Milton Glaser was a graphic design legend. From “I ♥ New York” to Bob Dylan’s greatest hits, he conceived some of the world’s most iconic designs. And though he lived a long and extremely interesting life, Glaser unfortunately passed away last month (26th June 2020) at the age of 91.

But despite his passing Milton Glaser has left behind a monumental legacy – a career spanning over seven decades consisting of hundreds upon hundreds of works, both iconic and original. And his unique style and perspective will doubtless continue to inspire budding designers for generations to come.

So to honour his career and pay homage to one of our favourite designers, we thought we’d share some of Milton Glaser’s pearls of wisdom and creative advice. Enjoy!

Note: the design tips that follow are adapted from a 2018 interview Glaser gave for Creative Boom.

Advice from Milton Glaser

Embrace creative blocks

“When you are blocked, you know you have something to do. And also it is not a permanent condition. A block basically leads you elsewhere and very frequently that is precisely what is needed.” — Milton Glaser

Some designers fear creative blocks more than anything else. But, according to Glaser, they’re to be embraced, not resisted. And the more openly you embrace them, the more you allow yourself to work through the blocks instead of against them.  

Approaching our work in this way helps us to overcome blocks and barriers, and can ultimately lead us to new creative ground. 

Don’t chase originality 

“I always wanted the work I did to reflect some aspect of myself, but always knew that it would take some time to find that aspect. At any rate, I have never been conscious that originality was my primary aim. What I really cared about was effectiveness.” — Milton Glaser

Here Glaser alludes to an attitude of “practicality over sentimentality”. He appeared to be advocating an approach that does away with the endless striving for originality. Note, however, that for him originality was still an aim, just not a “primary aim”. So he was still conscious of it. 

The suggestion here is that perhaps functionality, effectiveness, and utility should be prioritised above the elusive and indefinable task of searching for originality (at least when it comes to professional work).  

Don’t worry about whether people will like it or not

“It is very difficult to understand the dimensions of human preference. Why do you like vanilla better than chocolate? Obviously an individual choice. But works become iconic when they become popular and the reasons for popularity are always complex and peculiar.” — Milton Glaser

If there’s something we’re all guilty of from time to time, it’s caring too much about what others think of our work. What’s interesting about Glaser’s perspective, however, is that it points us towards a rarely acknowledged truth: that preferences change, and ultimately there is no magic formula for success.  

And if anyone can talk with any authority on this subject, surely it’s the man behind “I ♥ New York”. . .

In fact, when asked about that particular piece of work, Glaser said, “I certainly had no idea of its universal application and it is a profound mystery to me.”

So then, if we can’t pin down what people will like, or how much they’ll like it, surely it’s best just to forget about the whole thing? Rather than worrying over it, why not just get on with it and make the work anyway?  

Don’t overthink things

“I just start working. I find that once you are on the path it leads you to many solutions. Not all solutions are extraordinary, but at least there is a methodology.” — Milton Glaser

Every creative is familiar with the old empty-screen scenario. Staring vacantly at a blank canvas, slowly seething and growing increasingly frustrated with a seeming inability to come up with anything. This sort of block is only exacerbated by our tendency to overthink what we’re doing. 

Often we get caught up in striving for perfection. We want to ensure that everything has been thought through, every idea fully ripened, before we set pen to paper. But this can set us up to be overly self-critical, and ultimately deepens our fear of failure. 

Glaser combatted this mindset by, simply enough, working. His approach encourages us to put our heads down and just do the work without thinking too much about it. By letting it develop organically, it may seem to take a little longer, and it may produce more “failures” along the way, but in the end it will lead us to interesting and productive places.

Interviews, inspiration, and documentaries

Design to be a good citizen

TED: How great design makes ideas new

Milton Glaser: To Inform and Delight

Other resources

A lasting legacy

Though he may be gone, Milton Glaser’s work and influence will resonate for a very long time to come. He was an iconic designer – one who captured the essence of an era – and remained a creative inspiration until the day he died.