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Milton Glaser talks about his role models

Updated: Jun 28

When we speak of leaders in design, one name must come first: Milton Glaser has been showing the world what design means, and showing designers what they can be, for five decades. His ability to reflect the best of the discipline to those within it and outside it, and his embodiment of the designer as someone engaged with the world, make him the de facto leader and face of American design.

This year, Glaser was recognized for that achievement by President Obama himself with a National Arts Award. Glaser is the first graphic designer to receive that honor, a milestone that he notes with characteristic thoughtfulness. “The fact that it has become an official benediction is important,” he says. “Officially linking graphic design with painting, music, etc. says that it’s not a subset—that design affects the culture.” As the award confirms Glaser’s influence on us today, we wanted to find out whom he considers to be his own influences. Generous to a fault, Glaser emphasized that the fear in assembling such a list is leaving people out. Think of these names, then, as part of a much larger community of designers, artists, collaborators, and clients who have been important to Glaser within the legacy of American design. “We have a short but rich history,” says Glaser. Here are some of the people who shaped it.

1/Herbert Bayer

Glaser says that his work has always been informed by the fact that his formative years were in the postwar era, and that he was around to see the designers of that time produce their seminal work. “Herbert Bayer was an important transitional figure in bringing European ideas to the U.S.,” Glaser says. “Rand got the idea, but Bayer lived it—he was really a European. Paul Rand made it American—there was a translation of what made it from Bayer to Rand that made it interesting.”

2/George Salter

One of the many talented artists and designers who fled Germany before and during the Second World War, George Salter was a defining mid-century book cover designer. He also taught calligraphy and lettering at Cooper Union, where Glaser was among his students. “He was a man of great integrity, and he was an influential teacher—so decent, so nurturing,” Glaser says. “I’ve been teaching for 50 years, and a good part of my life is making sure that the values you have are transmitted. And sometimes you can’t do that in your work—you have to do that in a personal way. You can bullshit a lot in teaching, but students understand the distinction between what you are and what you say. ”

3/Lester Beall

Of the American-born designer and poster artist, Glaser says, “He had consistency and graphic rigor, and he was intelligent.” Musing further on designers of this period, Glaser adds, “What is interesting is the high level of quality from beginning to end. The totality of work from these designers is impressive. As an old geezer, the fear is plateauing. These people didn’t have that disinterest that makes the work decline.”

4/Paul Rand

“I personally was influenced by Paul Rand,” says Glaser. “He created a kind of platform for everyone to work from. He was in many ways a thorny man but uncompromising in his work. He showed you could do first-class commercial work. He set a durable standard—his work has an ongoing, universal, nonstylistic value. His stuff looks appropriate for our time as well as that time.”

5/Joseph Baum

Glaser counts his longtime clients as being just as important to his professional development as the designers he admires. “In this profession, it’s important to have good clients to work with—a friendly or affectionate relationship,” he explains. “The secret of success is affection. Only work with people you like.” The late restaurateur Joseph Baum, once the president of Restaurant Associates, was known for resuscitating classics like the Rainbow Room (one of his many collaborations with Glaser). “He was wonderful to work with. Every time you started a project to do a restaurant, he started as if there was no such thing as a restaurant: ‘OK, where on the table should we put the silverware?’ [It was] the idea that you could dispense with everything you know, even though you’ve done it a million times before. I learned more about design from Joe, who was not a designer, than anyone else.”