To many, Milton Glaser, designer, illustrator, teacher, and intellectual, is the embodiment of graphic design during the latter
half of this century. He co-founded the revolutionary Pushpin Studios in 1954, New York Magazine with Clay Felker in 1968,
Milton Glaser, Inc. in 1974, and teamed with Walter Bernard in 1983 to form WBMG. Glaser's design is part of the permanent
collections of the MoMA, the Smithsonian Institute, and the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum. His work has had a profound
impact on the industry, and so has his contributions to the public discourse about the role of design in society. In a recent
conversation with one, Glaser discussed the role of visual communication as a vehicle for social change.
The road to hell
Advertising is almost always about persuading people to buy things. Graphic Design sometimes avoids the issue by merely informing
people about an event or opportunity. Some years ago I wrote a questionnaire called the Road to Hell which examines the question
of how far you are willing to go to participate in and contribute to what I call public harm. How far are you willing to go to
encourage people to do things that are not necessarily good for them? I don't know if this is so much a conflict between design
and advertising as it is a question of people's personal ethical standards. In the 11 steps of the Road to Hell, I start with
benign activities that everyone in design would agree to do, such as making a package look larger on a shelf [step 1], and I move
to reprehensible activities, which is participating in the possible death of the user [step 11]. In between, there's a lot of
ambiguity. The questions about professional ethics in my own life have arisen mostly in relationship to advertising.
The greater the distance?
I suppose to some degree, everybody's on the road to hell, but in some cases advertising creates more conflict for it's makers. You
must ask yourself whether you wish to encourage selling T-shirts made by child labor, or whether that fits your own existential
view of yourself. You can also rationalize, perhaps correctly, that some activities are not so clearly defined. For instance, you
can say that if people in third world countries didn't have this job they'd have no work at all. You can find reasons for doing
things that seem conflicted, but finally you have to be at home with what you do in the world.
Often, people in both advertising and design manage to de-humanize and objectify the audience. They don?t consider them in the same
light as their family, friends, or neighbors. Rather they are perceived as a kind of undifferentiated mass that is not quite human.
If this weren't true how could you inflict harm on them? When I ask my students, would you encourage your children or family to
smoke, they all say, of course not. But the greater the distance, the easier it becomes to dehumanize the audience. What is the
difference between lying to your wife or children and lying to a stranger? As we all know, it's much easier to lie to strangers.
If strangers are not of your class or your country, they become increasingly easy to lie to.
First things first
I had complaints about the First Things First Manifesto**, which I spoke to Rick Poynor about. It didn't give people any place
to go. It suggested that one could get out of the business or work for nonprofits. It lacked reality. Once you accept the idea
that we are living in a capitalistic enterprise, and that there is a potential for good in capitalism, you have to give people
some leeway. You can't simply say, stop working and supporting your family. But the manifesto is a polemic statement; it doesn't
have to be reasonable. What it has to do is encourage discourse, which it has done. I think it's had a positive effect simply by
raising people's consciousness and making them aware of the fact that these issues exist. It makes the issues harder to ignore.
The mantra that seems to be useful is: Do no harm. It can work as well for people in advertising as it does for doctors. The
question of determining what is harmful is a more complex question. But on a personal level, the idea that you have some personal
responsibility for the consequences of your actions is a starting point. Since Nuremberg, the argument that 'I was only following
orders' doesn't excuse anything. When I was growing up, the tough guy school of advertising said, 'Look, I'm a pro. I do what has
to be done. And I don't let my personal morals interfere with my job.' I don't think that can be said anymore. It's clear that
people who 'follow orders' do dreadful things and many of us believe that the excuse is indefensible. But it's too easy to be
moralistic about this. It's an issue of personal responsibility, and raises the question of how you feel when you're hurting
Can an ad be socially responsible?
The industry seems to be more socially aware these days. When there is an ethos of public good, where the practitioners feel
that it is inappropriate to cause harm, something changes. What creates that ethos? Or, how do you create a good society? How
do you create an atmosphere that suggests that causing harm is undesirable? It should not be reduced to whether you do cigarette
advertising or not. These are difficult issues, but if you're urging someone to do something, you should be concerned about the
consequences of the response. In a more perfect world, advertising might have other social agendas besides profitability.
Art and design
In the design community there seems to be more conversation about ecology and sustainability than with people on the advertising
side, who don't seem to be as active in dealing with those things. Graphic design?s link to the history of art may have created
this distinction. Social reform and visual progress have always been linked. If you look at the secessionist movement or the arts
and crafts movement or any of the major modernist movements of the late 19th and 20th centuries, you'll discover that they are
linked to social objectives and the idea of creating a better society. The modern movement advocated social as well as aesthetic
reform. I don't think advertising has shared that history to the same degree that the graphic design community has. The early
modernist designers were linked to political action. Even though that idea has dissipated in America, it's still a current, not
necessarily a vigorous one, in graphic design.
Some clients demand that you do things that compromise your personal ethics. You have to decide if you're going to cooperate or
not. It is not easy to be in a position where you can say, 'I think that harms too many people.' The larger question is whether
this concern about the consequences of one's work can become part of the ethos of our field; the conflict is usually expressing
a question of survival, but I think that is simplistic. We all say no to many things that violate our ethical standards, why
should our professional work be an exception?
*** The First Things First Manifesto 2000 (spearheaded by Adbuster?s Rick Poynor) states that design should and can do public
good, rather than encourage pointless consumerism. Hundreds of high-profile designers signed First Things First , which is an
updated version of the original 1964 manifesto by Ken Garland. The 2000 manifesto has re-energized the design community, provoking
both criticism and debate.
The high road
Below is Milton Glaser's list, the 11 steps of 'The Road to Hell,' beginning with benign graphic design activities and ending
with activities that do harm. The list was originally presented at the 1999 AIGA conference in Las Vegas, Nevada.
1. Designing a package to look larger on the shelf.
2. Doing an ad for a slow-moving, boring film to make it seem like a lighthearted comedy.
3. Designing a crest for a new vineyard to suggest that it?s been in business for a long time.
4. Designing a jacket for a book whose sexual content you find personally repellent.
5. Designing an advertising campaign for a company with a history of known discrimination in minority hiring.
6. Designing a package for a cereal aimed at children which has low nutritional value and high sugar content.
7. Designing a line of T-shirts for a manufacturer who employs child labor.
8. Designing a promotion for a diet product that you know doesn?t work.
9. Designing an ad for a political candidate whose policies you believe would be harmful to the general public.
10. Designing a brochure piece for an SUV that turned over frequently in emergency conditions known to have killed 150 people.
11. Designing an ad for a product whose continued use might cause the user's death.