Designer's Dilemma: To Compute or Not to Compute?

Milton Glaser does not like the computer. On some level, it's understandable for Glaser to feel this way, since he did most of his work before the digital revolution was even a science fiction fantasy.

So what if he doesn't like the computer? Why should designers care about what Milton Glaser thinks?

Because Milton Glaser's name should be as familiar to graphic designers as Norman Mailer's is to writers. The scope and breadth of Glaser's work is still very much a starting point for most modern commercial and graphic design today. As one of the founders of the famous Pushpin Studio, the man who defined a generation of graphic design with the famous 1966 Bob Dylan poster, and the inventor of "I (Heart) New York," Milton Glaser's design sense and accomplishments make him someone whom designers cannot ignore.

Glaser is known not only for his intelligent design but also for his illustration and drawing technique. His combination of graphical elements with well-informed and well-schooled illustration talents are evident in a majority of the work on display in his new book Art Is Work . An excellent 272-page overview of a large part of Milton Glaser's talent, the $70 book is comprehensive, with Glaser's own annotations on each project.

Macworld spoke with Milton Glaser recently, covering everything from his time as a Fulbright scholar studying with Bolognese painter Giorgio Morandi to his design work. But the main topic was Glaser's apparent disdain for technology. "Technophobia is deeply engrained into my personality," he says.

Glaser disapproves of the computer as a primary design tool. This stems from his view that current college curricula lack any required art history or drawing programs. "The idea of drawing as a discipline that is necessary for the practice of design has just about vanished," he says.

Glaser has taught many designers over the years. But the decade of digital dominance has changed the environment of design -- and it's changed teaching, as well.

"In teaching [today], I've found that students have absolutely no idea, or any ability of any kind to represent their ideas through drawing . . . the imperative to draw has vanished," Glaser says.

The Milton Glaser Studio is not, however, an isolated relic from the predigital past. The New York-based studio has computers. The handful of designers he currently has in the studio use Macs "because they're the standard of the industry," Glaser says.

But Glaser himself doesn't use computers. He draws, with a pen, brush, and paper. The students and designers Glaser regards highly "develop ideas before they go to the computer, and then they go to the computer at a point which the idea has been tested."

Lack of Fuzziness

"Nothing bothers me about the computer," says Glaser, who finds digital tools "a very useful part of what I do after I work through ideas."

But Glaser believes digital design suffers from what he calls a "lack of fuzziness."

"The difference between the brain and the computer has to do with the way the brain works by maintaining its fuzziness," Glaser says. "You do a sketch -- which is why, incidentally, I think that drawing is essential -- and the brain examines the sketch and modifies it. The brain then thinks of another idea. And then you do another sketch, which is still fuzzy, and there's a response on the part of the brain, and you move in a series of steps toward clarification. The maintenance of ambiguity is a central part of how the brain works."

Some designers would disagree. While it's true that digital tools allow virtually limitless repetitions and speed, the ambiguity Glaser believes has vanished is more a matter of knowing what to see and what to look at on the monitor. It's the same as when you work with pencil in hand. Some could argue that drawing is 70 percent looking and 30 percent drawing. The same applies to working on the computer; the ideas come from the same place, and the ambiguity on the screen is still there. It's just a matter of knowing the tools better.

Weak Ideas, Well-Developed

Glaser disagrees. "The problem with the computer is that when you go on the computer, everything has to be made clear too quickly," he says. "And so the essential part of the developmental dialectic disappears. The greatest liability to the computer is that a lot of weak ideas are very well developed. The computer clarifies things too quickly."

Still, Glaser concedes that this may be a generational thing -- that he doesn't understand the tools the digital generation has grown up with. After all, any time someone comes up with a new tool -- a sharper brush, a better application -- anyone entrenched in their ways will scoff. Change may be an essential part of our makeup, but it's not always welcome.

You might like to argue with Glaser, try to coerce him to pick up a Wacom tablet and explore Painter 6. Maybe teach an old dog new tricks. But if you spend time going through Art Is Work , you'll quickly realize that it would be in vain because Milton Glaser's personal feelings about technology are really an aside. His body of work sustains itself in its own truth and, in some cases, even belies his arguments. Art is Work features several examples from a competition to design the newspaper of the future. Glaser's innovative graphic layout attempted to "do the entire day's news on two sides of a single sheet of paper" -- a vision that he notes was "made irrelevant" by the Internet. But Glaser's attempts at an analog paper bear a striking resemblance to the Internet-based news sites that exist today.

What has replaced drawing "is this idea of assembling material, a collage sensibility," Glaser says. But his work is partially responsible for the collagist's popularity and domination of design. Milton Glaser's work laid the foundation for the current direction of graphic design, not to say that there is only one particular direction, because there isn't.

Designers now have an ever-widening expanse of choices and tools to help them. Sometimes there are too many choices and too many tools. Designers can get caught up in the power and speed of the software, rather than slowing down and concentrating on the particular design problem at hand.

In this way, having too many choices and tools can sometimes be positive or negative for designers. Glaser's argument seems to be that the single good, well-thought-out idea and design is worth a thousand slick but shallow ones.

Although Glaser could not foresee the vast changes that have occurred in the industry over the past decade, some of the work depicted in his book made attempts at achieving the multiplicity and multitasking that we now enjoy. Still, Glaser's not happy about it.

"Culture is defined as much by what is prohibited as [by] what is accepted. But the Internet prohibits nothing," he says.

"We're all either victims or participants in our times," he adds. Within those parameters, his disavowal of the digital design methodology may just make him a voluntary victim. But what Glaser may not realize is that in this environment of assemblage and collage, even being a victim can be participatory. What was a piece of flotsam at one time is often an intrinsic part of new and good composition later on and vice versa.

Designers are by definition both victims and participants, defining and being defined by their times. Milton Glaser reminds us that even the newest ideas must have a basis in the threads of history and sustain themselves in the continuity of truth. After all, the tools you use should only be recognized as extensions of talent and insight -- not as replacements.

ANDREW SHALAT ( www.shalat.com ) is a Los Angeles-based designer, illustrator, and writer. E-mail him at web@shalat.com.

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