At 86, Milton Glaser, the irrepressible dean of American graphic design, still comes in to work at his Manhattan studio each morning, takes a pencil from a basket where they await, presharpened, pointy-end up, and begins to draw. So when AIGA, a professional design organization, recently solicited ideas for a 2016 get-out-the-vote poster, he didn’t hesitate. He’s dabbled in this arena before, sketching a poster with the motto “To Vote Is Human” in 2010. This time, he echoes René Descartes (“I think, therefore I am”) and challenges voters to prove they’re among the living. Brad Wieners spoke to Glaser on May 3. The interview has been edited and condensed.
Why this poster now?
It was just an opportunity to do something that I think needs to be done. And you see, the issue about doing posters urging people to vote is that it’s not enough to say, “Go vote.” You have to justify that. You have to tell people why they should vote. And for me, if you don’t vote, you’re essentially invisible, and you don’t affect the structure of your own life, or anyone else for that matter.
Do you like the way this election is going?
No, it’s horrible. One of the reasons people don’t vote is they don’t believe it will have an effect. And if you watch television, you become convinced that it’s all a rigged system, and that it’s all a manifestation of advertising. And I wouldn’t call it cynicism entirely, because I think that’s correct to a large degree.
Is this poster a way of calling on your fellow designers to be more engaged citizens?
I always try to convince my fellow designers that the role of design is not to persuade, it’s to inform. I believe that deeply. And that if you try to persuade people to do something that is against their best interest, you’re doing something that is selfish, pigheaded, stupid, and ultimately destructive.
Posters are an old media, and yet social media extends their reach. Are they more relevant than ever?
I don’t know about “than ever.” I only know there’s a way of affecting the mind through imagery and words. The most astonishing thing I ever did personally to that affect was the “I Love New York” campaign. Who in the world would have suspected that this little scribble would go around the world with billions of people seeing it?
You never saw a dime for that, did you?
I wasn’t paid for that. And I thought it was going to last three weeks and disappear, as most of the work you do as a designer does.
When that appeared, in 1977, it was a tough time to love New York. Do you think that was part of the reason it took?
You were afraid to go out in the street at night. That’s how bad things were here. I mean, the sense of comfort and commonality had just about vanished. It was a dog-eat-dog situation. But then everybody said, I’ve had enough. And that transformation came overnight. Suddenly the perception was, we don’t have to live this way!
Our political moment sounds a lot like that. People are fed up. Can we make such a turn now?
We’ll see. We must admit that the guiding force is money, profitability, and selfishness—otherwise you couldn’t explain what’s going on in the world. And in an attempt to act against this, you have to feel that you’re in the same boat as everybody else. And people don’t feel that way at the moment. They feel that everyone is in their own boat.
You have been widely imitated, even by our magazine. Are you delighted when you see that, or does it irk you a little?
I have to admit, I love seeing that my work has entered into use. One of the reasons you become involved in the communication business, whether you’re a reporter, or a journalist, or a designer, is because you want to feel that your work has effect. That people see it and respond to it. And that is the great reward: seeing that your work is not merely known, but responded to.
What do you tell young people starting out now: Should they be drawing, or stick with their computers?
I’m a great believer in drawing as a starting point, because as I’ve often said, drawing is a way of determining what is real. When you draw something, you have to pay attention to it, and that means you have to be attentive. And being attentive is the only way to understand what is real, because most of us, as you know, walk through life asleep. Drawing is an instrument for changing that state of mind. And then you have to develop skills, and then you have to understand something about the nature of communication. People go into this field in general based on two instincts, fundamentally: One is to make things because they love the act of making things, which I do, and the other is to earn a living and to establish a place in the world. On the one end you have the pull of fame and money, which is profound and the basis for everything in the world today, and the other is a delight in making things. Those two things are not necessarily compatible. But the job of how you can fit those ill-fitting aspects of human behavior together—that’s the job. Incidentally I think it’s a job that almost everybody in the universe has.
Any specific expectations for the new poster?
I don’t necessarily have an expectation, but I hope it has an effect. That someone, somewhere will be affected by it and vote. And if it’s 10 people, that’s better, and if it’s 1,000 people, that’s even better.
Did you ever act because of what you read on a poster?
I probably have a thousand examples that I can’t think of now. Mostly when I was in Italy, I took a path to follow all the Piero della Francescas and copy them. And the act of copying paintings, which was the way you used to learn how to paint, has fallen out of favor somewhat. Copying all those Pieros made me rethink the world, and what the universe was like and what behavior was like. You can’t translate this stuff into a kind of direct correlation. But it changes the way your brain operates. It’s not logical, it’s not rational, and it’s not understandable, but the act of seeing and accepting is transformative.
Has there ever been, like, a message ... Like to vote is to exist. Was there any slogan that ever clicked for you? Not to say that’s just a slogan, but similar from your history?
You’re talking about voting specifically?
Not necessarily voting but just a really clear, short idea that you saw it and it changed what you thought about it?
Yikes. As soon as you leave, I’ll think of a dozen. I guess I’m so susceptible. Even something like “Black is beautiful” has stuck in my mind all these years, even without being conscious of it. All this stuff about these lines is that they’re always with you, even as you forget them. What is remarkable is how these catchy lines occupy so much of your brain. It’s one of the things I resent about advertising are all the clever lines that will not let go of your brain and occupy space that could be better employed.
Do you save favorite mottos?
I don’t make notes of anything, but I can’t avoid saving them. They’re just back there. I do have this idea, I really have to say this, that everything is accessible at once. That the entire universe is in everybody’s brain, and there’s nothing we don’t know about everything. I depend on that. I depend on the fact that I really know the answer to everything. It’s just a question of getting to it. It’s a very liberating feeling.
But is it ever frustrating, too—to know the knowledge is in there, but you can’t get to it?
If you think it’s frustrating, it will be. If you think, no problem, it’s not.