Design View | Articles and opinion on design professionalism, technique and culture by Andy Rutledge

With Apologies to Mr. Glaser

November 7, 2005

Recently published on the AIGA design forum is Milton Glaser’s presentation to the 2005 AIGA Design Conference. Granted, Mr. Glaser is a bonafide design legend and his essay is wonderful in so many ways, but there’s just so much that is wrong with some of what he’s saying. So with all due respect to Mr. Glaser, I have to take issue with his more misguided and unfounded observations.

Some of his statements that I take issue with are specific to design and art, but some are associated with political and social issues. So be warned that I’ll be departing from the usual fare of art and design here. Mr. Glaser certainly did and, in my view, did harm to our endeavor and our social discourse. Maybe my comments can work to counter his irresponsible statements, or perhaps they’ll simply stir the pot. We’ll see.

“I think artists tend to be liberal because their view of the world has to include doubt and ambiguity as well as generosity and optimism.”

This statement is at once ridiculous and inflammatory (and an insult to liberals and conservatives, alike). Surely, doubt and ambiguity can be useful tools for an artist—as concepts. Adopting a forced or skewed perspective of some sort can aid in artistry and design and it takes skill to employ such things effectively. But there’s nothing inherently noble or admirable about doubt or ambiguity. I find it unfortunate that Mr. Glaser seems to believe otherwise.

I find it particularly disappointing that he would believe that generosity and optimism are liberal qualities. Those poor conservatives; having only stinginess and pessimism to guide their view of the world. Mr. Glaser’s insinuation is, at best, inaccurate. Here we have yet another insult, this one baseless, to half of our population. So with his assessments of liberals and conservatives in the above quote, Mr. Glaser is nothing if not comprehensively offensive.

“Our discussion on the ethics of designers always gets impaled on the issue of whether a client’s desire for profit can be reconciled with our ethical desire to do no harm. Or, put another way, can we serve a client and the public at the same time?”

I have heard mention of this issue before and have never understood why it is an issue. I have to say that it should be an issue only for those who have no developed sense of responsibility, those who view profit as evil, or those who have a complete lack of understanding of capitalism. Maybe the fact that, according to Mr. Glaser, artists’ worldview includes so much “doubt and ambiguity” has something to do with it?

Here (in a healthy capitalist society) consumers vote with their feet and enterprises without merit fail to those with merit. That works.

The power we designers wield comes with great responsibility and part of that responsibility, both to ourselves and to the public, is to take work that we believe does not conflict with the greater public good. However, if I will not take on a project for ethical or moral reasons, but someone else will, …well, that’s a people problem, not a design profession problem. There are bad people in the design profession, just like every other profession, which should present no designer’s quandary. I again find it disappointing that Mr. Glaser would support an idea to the contrary.

There’s nothing wrong with profit. If you believe that there is something wrong with profit, Cuba or China is the place for you. Go and live where everyone enjoys in a common level of misery no matter his or her effort or contribution to society (unless it glorifies the government’s oppressive ideals). In the capitalist system, hard work and merit are the yardsticks for success (merit measured in many different ways) and those who have something of value to offer will win profit while those who don’t eventually get their due—no matter the marketing effort or designer’s contribution. Here (in a healthy capitalist society) consumers vote with their feet and enterprises without merit fail to those with merit. That works.

Doing our best work possible to serve the client is never a bad thing. It is in no way harmful and presents no ethical dilemma. On the other hand, doing less than our best work to best serve the client does present an ethical dilemma and does do harm. If you (the reader) don’t agree with this and you’re a designer, you’re giving the design profession a bad name. Please find another line of work.

“I became a designer, but like many of us, I’ve always struggled with the relationship of Art and Design, and the question of what precisely separated the two activities.”

It is hard to fathom the idea of someone as reportedly intelligent, skilled and talented as Milton Glaser making such a statement. His work and his reputation would suggest that he would understand such a simple and quantifiable issue and I’m again disappointed that such is not the case.

If a natural disaster wiped out my family's residence and all of our possessions, it would not be my first thought (or second or third) to cry, “Help, where is the government?!” It’s not the government’s job to fix my problems.

Art involves no responsibility to anyone other than the artist’s ideas, ideals, vision and purpose. Design, on the other hand, involves a responsibility to everyone and everything other than those things. For example: to the client’s needs, the client’s aims, the client’s expectation of result, the clients’ customers’ expectations, needs and concerns, …even to the public at-large (you know, to avoid that ethical dilemma mentioned before).

Here again, if you’re a designer and you use design projects to champion your own ideals, agenda, aims, ego, and message or to exercise self-expression, you are not engaging in design and you’re likely doing harm to the client. Yes, design can involve art and utilizes artistic principles. But there’s a distinct difference between the two that all designers have to be conscious of. Else, we may indeed do harm.

“I must say that all the recent images we have been seeing from the Gulf Coast—the deaths, the inferno, the people who lost everything, the helplessness, the despair, the children—are all echoes of the horror in Africa. It is not coincidental that the victims of Katrina are the poorest members of our society. Both situation are a poisonous combination of natural disasters and political indifference.”

Wow, that’s powerful imagery and heart-rending sentiment, …which might help disguise the fact that this statement is patently false. The victims of Katrina are from all walks of life, from the very rich to the very poor. But we don’t read or hear about the rich or the well off or even the so-called middle class victims because so many of them had responsibility enough to prepare a support system for themselves. Or they simply chose to do something constructive in response to their crisis rather than doing nothing, mugging for news cameras.

That’s right, I’m actually criticizing the poor victims of Katrina for their irresponsibility. Mr. Glaser is a liberal artist possessed of a liberal artist’s “generous” (and doubtful and ambiguous) nature, so perhaps facts escape him in his concern for some of the victims of Katrina. Perhaps another of the liberal artists’ qualities is blindness to and an unwillingness to honestly acknowledge the consequences of irresponsibility. But as noted before, maybe as an artist Mr. Glaser does not have a designer’s requisite sense of responsibility. I’m kidding here, of course, but his ridiculous statements don’t reflect a grasp of these issues.

If a natural disaster wiped out my family's residence and all of our possessions, it would not be my first thought (or second or third) to cry, “Help, where is the government?!” It’s not the government’s job to fix my problems. No, remedying that situation would be my own responsibility. Political indifference, real or imagined, is no factor in my family’s life and I have a responsibility as a citizen to make sure that it never will be. It is simply irresponsible to behave otherwise.

Milton Glaser’s contribution to society and to our profession is profound and, perhaps, immeasurable. Because of his supreme abilities and contributions he has rightly earned his place among the most important voices and exponents of design. So it is deeply troubling to see him abuse his status in an effort to engage in demagoguery and to otherwise reflect so poorly on our profession.

I hope that those who listen to and read his words will first engage their brains so that his more misguided and harmful observations don’t penetrate and lead them to become filled with too much artist’s doubt and ambiguity. It pained me to have to speak up as I have, but it is a designer/citizen’s responsibility to speak truth to power.