What Milton Glaser reveals about the limits of rational design

Today, design is more integrated into the world than ever before. Our profession is ubiquitous, permeating industries, companies, and organizations. This is a great thing for designers—we are needed! We are wanted. We are valued. And the world is benefitting. However, we have to ask ourselves about the unintended consequences of our work. What does it mean for us, as designers, who are often asked to create something new, but always reference what has been done before? What does that mean for how we think and what we make?

What Milton Glaser reveals about the limits of rational design
Poster designed by Milton Glaser, 1976, and a Chase bank ad circa 2012. [Images: Milton Glaser Estate, Chase]

The two images above are both advertisements for a bank. However, that’s where their similarities end.

The one on the left was designed for a German bank in 1976 by Milton Glaser. I first saw it when we were designing a book of his posters in 2008. I worked with him at his studio from 2007 to 2016 and remember saying, “Milton, what was this poster, and how on earth was a client inclined to make this kind of thing?” I couldn’t imagine any bank ever producing something like that.

The image on the right is a contemporary ad for Chase bank. A lot of strategy likely went into this, optimized to convey a clear message. The language and visual design are neutral, accessible, and “approvable.” There’s fine print on the bottom, which I’m sure is legally required. There wasn’t one designer responsible for this. It was likely designed by many different parties, each needing to satisfy certain objectives, rather than making one provocative thing.

Milton, on the other hand, produced his poster alone, with a client who wanted to try something new, without expectations. At that time, most everyone knew each other in the profession, he later told me, because there were so few designers. Design was in its infancy. And even though the profession had changed dramatically since then, Milton’s process never did. Research meant looking at a few books for a few minutes; inspiration meant looking out a window in a cab ride to the studio each morning. When Milton was interviewed about his process, he always said, You just start working. He would draw, we would discuss, and we would simply begin. The act of being alive was enough to make great work.

It’s hard to imagine Milton’s poster being used by Chase today, or such an independent process being used by many designers.

This isn’t to say that the 1970s were the glory days for design, full of possibility and experimentation, not beholden to either objectives or industries. Or that now, the profession is neutered by the world of business. I don’t believe either of these to be true. But it’s worth examining how the two extremes function in the design world, and what effect they have on the final product.

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[Image: courtesy of the author]

Every designer is familiar with the relationship between art and business. Our profession embodies both. These represent two polarities, one of which is more creative and expressive, with fewer rules and more freedom for the designer. The other is more logical, more bound to financial objectives. The world of design is often one of tension between these two poles. Consider where Milton’s poster might fall, compared to the Chase advertisement. I’d put it at the art end of the spectrum (although without knowing the client, it’s possible it was more toward the middle). Still, it’s entirely possible for a project to balance both ends, using creative and artistic expression toward achieving great business impact.

More often than not, however, designers’ work is expected to prove efficacy or success (whatever that means to the people paying for it) before it enters the world. This produces a gravitational pull for design work to be rationalized. It affects how we think, as well as what we make.

Focus groups, marketing, the dominance of data, and legal requirements shape our way of thinking. Pinterest, stock imagery, even PowerPoint SmartArt shape our visual landscape. The preeminence of working solely on computers shapes our neurology.

How we think is informed by research such as focus groups, testing ideas over time. We seek input. In business, we seek validation before investment. Marketing wants to know what has been successful in the past before doing anything new. Often, quantitative data is required to prove the worthiness of a pursuit, the dominant element in decision-making.

And then there’s the added complexity of legality. Several years ago, I worked with a national retailer, helping to prototype changes to one of their thousands of stores. Throughout the course of our work, we learned that we couldn’t use language that wasn’t legally approved, and we didn’t have the option to submit any new language for approval. We were tied to the parameters of what existed as acceptable language, despite being hired to create something new for the company.

Such experiences reinforce the mindset of looking backward to see what has been successful, rather than having the freedom to work without preconception.

In terms of visual design, the internet has changed everything. Imagery is everywhere. Designers use Pinterest to make mood boards and image collections as references. We use stock imagery because it’s accessible, cheap, and fast, rather than creating original images.

While these tools have valuable utility, they also enable us to design off what already exists—and what is often simultaneously used in many other pieces of work. This leads to work that is visually homogenized and lacks identity.

1614903348 263 What Milton Glaser reveals about the limits of rational design
[Screenshot: courtesy of the author]

If anyone has designed with large corporations, you can’t avoid PowerPoint SmartArt, an invention meant to bring easy graphics to business presentations. Templated graphics and visualizations are pervasive in corporate workplaces, sometimes used without anyone truly understanding, or the design accurately depicting, the information at hand. As designers, we have to be leery of being seduced by simplicity.

Even the way we design has evolved, especially during the pandemic. Most of us rely on a computer for everything. Gone are even simple acts of making with our hands—sketches, Post-its, and scribbled notes are in deep hibernation. The pathways that activate our imaginations when we use our hands now lay dormant, collecting brain dust and cobwebs.

Like so many others, I’ve been working in my bedroom for the past year, these four walls enclosing most of my entire world. So many parts of ourselves are confined by this life. It may now make more sense to us how the Renaissance followed the plague, how the roaring twenties followed the 1918 pandemic. We have a profound desire for human connection, for beauty, for expression, for communal experience—and, after a year of isolation, we feel that desire even more urgently.

We cannot forget that the purpose of design is not only to create solutions to business problems but also to make us feel alive. Sometimes, this requires being transported away from our rational worlds—why else would we fly around the world to visit a beach, when there is one a few miles away; or sit in traffic, wait in endless lines, and spend $30 on a drink while seeing a concert, when we could just listen to the same band at home? Irrationality is part of life.

As a designer and educator, I’ve often wondered how we reconcile the tension between the rational and irrational, between business and art. I think the answer lies in remembering that irrationality is a core part of being human too. It reminds me of a song by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, called “Ghosteen Speaks.” It describes the spirit that moves between a child and a parent. It’s not something you can see, but it’s certainly real.

Perhaps, as designers, we must expand upon what people perceive as ROI, in order to also create work that explores a different part of our neurology, a different part of our minds and hearts, driven by something other than objectives and rationality. Next time you begin something new, look up to the sky instead of down at your screen. Try looking at a poem instead of Pinterest. And know that data does not make the design or the designer.

Being rational is not enough.

Sue Walsh is a principal of design at SYPartners and is on the faculty at School of Visual Arts in the MFA Design and Continuing Education Departments. Previously, she worked with Milton Glaser as a senior art director for almost a decade, partnering with him on all aspects of design: visual identity, packaging, environmental, book, campaign, and product design.

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