An Interview with Milton Glaser
If graphic design has a grand master, then Milton Glaser is Michelangelo. The Dylan poster. The oh-so-ripped-off “I ‘Heart’ NY” logo. The image for Angels in America. New York magazine. Everything else.
Glaser has worked nonstop for over forty-five years, co-founding the revolutionary Pushpin Studios in 1954, launching New York magazine with Clay Felker in 1968, establishing Milton Glaser, Inc. in 1974, and teaming with Walter Bernard in 1983 to form the publication design firm WBMG. Throughout his career, Glaser has created hundreds of posters and prints, and his artwork has been featured in exhibits worldwide, including one-man shows at both the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
In 1973 he published what is widely regarded as the first graphic design monograph, Milton Glaser: Graphic Design, and in 2000 he published Art Is Work—essentially “Episode II” of his professional life.
We talked on a stifling July afternoon in the small conference room of his adorable, toylike brownstone in the Murray Hill section of Manhattan. Fun fact: Throughout the interview Mr. Glaser held in either hand (and occasionally waved) a bright piggy-pink colored pencil.
“AND IT CAME TO ME AS AN IMAGE, YOU KNOW,
IT’S A MARK, IT’S A BLACK MARK ON THE HEART.”
CHIP KIDD: You write in Art is Work that the very famous “I ‘Heart’ New York” logo you designed was originally proposed as something else.
MILTON GLASER: Yes.
CK: And what was the something else?
MG: It was just a little typographical solution with two lozenges and a word in it, two ovals, and the word inside it; it was not in any way distinguished. But I always thought the whole thing was going to be a three-month campaign.
MG: It was like one of those things you bang out because it didn’t seem to merit any more attention.
MG: But even so, I said, “This [the first solution] isn’t good enough,” And I tell the anecdote. You just never understand what makes certain ideas that you have cling to people.
CK: But it saved New York.
MG: I have to say that when you do something that you really feel is useful—when you have a positive social effect—it makes you feel great.
CK: God, I can’t imagine. At the time you got the assignment, did it really feel like, “Shit, New York is doomed”?
MG: Well, it was the mid-seventies, a terrible moment in the city. Morale was at the bottom of the pit. I always say you can tell by the amount of dog shit in the street.
CK: Dog shit.
MG: Yes. There was so much dog shit because people didn’t feel that they deserved anything else, right? I mean you were just walking through all this dog shit day after day, in this filthy city, garbage, and so on. And then the most extraordinary thing happened: There was a shift in sensibility. One day people said, “I’m tired of stepping in dog shit. Get this fucking stuff out of my way.” And the city began to react. They said, “If you allow your dog to crap on the street, you have to pay a fine of $100,” and within a very short time it became socially untenable to allow your dog to shit on the street. Now, I don’t know what produces those behavioral shifts, right? From one day where it’s OK, and then suddenly the city simultaneously got fed up and said, “It’s our city, we’re going to take it back, we’re not going to allow this stuff to happen.” And part of that moment was this campaign. More than anything else it was a device to encourage tourism.
MG: And it was supported by a very clever advertising campaign that Wells, Rich, Greene did, with good music. But I thought it was going to go away after a couple of months, and here it is, thirty or so years later and still kicking around. Selling T-shirts in the street and still making a lot of money.
CK: Did you make any money off of it?
MG: No. It was all pro bono.
CK: Oh my God. “I ‘Heart’ New York” was pro bono! Yikes! Frightening!
MG: No, that’s what it should be. You want to do things like that, where you feel you can actually change things.
CK: Yes, and affect the culture. Do you mind that the logo is ripped off so much?
MG: No. I mean, look, we have such a weird idea of the relationship of design to the culture, but—I believe the best people in the world are involved in making things. There’s this talk I give in which I compare the idea of Thanatos and Eros, the instinct towards death and the instinct towards life. And people who make things are on the side of Eros. For the right project, you can get good people—the best people—to work for nothing, which is one of the characteristics of being in the world of Eros—you don’t work for money, but you certainly work for your peers’ approval.
CK: [To microphone] Did you hear that? That’s why I’m in publishing.
MG: That’s true of everyone who cares. So I’m very happy when I see an idea that I have enter into the culture, whatever form it takes. The only thing one worries about is when your ideas become repeated sufficiently so your own work looks banal and stupid.
CK: Pssssh. I don’t think that would be the case with that logo.
MG: Well, that logo has an odd characteristic by now, that it doesn’t look like anybody designed it.
CK: No. Exactly.
MG: It looks like a weird historical thing.
CK: The design itself is invisible.
MG: Yes. Basically, you don’t have a concept, “Oh, this is something that was designed.” It just seems so… I guess, inevitable. And the best sort of things you do look inevitable, I suppose.
CK: And then the adaptation of it to the 9/11 cause. How did that happen?
MG: I woke up one day, a few days after 9/11. I thought, you know, “I love New York” isn’t the story anymore. Something happened. And I realized that what had happened was an injury, like when a friend of yours, somebody you love, gets terribly sick. You suddenly become conscious of how much you care for them. That’s the inevitable consequence of somebody you have affection for. And I realized that my feeling about the city had deepened.
CK: I think it did for everybody.
MG: A confident giant is hard to love, but a vulnerable giant is easy to love. All of us became aware that the city was vulnerable. Everybody’s heart was bursting with this feeling, “God, I belong here. It’s my city.” And it came to me as an image, you know, it’s a mark, it’s a black mark on the heart. And the result of it was that I found my sense of concern and affection for the city intensify. Which was shared by most people.
CK: You could really feel it, just walking down the street.
MG: I mean, everybody felt the same way. And so I said, “Gee, I love New York more than ever as a result of this.” So the most difficult thing of course is how to introduce one’s ideas into the bloodstream of the culture. It’s very difficult without money or support or approval, because the nature of institutions is to resist all ideas from the outside. Anything that comes over the transom, throw it into the garbage. So I went to the School [of Visual Arts], and I spoke to Silas Rhodes [founder of SVA]. And I said, “Silas, I’d like to do a poster for the subways with this.” He said, “Great.” And I said, “One more thing: If I get a bunch of these printed out, could we have the kids distribute them around the city?” He said, “Sure.” So I got a printer, and he said, “I’ll do it for nothing.” And so we printed 5,000 small posters. And so the kids divided the city into segments, and overnight, these posters appeared in windows all over town. And then I called Pete Hammill over at the Daily News, an old friend of mine. And I said, “Pete, I have something, and I wonder if you could find some use for it, or run it in the paper, or show it to Ed Kosner [editor in chief of the New York Daily News],” who I also worked with. He said, “Great, send it down,” so I sent it down, and they called me back and said, “We’ll find a way to use it.” And a day later, they used it as a wraparound for that day’s edition of the paper—the whole thing—and there were a million copies of it out there.
CK: Which pleased you.
MG: Oh, I was thrilled, I couldn’t have been happier. But you see, I realized I had to be resourceful—not just to do the work, but to get it distributed throughout the system. And then somebody from WNYC called, and they said, “Could we use it in a fundraiser?” I said, “Great, and I’ll sign some for you, and you can offer it on the air to raise money.” So they offered it for a hundred dollars unsigned or a thousand signed. That little piece of dreck!
MG: And they raised $190,000.
MG: And of course they publicized that. Then there were articles, and it was picked up, and suddenly I’d found a way to get into the system.
CK: A lot of people where I work [Knopf] had it up on the walls of their cubicles and offices, and somebody asked me, “Why is it burnt in the lower-left part?” And I said, “Because that’s where the World Trade Center is.” Now, is that—right?
CK: Good. That, to me, was the genius touch of that design.
MG: Thank you. I had to explain it to a lot of people who didn’t get it. But that’s par for the course.
MG: I also have to say that a bureaucrat from the Commerce Department called me and said, “You know, we’d like to use that.” And the irony is, I had sent them the thing at the outset and they didn’t respond at all. So after it came out in the news, a bureaucrat from the Commerce Department called and he said, “We’d like to use the ‘I Love New York,’” I said, “Great.” He said, “But we’re not going to put the black mark on the heart.”
MG: And I said, “Sorry, you can’t do it without the black mark on the heart, because that’s the whole point of it.”
MG: And he said, “We’re not going to put any black marks on our heart.” I said, “OK, so you can’t use it.” He said, “You know, you’re in violation of our trademark.” And my heart sank, and I said, “Yeah,” So he said, “So don’t try to use it in any way.”
CK: What! Now, wait, who is this?
MG: No, I can’t tell you.
CK: No, no, no, not names, but what does he do?
MG: Let’s just say it’s someone who’s involved with administrating the “I Love New York” logo and making sure that nobody uses it without paying for it, because years after we introduced it the state registered it. So now there’s an agency that gets money for every time “I Love New York” is used anywhere. I’d be very curious to find out how much money they’ve raised. I’d suspect it is significant. So anyhow—
CK: So you’re not bitter at all about not seeing any of it?
MG: What do you mean?
CK: You’re not bitter at all about not seeing any money from it?
MG: Oh, no, not at all.
MG: Because I have enough money. I don’t have to worry about money in my life, so it’s fine. I mean, I’m not a poor person, so there it is. If I didn’t have any money to live on, maybe I’d be bitter. Anyhow, so the design is in the city, it’s on the street, so sue me. Then I get this very nasty letter from a lawyer who runs this agency as an outside supplier to the state, saying, “I want all your documents, all your papers, saying how much money you’ve made, we’re going to subpoena you, we’re going to take you to court.” I couldn’t believe it. So I sent a letter to [Governor] Pataki, because of course I hadn’t made any money. Every penny that was made on it went to either the firemen’s fund, or to restore the antenna on WNYC or something. So it was clear: There was no documentation, no paper trail, the whole point of it was not to benefit from it. I also didn’t license it to anybody, because I didn’t want anybody else to make money off it, which would be totally inappropriate. And the energy that drives the city is somebody making money on some deal, right? But there was no such thing here. So I sent a letter to Pataki and I said what the New York Times had said, basically, in a story in their Metro section. And a few days later, this bureaucrat calls me back, he says, “Look, it was an over-zealous employee. We shouldn’t have done that. That was really a mistake. We shouldn’t have threatened you. And it was an error. Could we just forget about it?” So I said, “Sure, why don’t we just forget about it.”
MG: But it’s just another example of the kind of nasty stupidity you get into when you encounter these kind of situations.
CK: No good deed goes unpunished.
“BUT IT’S MORE COMPLICATED
THAN JUST CIGARETTES.”
CK: Where and when did you grow up? What was the milieu?
MG: I was born in 1929, a critical year in the United States—the beginning of the Depression. And I grew up in the Bronx, in a radical left-wing neighborhood that was called Little Moscow by people outside of the area. It was a climate of left-wing activity, the beginnings of the labor movement, the beginnings of the civil rights movement, in the first integrated housing in the U.S.
CK: Were your parents involved in all that?
MG: My parents were not. My father was a tailor, who had a store in the area. He was not politically active at all, though my aunt and uncle and everybody else I knew was. This was a time of tremendous affirmation—the beginning of the American Labor Party, and the beginning of the social programs of the Roosevelt administration. It was a terrific point in time.
CK: I would imagine, but did you ever feel at odds with it? Was it scary?
MG: I suppose I’ve always felt slightly removed from the world. But in that area, the place to be was on the left, because it was for social and racial justice. It was for all the things that have become the earmarks of liberal thinking, even though you can’t use that word anymore. And it really shaped me into believing that one of the things you did in life was try to add to the dialogue of your time, and basically be active in the life of your city and community and your country. It was a wonderful moment, and it was very interesting because they [the community] were largely European Jews who came from Eastern Europe who were mostly in the textile trades that surrounded me when I was growing up. They had their own internal arguments between Trotsky and the Bolsheviks and so on, but the great turning point for all those people was the Hitler-Stalin pact, at which point they could no longer deal with the contradictions of those political issues. It was marvelous to see the positive effect that community had on union wages, on the growth of the social contract between the government and the people—all of which is gradually being dismantled. But it was a great moment—a real triumph of what I could call leftist ideology, in a positive sense, which is: Government is responsible for large areas of people’s lives—social security, Medicare, and so on.
CK: So you must be quite disappointed with the situation now.
MG: Oh, it’s a disaster, and a terrible trick on the American people. The idea of dismantling all these benefits, cynically, for the benefit of a very few people, is the most outrageous thing that has happened in recent times.
CK: Do you feel as a designer that you want to try to do something about it?
MG: I do try to do something about it, and as a designer what you can do is—since your role is to communicate ideas to the larger culture—you can use that role to not communicate those ideas you basically don’t feel are healthy for people. I did that Road To Hell thing. Did you ever see that in the AIGA [American Institute of Graphic Arts] Journal?
CK: Yes, though I’m a bit fuzzy on it.
MG: It’s just a series of questions about what you’re willing to do, starting with things that are very benign, like making a package look larger on a shelf. And then ending with contributing to a person’s death if they use the product that you advertise, and everything sort of in between. Because that is really the issue—what are you willing to do as part of your life as a designer when you are an intermediary between an audience and a client? Is your job simply to respond to everything the client wants, or do you say, “I have a personal responsibility, my sense as a citizen, to make some judgments about the implications of what I’m saying to people.”
CK: Do you mean in terms of, say, taking on a cigarette company as a client?
MG: Yes, sure. But it’s more complicated than just cigarettes—that’s always used as a kind of clear demonstration, because killing people is not something you want to be involved in. But there are all kinds of other more complex ethical decisions that are intrinsically difficult to figure out, the nature of ethics being that there is no clarity on every issue—you have to make an essential decision about where you want to be in the world.
CK: My favorite contradiction with that is: Yes, but I just love Raymond Lowey’s Lucky Strike package, and I wouldn’t want to be without it.
MG: Are you a smoker?
MG: That’s why.
CK: [Laughter] Countless times I’ve tried to start, and it just never took. But just as decorative objects, cigarette packages can be so beautiful. At least those of a certain era.
MG: Well, that’s why you discover in the world of advertising for instance, and to some degree in graphics, the focus is always on aesthetics, not on meaning, right?
MG: So you get an award for doing a beautiful package, but without any discussion of the consequences of using the product, because that was not something you’re supposed to consider. After all, design is concerned with beauty, not with what happens when somebody uses the product they advertise. I think it’s a very individual issue, and people who are overly self-righteous who use this as a device to beat up on others are not very admirable. But I do think it’s an issue of your own sense of how you want to be in the world.
“IF YOU CAN’T OVERCOME
A FATHER’S RESISTANCE, YOU’RE
NEVER GOING TO BE ABLE TO OVERCOME
THE WORLD’S RESISTANCE.”
CK: How did your parents feel about your wanting to become an artist? I assume that’s what you always wanted.
MG: Yes. I tell the story: At the age of five I made that decision. In my parents I had the perfect combination—a resistant father and an encouraging mother. My mother convinced me I could do anything. And my father said, “Prove it.” He didn’t think I could make a living. Resistance produces muscularity. And it was the perfect combination because I could use my mother’s belief to overcome my father’s resistance. My father was a kind of a metaphor for the world, because if you can’t overcome a father’s resistance you’re never going to be able to overcome the world’s resistance. It’s much better than having completely supportive parents or completely resistant parents.
CK: Hmm, I’ve never thought of it that way. So you had a sort of a yin and yang. Did you see coupling art with design as a way to make a living making art? I mean, you’re a wonderful painter and drawer, and you could have thought, “That’s what I’m going to do,” as opposed to applying the stuff, well, commercially.
MG: Well, as you know, when you make that decision, you don’t know what the hell you’re getting yourself into. At the age of five, you decide to be an artist—you don’t know what that means. Also, you don’t know why you’ve made that decision, you’re totally unconscious. Where does the model come from for being an artist? How do you know at the age of five that that’s what you want to be—what have you seen, what have you heard? It’s very mysterious. Particularly when this decision occurs in early childhood, with nothing to do with anything except the sense of pleasure I derived from doing it. I was overcome; I just wanted to do nothing else. When I was eight I had rheumatic fever and I was in bed for almost a year. And my life consisted of working on a wooden board that my mother would bring to me—it was a plank about this tall—and several pounds of clay. And every day I would make either a city or an army, or animals or figures, and so on. At the end of every day I would pound them down [hits table] and I would spend the night dreaming of starting again the next day. And I realized that art had redeemed my life, because I was never bored for a minute that whole year.
CK: Was there ever anything that you regretted pounding down?
MG: No, no, it was the experience of doing it that was so fantastic for me. [To assistant] Goodbye, sweetie-pie. I’ll see you tomorrow. In response to your question about design, I never had a construct in my mind what being an artist meant; obviously, you have to learn that later. And I never had an idea that painting was a way for me to be in the world, because I couldn’t imagine the idea of making things to sell to people. I just couldn’t get that—you make a painting and someone buys it because it’s shown in the gallery. But I loved the idea of making things that were useful to people. And I started out doing comic strips, like most people do.
CK: Did you invent your own characters?
MG: Yes. I started out by copying Walt Disney, very early, and then invented comic strips.
CK: And who were your characters?
MG: Oh, they were cowboys, and high school things, and so on. I guess the narrative thing was always something I loved, telling stories through pictures.
CK: So why not become a cartoonist?
MG: I would have loved that, and I thought that was what I was going to be. Early on I had obtained the name of a cartoonist—what was his name? Sheffield?—who was a cousin of somebody. So I took my comic strips down to 42nd Street, where he had an atelier—a room about half this size—covered with cigarette butts. I went up to see him; I was wearing a blue double-breasted suit and a vest, and it was a day like this—eighty-five degrees—midsummer.
CK: And how old were you?
MG: I was twelve and I got on the subway from the Bronx. Sweating. I came there about two hours early, I was so excited. I lugged this portfolio up to see him. And he was smoking a cigarette, doing these dreadful drawings, whatever he was doing, and he opened my portfolio and he looked at it, and he said, “Kid, the next time you do one of these strips, use a ruler for the boxes.” That was it.
CK: How helpful.
MG: But that’s what I wanted to do; I wanted to be a cartoonist. I went to an extraordinary high school here, the New York High School of Music and Art, which in those days was fantastically interesting and sophisticated. I met kids who were from every kind of family in the city, because it was, I suppose, a meritocracy: Everybody who had the talent got in.
CK: How did you get there?
MG: I took a taxi. And it was a marvelous school, very high academic gradings; you did art or music for half a year, four hours a day. It was fantastic. I remember the first day I went to school, the teacher was giving a lecture on Cézanne. I was fourteen or fifteen years old. And by the time I got through with music and art, I realized there was another kind of world that went beyond my dream of being a cartoonist. I didn’t know exactly what it was yet, that there was such a thing called design.
CK: So you did learn about design at that point.
MG: Yes, I did, they had courses on poster design, and other kinds of design, as well as painting.
CK: And dealing with type?
MG: The beginning of typography, not a lot of it, because there weren’t enough people teaching it in those days.
CK: I wouldn’t think so.
MG: So at that time I began to see that there was a range of opportunities. In between cartooning and painting there was a lot of other stuff going on that also interested me.
After I got out of school, I flunked the entrance examination to Pratt.
MG: I did. I was promised a scholarship but I flunked the entrance examination, so I went to the dean and I said, “You promised me a scholarship.” He said, “I can’t give you a scholarship if you can’t even pass the entrance exam.” So I said, “What can I do, I didn’t apply to anyplace else.” So he says, “Well, I have an idea. Take the night school entrance examination. You’ll come to school, you’ll go for a year, then I’ll give you a scholarship to the daytime.” So I took the nighttime examination, and I failed that. [Laughs]
CK: Wait a minute. What are you failing, are you failing math, English, what?
MG: No, the art exam!
MG: Yes, the art exam. It was a series of five questions that you filled out; I thought I did them rather well.
CK: That seems impossible to me.
MG: No, it’s not. That’s what happened, who knows why. So then I went to work, because I hadn’t applied to any other school, and I took a job at a packaging company. I also attended the Art Students’ League at the same time. Then I learned a little about professional life—I was an apprentice, and at the end of the year, they made me the art director of this packaging outfit. But of course I was doing the same thing whether they called me an art director or an apprentice—I was wrapping packages and schlepping them to the post office. But it gave me a real sense of what I wanted to be doing professionally. Then I went to Cooper Union. And there I got a wonderful education.
CK: Is that where you studied with Morandi?
MG: No, that’s after I got out of Cooper Union—I got a Fulbright. But at Cooper, I got a terrific grounding in typography, and in design, and I continued painting. Cooper really is a superb school.
CK: Who did you study with there, anybody who I would recognize?
MG: Well, lots of wonderful teachers: The guy who was made dean was Raymond Dowden who taught design, and Paul Mayén was somebody who also taught industrial design, a marvelous named Dingellian who taught three-dimensional design. It was full of interesting people and completely devoted teachers, teaching out of passion and devotion to their ideals. In fact, my education in New York has been superb. I got the most fabulous education in this city. It really shaped my life. But after that I got a Fulbright, and went to Bologna for a couple of years, and I studied etching with Giorgio Morandi. That was a big influence on me. After I was married I went back and lived in Rome and did lithography for a while, but I came back here and started Pushpin.
CK: Which we’ll get back to. But I have one question, which is just a personal thing—I’m curious—at what point did you hear about some of the more avant-garde movements? At what point did you learn about Russian Constructivism?
MG: I learned about that in high school, in Music and Art. There was a terrific opportunity to learn about art history, and a tremendously stimulating environment to that kind of inquiry. It was in high school I began to really understand the nature of the history of both design and painting. It was a very advanced school.
CK: That’s amazing. I mean, I didn’t learn about that stuff until I went to college, and that was in the eighties.
MG: No, high school was really the beginning of it, and I was certainly passionate about the subject. I’ve always had a terrific historical interest. I mean, for me the subject of the history of the arts is so fundamental to what I think you need to understand in this profession.
CK: Definitely. So, you started Pushpin in what year?
CK: And it was you and Seymour Chwast?
MG: And Ed Sorel and Reynold Ruffins.
CK: Would you say that was the first graphic design studio of its kind… in New York? In the country?
MG: No, there were other studios around at the time. I guess there were several kinds: There were big illustration studios, and there were a handful of design offices, like the Lowey office, there were groups of illustrators that were doing things like automotive art, people servicing G.M. and that kind of stuff. It was at the very beginning of design studios comprised of groups of individuals; there were practitioners who I assume had some help, like Alvin Lustig. And Ivan Chermayeff used to work for Lustig, for instance.
CK: When you first started Pushpin, did you find it hard to work up a big client base? Was it hard to get started?
MG: Yes, it was, but not any harder than it is for anyone just entering the field. We had the great advantage of having the little publication we produced—at first the Pushpin Almanac and then the Pushpin Graphic. That was, in retrospect, a tremendous device for getting clients.
CK: How did you know who to send it to?
MG: We just sort of put together a list we would add to, found out who was in the Art Directors Club; we got a list of agencies. Basically, we were looking for art directors in agencies and art directors in publications. Eventually we had several thousand names, and people were subscribing to it.
MG: It was tremendously beneficial to us. It really was the single thing that accounted, I think, for our success. Because it was constant. It came out every month or two, whereas everybody else would send out a promotion and then wouldn’t send out anything for a year. The frequency of the Pushpin Graphic made a big difference.
CK: It must have been hard to keep that up.
MG: It was, but we were younger.
MG: And it was our life.
“THE WORST SCAM THAT WAS EVER
PERFORMED ON THE INNOCENT
AMERICAN PEOPLE IS THIS IDEA
THAT RETIREMENT IS DESIRABLE.”
CK: So how is business now?
MG: I suppose there’s more than one way of answering that, because I have a small office, and I have people I’ve worked with for a long time, and there’s enough work to justify my coming in every day. Which is all I want. The business climate, particularly in the design world, is as bad as it’s ever been, at least within my memory. So for most people, I think, it’s ghastly.
CK: Why do you think that is? The reason I ask is because you’d think, as bad as the economy is, everyone will always need something designed. I don’t think design is a luxury anymore, do you? Was it ever?
MG: No, it’s not. But several things happen in a stringent economic climate. People get very concerned about being adventurous. They basically don’t want to take risks. The economic constriction causes people to play it safer; they don’t want to do anything where there’s a possibility of losing even more money. So there tends to be a kind of conservative view of the function of design. And, of course, the adventurous part of design always comes about because people are willing to take risks and go along and see if something works or not. Now there is so much concern about certainty, you have to justify expense, so if you’re going to spend money on design, you’re going to make sure that it’s going to succeed. Which means you’re going to do it in a way that’s been successful before. Which means you’re not going to try to innovate or work in a new, fresh direction. That’s one aspect of it. But maybe that doesn’t apply so much to the nature of the amount of business, but it has to do with the quality of expectation that people in business are looking for. There is a kind of withdrawal from the idea of design as an artistic activity to a utilitarian one; there’s always that balance. But in the same way that industry doesn’t see any need to support opera anymore, the concern for aesthetics or beauty diminishes when you’re in a climate that says, “I need to get the biggest bang for my buck.” The economics of design have changed very dramatically with the influx of thousands of practitioners every year, because some years ago design suddenly became a glamorous profession, and now every year the design schools are pouring graduates into the bloodstream of the activity. Which means that there are countless numbers of people willing to work for nothing. So the economics of the field have changed in an extraordinary way—in the old days, when somebody would come to you with a project for a corporate redesign, they would cheerfully pay a hundred, two hundred thousand dollars. Now they’ll pay ten thousand.
CK: Do you find that you have to take on jobs that you’d rather not?
MG: No, I don’t. In fact, that’s one of the great reasons for staying small—you have much more flexibility. Of course, there’s always jobs you prefer more than others. But by and large, I have to say this is generally true of my life: I haven’t done a lot of work that I didn’t want to do. Even when I had a big office, which was generating material for supermarkets, it was for that one client I liked [Grand Union]. And basically, after that, business disappeared, after fifteen years of activity. I didn’t want to do that anymore [have a large studio], and that’s fine.
The office I have now is perfect for me and for my late-life expectations. I have about seven people here altogether—about four people engaged in real design, the others assisting. That’s as much as I can conceive of having these days.
CK: Do you personally use a computer to design things?
MG: I’ve been using it increasingly, but I never touch it.
CK: You never touch it.
MG: No, but I’ve been working with assistants who do. And I think it’s a terribly destructive instrument for people at the beginning of their professional life. But I think for people over forty, it’s a great instrument.
MG: Yes. Because your sense of form is not determined by the computer. I mean, by the time you have a sense of what form is, what structure is, what line is, all the rest of that stuff, then you can use a computer. If you use it too early, it begins to dominate your aesthetic. And you become very susceptible to its capabilities, which is a totally different thing than taking advantage of its capability.
CK: So you must just despair about the state of design education in this country.
MG: Well, I think it’s unfortunate. Although, what I’m not despairing about is that increasingly, my students and other young people are beginning to realize they can’t use the computer for everything, and they can’t start with the computer. They have to start by making things, by drawing things, by conceptualizing things. I have the long rap on the computer, but the problem with the computer finally is there’s no chance to develop ideas. Things become clear too soon. The interaction between a sketch and the brain is such that you try something, the brain corrects it, you revise it, the brain corrects it. That dialectic is totally missing from the computer, because as soon as you have an idea, it becomes clear. There’s not enough fuzziness in a computer solution, so you figure it out too early, and what you get is a very well executed ordinary idea. Because there’s no development in this system. That’s not entirely true, but it is characteristic. It’s hard to do things that are, it seems to me, fully developed in a thoughtful way on the computer. You can certainly achieve astonishing effects on it, but you have to separate those effects from the content.
CK: Any plans to retire?
MG: Oh god, no. There is nothing I fear more than the idea of having to retire. I fear retirement more than death.
MG: I think the worst scam that was ever performed on the innocent American people is this idea that retirement is desirable. It’s only desirable for people who really hate what they do.
MG: But for us, who basically are in the activity that is so interesting and compelling and has the ability to sort of enter into the world, by God retirement is the absolute last thing I would dream of. Of course, the day I lose interest in it, or really feel there is nothing else to do, or that I’ve reached the end of my—
CK: But if that hasn’t happened already, I suspect it’s not going to.
MG: Well, I hope not. I mean, I don’t think it has to happen. There are examples that show you it doesn’t have to happen.
CK: Of course.
MG: E. E. Cummings or Eliot, I don’t remember who said it: “The best way to die is in the middle of your work.” So I’m hoping for that.
CK: Or in bed.
MG: In bed, in the middle of your work.
CK: With another person. Nude.
MG: That’s another story.