerged. The 86 year old is one of the most significant graphic designers of the new era. His works range from architecture to furniture design and represent an individual and colourful drawing style. His most well-known work of art is, without a doubt, the Rebus logo ‘I LOVE NY’, which he created in 1975 and became famous with. In 2009 he was presented with the ‘National Medal of Arts’ by president Barack Obama.


Picture credits © Courtesy of Milton Glaser, Inc

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