Although he will rightly be remembered for his contribution to the field of design, Milton Glaser was also a wonderful thinker and writer. Along with Paul Rand, he had an enviable ability to express his thoughts with a simplicity, beauty and clarity that many of us can only aspire to. And they are important thoughts for those of us who work in and around the world of design and branding. It’s so easy to slip into the twin traps of being serious about matters that are frivolous, or else being frivolous about matters that are serious. But Milton Glaser had the ability to penetrate through the layers of bullshit that often come with a job that balances the commercial with the creative. He thought seriously and deeply about this balance. Here are ten things I’ve taken away.

  1. Solving the problem is more important than imposing your own view.

Milton Glaser had firm views about what makes a great client relationship and what makes a great brief. In his book, it’s not a matter of imposing your own world view or creative stamp on a project – the idea of artistic freedom doesn’t come into it. A great brief is one that establishes boundaries – not one that offers freedom. And the appropriate response to a brief is to probe and challenge those boundaries. We do our best work for people we like whose judgment we trust – not the people who give us the greatest freedom to express ourselves or to impose our own vision or ego.

2. Some people are toxic – avoid them.

I think this builds in some way on the point above. Even after 20 years of work, I still repeatedly fail to identify a toxic colleague or client until it’s too late. Milton Glaser suggested a simple test: after spending time with a person, do you feel more energised or less energised? If you feel less energised, then the chances are your relationship is toxic rather than nourishing. Your interactions will almost certainly have detrimental consequences for your happiness, for your working relationships and for your career. Milton Glaser held this test to be infallible and suggested that we use it for the rest of our life.

3.Lack of time and budget are not enemies of great work

In Milton Glaser’s view, these are relevant only to the extent that they relate to creating an environment in which people feel able to do their best work. Time and budget constraints can be used positively to generate quality if you know what you’re doing. Don’t try to deliver a two-week job in a day. If a client can only afford a day of your time, then transform the job into a one-day task. There’s no excuse for an experienced individual or team not to know what they are capable of producing in a given time or at a given budget.

4. Clients express respect for (creative) work by paying for it

Milton Glaser adds an important proviso to the point above: the financial constraint should be real and not an imagined reason for ripping off a designer. He believed that design is power: a specialism capable of delivering enormous commercial benefits. Clients who refuse to respect creative work by paying fairly for it are expressing contempt for both the work and the worker. In his view, the only appropriate response is not to let our sense of self-worth erode in the face of such an attack. I believe this point is equally important for strategic work.

5. But money isn’t everything

Milton Glaser believed that people whose job it is to communicate ideas have a responsibility to do the right thing – and that everybody has their own notion of what this means. Money isn’t a good enough excuse to violate your own beliefs – because it damages your self, compromises your personality and is likely to harm society. It’s not a question of self-righteousness; it’s a process of self-questioning.

6. Professionalism as a lifetime aspiration is a limited goal

Milton Glaser’s interpretation of professionalism centres on the idea of best practice – it’s a matter of working out what works and repeating it… presumably until it no longer works. To be professional is to find a formula for success and to repeat it. Failure is anathema. But the repetition of tried-and-tested formulas is the enemy of creative endeavour. What’s required in a creative field is continuous transgression – breaking established rules and patterns. Embracing risk. Finding new ways to succeed. That’s why professionalism will only take you so far.

7. Good design is not good business

Extrapolating the idea above, Milton Glaser was keen to impress upon businesses that the products they make have a profound cultural effect. What we buy punctuates and shapes our daily lives. Well made products enhance society. Shoddy products undermine it. Business consequently create value beyond the bottom line. It’s not enough to observe that good design is good business – in Milton Glaser’s view, this is wishful thinking on the designer’s part. Instead, both design and business should serve the common good.

8. An appreciation of history can help you change with the times

Milton Glaser understood that modern economies rely on the manufacture of novelty in order to grow. The desire to buy the latest fashions and phones fuels consumption, which stimulates production, which supports employment. If you plan on having a long career in the creative industries, you must accept change as inevitable but avoid being seduced by novelty. Glaser was a big fan of understanding the historical context for change as a way to know how to respond to it.

9. Doubt is better than certainty

Milton Glaser believed that deeply held beliefs prevent us from being open to experience. He recalled hearing a yoga teacher saying that, spiritually speaking, if you believe you have achieved enlightenment then you’ve merely arrived at your limit. He was consequently wary of passionately held beliefs and didn’t at all buy in to the notion of the heroic artist battling against the prevailing wisdom of the age. We grow through our work. Finding new people to work with, new challenges to work on and new ways of meeting those challenges, was how Milton Glaser sustained a career over several decades without going stale.

10. We’re all either victims or participants in our times

Milton Glaser was famously critical of computers as a design tool. He didn’t like the way they took away some of the perceived “fuzziness” of the creative process, or how a weak idea could be efficiently hidden behind a well-developed veneer. But he understood that people in creative jobs are both victims and participants. It can be difficult at times to convince clients of the value of creativity. It can be hard to balance the commercial and the creative. It’s challenging to contemplate the cultural consequences of our work. But we define and are defined by our times. Being victims does not rob us of our ability to participate.

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