Milton Glaser – 10 Things I Have Learned – The Secret of Art

RIP Milton Glaser!

Thank you for being a towering influence in graphics and design to so many for so long. The beauty of creativity is your legacy will live on past the lives of all who read this. God Bless Milton Glaser!

Here is a post with the timeless wisdom of the incomparable Milton Glaser. I’m republishing it today in honor his life and passing. You’ll find his advice is as evergreen as it gets. Milton Glaser - The Secret of Art

Some advice is like art in that it never gets old. Such is the case with the beautiful work and words of Milton Glaser. At the magical age of 91 years in 2020, the master is as relevant as ever. He passed away on his 91st birthday.

More than a decade ago, when I contacted him for permission to reprint the information in this blog, his assistant kindly obliged and sent along “The Secret of Art” image to illustrate it. I was delighted beyond words.

How to Find Yourself in the Art Business
Success leaves tracks — learn to find and follow them here.

Milton Glaser is personally responsible for the design and illustration of more than 300 posters for clients in the areas of publishing, music, theater, film, institutional and civic enterprise, as well as those for commercial products and services.

Milton Glaser:  A Genuine and Inspirational Genius.

When this post was published in 2008, the movie and book, The Secret, were all the rage. This poster from that time is as clever and artistic as one can get. The simplicity and symbolism are epic. Just what you would expect of Milton Glaser.

The art, the message, and the man are all timeless, which makes this post hold up very well. Enjoy the wisdom of this wise soul.

Milton Glaser is…well, words nearly don’t do him justice…one of the most important, prolific and profound leaders in visual and graphic arts in your life and his. — Barney Davey

The Secret of Art image and Glaser’s essay are reproduced here with permission. Read on to discover his sage advice with words that ring as true today as when written in 2001. Peruse his bio and work on his Milton Glaser website for more essays and insights into this man’s creative force, remarkable accomplishments, and matchless oeuvre.

Ten Things I Have Learned
Part of AIGA Talk in London
November 22, 2001

How to Find Yourself in the Art Business
Success leaves tracks — learn to find and follow them here.

This is a curious rule and it took me a long time to learn because in fact at the beginning of my practice I felt the opposite. Professionalism required that you didn’t particularly like the people that you worked for or at least maintained an arms length relationship to them, which meant that I never had lunch with a client or saw them socially. Then some years ago I realised that the opposite was true. I discovered that all the work I had done that was meaningful and significant came out of an affectionate relationship with a client. And I am not talking about professionalism; I am talking about affection. I am talking about a client and you sharing some common ground. That in fact your view of life is someway congruent with the client, otherwise it is a bitter and hopeless struggle.

One night I was sitting in my car outside Columbia University where my wife Shirley was studying Anthropology. While I was waiting I was listening to the radio and heard an interviewer ask ‘Now that you have reached 75 have you any advice for our audience about how to prepare for your old age?’ An irritated voice said ‘Why is everyone asking me about old age these days?’ I recognised the voice as John Cage. I am sure that many of you know who he was – the composer and philosopher who influenced people like Jasper Johns and Merce Cunningham as well as the music world in general. I knew him slightly and admired his contribution to our times. ‘You know, I do know how to prepare for old age’ he said. ‘Never have a job, because if you have a job someday someone will take it away from you and then you will be unprepared for your old age. For me, it has always been the same every since the age of 12. I wake up in the morning and I try to figure out how am I going to put bread on the table today? It is the same at 75, I wake up every morning and I think how am I going to put bread on the table today? I am exceedingly well prepared for my old age’ he said.

This is a subtext of number one. There was in the sixties a man named Fritz Perls who was a gestalt therapist. Gestalt therapy derives from art history, it proposes you must understand the ‘whole’ before you can understand the details. What you have to look at is the entire culture, the entire family and community and so on. Perls proposed that in all relationships people could be either toxic or nourishing towards one another. It is not necessarily true that the same person will be toxic or nourishing in every relationship, but the combination of any two people in a relationship produces toxic or nourishing consequences. And the important thing that I can tell you is that there is a test to determine whether someone is toxic or nourishing in your relationship with them. Here is the test: You have spent some time with this person, either you have a drink or go for dinner or you go to a ball game. It doesn’t matter very much but at the end of that time you observe whether you are more energised or less energised. Whether you are tired or whether you are exhilarated. If you are more tired then you have been poisoned. If you have more energy you have been nourished. The test is almost infallible and I suggest that you use it for the rest of your life.

Early in my career I wanted to be professional, that was my complete aspiration in my early life because professionals seemed to know everything – not to mention they got paid for it. Later I discovered after working for a while that professionalism itself was a limitation. After all, what professionalism means in most cases is diminishing risks. So if you want to get your car fixed you go to a mechanic who knows how to deal with transmission problems in the same way each time. I suppose if you needed brain surgery you wouldn’t want the doctor to fool around and invent a new way of connecting your nerve endings. Please do it in the way that has worked in the past.

Unfortunately in our field, in the so-called creative – I hate that word because it is misused so often. I also hate the fact that it is used as a noun. Can you imagine calling someone a creative? Anyhow, when you are doing something in a recurring way to diminish risk or doing it in the same way as you have done it before, it is clear why professionalism is not enough. After all, what is required in our field, more than anything else, is the continuous transgression. Professionalism does not allow for that because transgression has to encompass the possibility of failure and if you are professional your instinct is not to fail, it is to repeat success. So professionalism as a lifetime aspiration is a limited goal.

How to Find Yourself in the Art Business
Success leaves tracks — learn to find and follow them here.

Being a child of modernism I have heard this mantra all my life. Less is more. One morning upon awakening I realised that it was total nonsense, it is an absurd proposition and also fairly meaningless. But it sounds great because it contains within it a paradox that is resistant to understanding. But it simply does not obtain when you think about the visual of the history of the world. If you look at a Persian rug, you cannot say that less is more because you realise that every part of that rug, every change of colour, every shift in form is absolutely essential for its aesthetic success. You cannot prove to me that a solid blue rug is in any way superior. That also goes for the work of Gaudi, Persian miniatures, art nouveau and everything else. However, I have an alternative to the proposition that I believe is more appropriate. ‘Just enough is more.’

I think this idea first occurred to me when I was looking at a marvellous etching of a bull by Picasso. It was an illustration for a story by Balzac called The Hidden Masterpiece. I am sure that you all know it. It is a bull that is expressed in 12 different styles going from very naturalistic version of a bull to an absolutely reductive single line abstraction and everything else along the way. What is clear just from looking at this single print is that style is irrelevant. In every one of these cases, from extreme abstraction to acute naturalism they are extraordinary regardless of the style. It’s absurd to be loyal to a style. It does not deserve your loyalty. I must say that for old design professionals it is a problem because the field is driven by economic consideration more than anything else. Style change is usually linked to economic factors, as all of you know who have read Marx. Also fatigue occurs when people see too much of the same thing too often. So every ten years or so there is a stylistic shift and things are made to look different. Typefaces go in and out of style and the visual system shifts a little bit. If you are around for a long time as a designer, you have an essential problem of what to do. I mean, after all, you have developed a vocabulary, a form that is your own. It is one of the ways that you distinguish yourself from your peers, and establish your identity in the field. How you maintain your own belief system and preferences becomes a real balancing act. The question of whether you pursue change or whether you maintain your own distinct form becomes difficult. We have all seen the work of illustrious practitioners that suddenly look old-fashioned or, more precisely, belonging to another moment in time. And there are sad stories such as the one about Cassandre, arguably the greatest graphic designer of the twentieth century, who couldn’t make a living at the end of his life and committed suicide.
But the point is that anybody who is in this for the long haul has to decide how to respond to change in the zeitgeist. What is it that people now expect that they formerly didn’t want? And how to respond to that desire in a way that doesn’t change your sense of integrity and purpose.

The brain is the most responsive organ of the body. Actually it is the organ that is most susceptible to change and regeneration of all the organs in the body. I have a friend named Gerald Edelman who was a great scholar of brain studies and he says that the analogy of the brain to a computer is pathetic. The brain is actually more like an overgrown garden that is constantly growing and throwing off seeds, regenerating and so on. And he believes that the brain is susceptible, in a way that we are not fully conscious of, to almost every experience of our life and every encounter we have. I was fascinated by a story in a newspaper a few years ago about the search for perfect pitch. A group of scientists decided that they were going to find out why certain people have perfect pitch. You know certain people hear a note precisely and are able to replicate it at exactly the right pitch. Some people have relevant pitch; perfect pitch is rare even among musicians. The scientists discovered – I don’t know how – that among people with perfect pitch the brain was different. Certain lobes of the brain had undergone some change or deformation that was always present with those who had perfect pitch. This was interesting enough in itself. But then they discovered something even more fascinating. If you took a bunch of kids and taught them to play the violin at the age of 4 or 5 after a couple of years some of them developed perfect pitch, and in all of those cases their brain structure had changed. Well what could that mean for the rest of us? We tend to believe that the mind affects the body and the body affects the mind, although we do not generally believe that everything we do affects the brain. I am convinced that if someone was to yell at me from across the street my brain could be affected and my life might changed. That is why your mother always said, ‘Don’t hang out with those bad kids.’ Mama was right. Thought changes our life and our behaviour. I also believe that drawing works in the same way. I am a great advocate of drawing, not in order to become an illustrator, but because I believe drawing changes the brain in the same way as the search to create the right note changes the brain of a violinist. Drawing also makes you attentive. It makes you pay attention to what you are looking at, which is not so easy.

Everyone always talks about confidence in believing what you do. I remember once going to a class in yoga where the teacher said that, spirituality speaking, if you believed that you had achieved enlightenment you have merely arrived at your limitation. I think that is also true in a practical sense. Deeply held beliefs of any kind prevent you from being open to experience, which is why I find all firmly held ideological positions questionable. It makes me nervous when someone believes too deeply or too much. I think that being sceptical and questioning all deeply held beliefs is essential. Of course, we must know the difference between scepticism and cynicism because cynicism is as much a restriction of one’s openness to the world as passionate belief is. They are sort of twins. And then in a very real way, solving any problem is more important than being right. There is a significant sense of self-righteousness in both the art and design world. Perhaps it begins at school. Art school often begins with the Ayn Rand model of the single personality resisting the ideas of the surrounding culture. The theory of the avant-garde is that as an individual you can transform the world, which is true up to a point. One of the signs of a damaged ego is absolute certainty.

Schools encourage the idea of not compromising and defending your work at all costs. Well, the issue at work is usually all about the nature of compromise. You just have to know what to compromise. Blind pursuit of your own ends which excludes the possibility that others may be right does not allow for the fact that in design we are always dealing with a triad – the client, the audience and you.

Ideally, making everyone win through acts of accommodation is desirable. But self-righteousness is often the enemy. Self-righteousness and narcissism generally come out of some sort of childhood trauma, which we do not have to go into. It is a consistently difficult thing in human affairs. Some years ago I read a most remarkable thing about love, that also applies to the nature of co-existing with others. It was a quotation from Iris Murdoch in her obituary. It read ‘Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real.’ Isn’t that fantastic! The best insight on the subject of love that one can imagine.

Last year someone gave me a charming book by Roger Rosenblatt called ‘Ageing Gracefully’ I got it on my birthday. I did not appreciate the title at the time but it contains a series of rules for ageing gracefully. The first rule is the best. Rule number one is that ‘it doesn’t matter.’ ‘It doesn’t matter that what you think. Follow this rule and it will add decades to your life. It does not matter if you are late or early, if you are here or there, if you said it or didn’t say it, if you are clever or if you were stupid. If you were having a bad hair day or a no hair day or if your boss looks at you cockeyed or your boyfriend or girlfriend looks at you cockeyed, if you are cockeyed. If you don’t get that promotion or prize or house or if you do – it doesn’t matter.’ Wisdom at last. Then I heard a marvelous joke that seemed related to rule number 10. A butcher was opening his market one morning and as he did a rabbit popped his head through the door. The butcher was surprised when the rabbit inquired ‘Got any cabbage?’ The butcher said ‘This is a meat market – we sell meat, not vegetables.’ The rabbit hopped off. The next day the butcher is opening the shop and sure enough the rabbit pops his head round and says ‘You got any cabbage?’ The butcher now irritated says ‘Listen you little rodent I told you yesterday we sell meat, we do not sell vegetables and the next time you come here I am going to grab you by the throat and nail those floppy ears to the floor.’ The rabbit disappeared hastily and nothing happened for a week. Then one morning the rabbit popped his head around the corner and said ‘Got any nails?’ The butcher said ‘No.’ The rabbit said ‘Ok. Got any cabbage?’

The rabbit joke is relevant because it occurred to me that looking for a cabbage in a butcher’s shop might be like looking for ethics in the design field. It may not be the most obvious place to find either. It’s interesting to observe that in the new AIGA’s code of ethics there is a significant amount of useful information about appropriate behavior towards clients and other designers, but not a word about a designer’s relationship to the public. We expect a butcher to sell us eatable meat and that he doesn’t misrepresent his wares. I remember reading that during the Stalin years in Russia that everything labeled veal was actually chicken. I can’t imagine what everything labeled chicken was. We can accept certain kinds of misrepresentation, such as fudging about the amount of fat in his hamburger but once a butcher knowingly sells us spoiled meat we go elsewhere. As a designer, do we have less responsibility to our public than a butcher? Everyone interested in licensing our field might note that the reason licensing has been invented is to protect the public, not designers or clients. ‘Do no harm’ is an admonition to doctors concerning their relationship to their patients, not to their fellow practitioners or the drug companies. If we were licensed, telling the truth might become more central to what we do.

Bonus Information


How to Find Yourself in the Art Business
Success leaves tracks — learn to find and follow them here.


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  • This is the first time I’ve read a Blog and did not think “Blah, Blah, Blah,” and then lose interest….superb….I am passing this one on.

  • What a great post. Milton Glaser was THE graphic designer to aspire to when I attended art school (a hundred years ago).

    I was especially intrigued with #1 on the list: YOU CAN ONLY WORK FOR PEOPLE THAT YOU LIKE. As I thought about that statement, I realized how true it is. The proof is in the quality of the work created for the client. Not that a strictly non-personal professional relationship doesn’t produce strong work, it just seems the “affection” creates a positive edge.

  • This made my day and changed my brain. Great post! I just added you to my Google Reader. I look forward to more 🙂

  • It’s interesting to see that the most successful people (artists) point to non-business and non-art practices that let to their success. In this case, Milton talks about “avoiding toxic people” and how your brain expands. And yes, you can choose the people you are around (for the most part).

    I enjoyed this post greatly – I’m always looking to find artists that I can learn from on this level. THank you!

  • I just re-read still resonates…wonderful, practical, valuable advice for everyone.. artists or not…

  • Thank you for the article. In one word — fantastic. It resonated with my feelings.

  • What a wonderful post! #1, #3 and #7 really resonate – but they’re all good. Thanks very much for publishing this valuable and insightful piece.

  • Very inspiring poste, it made my day…

  • really good article, Althought I dissagree with point 10. The primse is right: TELL(ing) THE TRUTH is always the most important aspect of a work of art; never the less I find that his truth focus is (in my opinion) misguided. The search for Truth in art shouldn’t be pointed towards the public, to your audience, but to the work itself. Anyone who has ever even tried to do something artistic knows that it’s not a rational process, that when things get flowing you’re simply a medium for something different, something strange that isn’t you that wants to get out of you. This is the art piece coming to life. And this (each) art pieces has rules, has an internal system, a truth to tell, wich defines what works and what doesn’t, it can come in many forms: which color pallette work and which changes the feeling you were looking for; what type of words your using; what you choose to narrate and what lo leave out. That is, in my opinion, art’s only peeve with truth

  • Milton Glaser is unique. When I was an Art Director I took his class and it opened my way of thinking from then on. I would suggest that if you want to learn about Graphic Design, Illustration, and how to start the wheels rolling, seek out anything by Milton Glaser. He’ has a number of seminars on YouTube and Ted Talks, just Google him. You will not regret it. Thanks Milton.

  • I’ve got a little correction to #1 on the list: you can only do the work you actually like. The client himself isn’t so important as long as you’re inspired by the task itself

  • Thanks for that great post! I shared a link to it on my blog.

  • Allison Richter says:

    Excellent post. I am a huge fan of Milton Glaser. He is wise, has extreme talent and vision, and his words have meaning. A great recommended film to watch (DVD) is Milton Glaser’s “Inform and Delight”. You really get a sense of his life as well as his love of life.

  • Gary Horsman says:

    All very good points, although there is some room to disagree.

    On professionalism, Glaser presumes this to be about repeatability of a given task. But I’ve always regarded professionalism as the ability to solve a problem without allowing emotion to get in the way. Moods change. You may not be having a good morning, but that doesn’t mean you should approach your work differently than on any other day. That’s professionalism.

    And on less being more, I don’t think this is to be taken as an absolute or that it’s about describing the aesthetic aspects of work, but rather it’s about the best approach to solving a problem. In most cases, when choosing between a simple versus a complex solution, simplicity is almost always, but not exclusively, the best way. In design, it’s about the immediacy and clarity of an idea and simplicity is the best way to accomplish both.

  • Excellent advice – especially the one about ‘don’t have a job.’ These days, there are too many opportunities to bother with a job – and way too many people who have lost their jobs for one reason or another.

  • I thought this was a very thought provoking article by a genius in his field. I have always admired the simplicity with which he delivers his message. His words certainly resonated with me.

  • Gina DeRose says:

    Thank you for a great piece (or really many great pieces) of advice. I am always unconsciously looking for support and encouragement, which is hard to find, thinking it will give me the “go ahead” to do what I love. But sometimes hearing from a “creative” (and a professional!) is what really gives what it takes to encourage myself and stop asking for the approval (from others) This is a roadmap so I don’t second guess myself, thank you!

  • Comfort zones are meant to be temporary. Mother Nature abhors a vacuum, so change is inevitable. Adapt or perish. Thanks, Barney, for giving us Glaser’s advice. I’ll pass it on many times.

  • That was very, very, thought provoking, and well worth reading. Although it was hard to pick a favorite out of the 10, I must say that I like Number 1 the best.
    Thanks for sharing this

  • Thanks for a stimulating and thought provoking post

  • As a long time Creative Director I’ve always admirded Milton Glazer’s work. Still creating advertising at 77 but my fine art Oils on Cavas will endure the test of time.

  • I loved this! Esp. “solving any problem is more important than being right” That would certainly help the brain as well!

  • I will be 74 this year. Everything he said I agree with. I have been fortunate enough to be brought up in an artist family. So creative endeavors have always been my life path. Deciding which mediums was more difficult for me than that I would be a maker it seems.
    Many, “professionals” are concentrated on the repeatability of a technique. He had gone beyond that restriction by what he said. Both, “fine artist” and, “commercial” have to take that same risk they must take or stagnate in a repeatable “style.” It’s an act of faith, an act of discovery, an act of creativity. A willingness to fail.

      • Cathelinton says:

        Somewhere in New England ( in the 60’s?) there was a college course you were required to fail- or you could not pass.

  • Cathelinton says:

    I was privileged to work at Push Pin Studio ( Glaserundefined Clay Felker) for a too brief period of time. I was, and still am, in awe.

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