The Daily Heller: Meet “The Assistant”

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Today’s Daily Heller begins a new occasional feature focusing on the unsung assistants of established designers and illustrators, past and present, and the invaluable roles they play and have historically played in daily work lives of their respective bosses (and mentors). To launch, we’re featuring Ignacio Serrano, who worked as Milton Glaser’s assistant designer for almost three years until Glaser’s passing in June 2020.

Milton and Ignacio at The Frick recalling a Piero that Milton admired for the first time when he was a teenager.

How and when did you become Milton Glaser’s assistant?

I joined Milton’s studio during the summer of 2017. I had graduated from the School of Visual Arts with an MFA in Illustration as Visual Essay thanks to a Fulbright grant I had received in 2015. Fulbright allowed grantees to stay for one more year after graduation in order to get an internship or a job related to the field. One of my former instructors during the MFA program, Mirko Ilic, helped me out with that and offered me an internship at his own design studio, which was located in the same building as Milton’s studio. After two months of working three days a week with Mirko, he told me that Milton was looking for an experienced designer to back up his team, and Mirko recommended me to Milton. I started working with Milton on some of his landscapes in August 2017, and I stayed with him until his passing.

What work did you focus on before, during and after the job with Milton?

Before joining Milton’s studio, I had worked primarily as a graphic designer and illustrator for a wide range of companies, freelancing or in-house, in Spain or Germany, where I spent some years as an exchange student. Some of the companies or studios I worked for back then include IBM, Volkswagen, Financial Times UK, Oscar Marine, Nautilus magazine, etc.

During my time at the studio with Milton, I was lucky enough to get a space for myself on the fourth floor of the same building, and there I worked on illustration. As my responsibilities working at Milton’s studio increased, I had less time to work on my own material. However, I managed to keep participating in American illustration, illustrating for the Scandinavian Review, and on a personal animation project with a friend and former classmate, Xiaohua Yang, that got awarded by the International Motion Awards from American Illustration. After Milton passed away, I kept working at the studio, this time from home due to COVID.

Xiaohua Yang, Ignacio and Milton.

What methods did you perform as Milton’s assistant?

Milton had his own way of working with the computer without touching the computer! I assisted him by using the computer, mainly Adobe software, to flesh out his ideas and concepts.

Most of the time, he would sketch or draw on-site what he wanted and ask me to replicate it on the computer. At the beginning, I would just try to get the basic shapes, the election of typeface, etc. Once I got more or less what he was looking for, he would then grab one of those Pantone guides, and start telling me which colors he wanted to apply where, and what should be changed if he considered that it didn’t work yet.

It felt like being a chauffeur who’s following Milton’s directions in uncharted territory for both of us. It was fun and I learned a lot, especially about color.

"Milton had his own way of working with the computer without touching the computer!," says Ignacio.

While you were with him, Milton's health was unstable. How did you deal with that?

Although he started to spend a considerable amount of his time at the doctor’s office, that barely changed the workflow or slowed him down. If anything, he got more aware of the limitation of time and was a bit more eager to get back to work as soon as possible. All in all, he was very patient and understanding of his own condition and accepted it without being too annoyed by that.

You became the “voice” of Milton Glaser. Is this description true?

I’m not sure I understand the question right. If by “voice” you mean to be the person who made “tangible” his ideas, then yes. But I also have to say that there were innumerable assistants before me who wore the same shoes I did, and who made incredible work through the years. I had the chance to meet some of them, and everyone always had lots of stories (good ones) about their time with Milton at the studio.

In fact, after a while Milton let you also participate in the designs with some little retouches here and there, suggesting a different typeface, etc., and all that made me think that we, his assistants, are like different kinds of speakers for the same radio: all of them fulfill their mission, but each of them changes the sound a little. I tend to believe that everyone interprets Milton’s ideas their own way, and that somehow contributed to the final result of his designs.

At what point did your assistantship become more than graphic design work?

I would say during 2019. The studio reduced its team and I ended up doing a little bit of everything. That also allowed me to share more time with Milton, especially on the way to the doctor. I used to ask him all kinds of questions about how New York City was during his childhood, or who his parents were, or how it was working with Clay Falker during the New York Magazine years. It was very inspiring and educational.

To be Milton’s assistant, did you have to bow to the fact that people wanted his work, and just from him? Was there a chance to reach any other heights?

It was pretty clear to me from the beginning that it was all about Milton, and I was very happy and content being in the back seat, or, as I stated earlier, being his chauffeur. I keep good memories and great pride and satisfaction by looking at some of the work we did together.

For me, it was also very clear the [delineation] between Milton’s work and my own. I respected him for making his way up by himself, and so I want the same with my own career.

How do you feel your work went? Was he satisfied with you?

He expressed many times that he was really happy with our workflow and understanding, and I was also really happy being able to help him with whatever he wanted to do, but also to collaborate with him when working on a landscape, a portrait or a layout for a client, especially at the end, when he [allowed] me more margin to suggest things and express my thoughts more openly.

Had he not died last summer, would you still be working for him?

I think so, but it’s difficult to say, due to the current COVID cr
isis. We would have had to come up with a solution in order to keep working together, either in a new space or in the distance. I know he would have been stressed and annoyed by the fact that we couldn’t resume our routine at the studio, which he enjoyed a great deal.

Xiaohua Yang, Ignacio, Milton and Mirko Ilic. Photos by Anne Quito.