Art is Work

by Milton Glaser

Milton Glaser is best known as the graphic designer who created the I Love NY logo in 1975. He has also designed and illustrated album covers, book jackets, advertisements, posters, magazines and newspapers, and architectural interiors.

“There seems to be much confusion about what we mean when we use the word art. I have a recommendation. We eliminate the word art and replace it with work… If we assume that art is a form of work, it becomes more related to our daily life. The disassociation of art from other human activities has impoverished our lives.”

He suggests four classifications for evaluating work:

  1. Work that goes beyond its functional intention and moves us in deep and mysterious ways we call great work.
  2. Work that is conceived and executed with elegance and rigor we call good work.
  3. Work that meets its intended need honestly and without pretense we call simply work.
  4. Everything else, the sad and shoddy stuff of daily life, can come under the heading of bad work.

The book includes 500 color reproductions of Glaser’s works with marginal notes adding some explanation.

“This type of gestural drawing recurs regularly in my work… In many types of drawing, the lack of specificity creates the viewer’s interest and involvement. When a drawing is suggestive rather than explicit, the opportunity to project ‘meaning’ into it becomes intensified.”

“Big Nudes. 1967. An early poster that explored the idea of transgressing the boundaries of the poster graphically.”

“Once one becomes interested in transgression, the idea of violating the rectangle becomes very attractive. Throughout the years, I have done numerous posters that deviate from the rectilinear form to produce interesting and arresting effects.”

“The illusion of this folded poster was so convincing that everyone who came into my office and saw it hanging on the wall tried to lift the flap.”

Glaser has three definitions for design. “One definition is that design is the intervention in the flow of events to produce a desired effect. Another is that design is the introduction of intention in human affairs. A third rather elegant description is that design moves things from an existing condition to a preferred one… Design doesn’t have to have a visual component. Ultimately, anything purposeful can be called an act of design.”

While he is famous for his two-dimensional work, Glaser also did environmental design. “I’ll tell you why I love to design restaurants. It’s because they deal with many elements of form that I’m interested in, including light. I’m very interested in the effect of light on color, in space issues that don’t exist on a flat surface. I’m very interested in the fact that you can create, through the use of space, light, and color, a place where people are transformed emotionally.”

He emphasizes the importance of drawing in developing his ideas. “We draw because it enables us to see. The act of drawing is perhaps the only time you pay attention to what is in front of you. For instance, if I decided to draw you I would pay attention to how much gray there is in your beard and how wrinkled your shirt is and what kind of shadow is falling across your face. I wouldn’t pay attention to that otherwise. I am immune to experience the same way that most people are. Drawing is the path to observation and attentiveness.”

“The Italians, as usual, have it right when they use the word [disegno] to describe both drawing and design, recognizing the inevitable relationship between the two. The work I have done in design, posters, supermarkets, trademarks, interiors, and so on, has been informed by my enthusiasm for drawing. I cannot imagine how it could be otherwise.”

The author quotes architect Charles Gwathmey, who makes a similar point. “The worst thing that has happened to the field of architecture is that people don’t draw anymore.” Glaser writes, “The computer is not useful as a conceptual instrument. It crystalizes an idea too quickly, before that idea has had a chance to develop conceptually. There isn’t anything more powerful in learning than the interrelationship of eyes, hand, and brain. When you’re thinking, you do a sketch and it’s fuzzy. You have to keep it fuzzy so that the brain looks at it and imagines another iteration that is clearer. Then you do another sketch that advances it again. It may take a number of these intermediate solutions before you arrive.”

“Curiously, ‘likeness’ is not dependent on accuracy, as many of us who have traced photographs of people have discovered. In fact, distortion or caricature is more likely to produce a resemblance. The reasons for this phenomenon remain obscure.”

The author shares a couple of insights about the working conditions which produce the best quality work. The first has to do with rapport with the client. “Through the years I’ve come to believe the personal relationship with a client is central to the quality of the work produced.” The second deals with art direction and managing staff. “You have to shape the problem so that the person feels they have a contribution to make. It is devastating for anyone to feel that they are just another cog, and that things have already been figured out. ‘Give me something by Monday and make sure the type is big.’ That guarantees a mediocre product because the designer has been reduced to an anonymous vendor… This approach robs people of their emotional and intellectual energy.”

The author also wrote Drawing Is Thinking.

Glaser, Milton. Art Is Work: Graphic Design, Interiors, Objects, and Illustrations. New York: Overlook Press, 2000. Buy from

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