Milton Glaser on the Problem with New Ideas, Overcoming Creative Block, and Doing Good Work as an Artist



Milton Glaser. Via: (FLICKR)


Milton Glaser is one of the most celebrated and revered Graphic Designers in the world. If you have not seen any of his work,  check out his iconic I ♥ NY logo and Bob Dylan poster for Columbia record, to name a few. In a recent interview with Creative Boom, an online art magazine based in Manchester, UK, Glaser sat down with Katy Cowan and he generously shared what he has learned throughout his life about his intense and passionate engagement with the world of graphic design. The conversation covers so many insightful topics but I decided to highlight some of my favorites such as: the impracticality of new ideas, overcoming creative block, and the best advice he’s ever received.


I Love NY Campaign by Milton Glaser. Via: (


On the problem with finding new ideas:

“The problem really is that there are too many ideas. The question is how do you avoid new ideas as well as deal with the ones you know and make them deeper and more penetrating and more significant. The new is not always the most beneficial realm although in many areas of communication the new is useful because it engages people or surprises people or compels them to ask, what was that question? In any case, the question of finding new ideas is irrelevant.”

When he was asked, “Do you ever suffer from creative block? And if so, what do you do to overcome it?” Glaser says that we need to embrace creative block as a natural part of creative process, because, at the end, it can lead us to a place that can fuel our work.

He says:

“I embrace it. 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. A block comes from doing the same thing too many times and running out of gas. As I frequently quote Picasso, ‘once you’ve mastered something, you can abandon it.'”

In consonance with Patti Smith’s advice to any aspiring artist, the best advice Glaser has ever received came from his junior high school teacher. It’s about doing good work, exerting oneself devotedly to one’s own work and forgetting the result because, at the end, as one wise man said, “Doing the work is enough.

“Do good work. It’s advice my junior high school teacher once told me after he understood that I was not going to be a scientist. I had chosen the road of art. Nevertheless, he gave me a box of contact crayons and told me ‘do good work.’ Those words have never diminished in my mind.”

The whole conversation is fantastic! As I was doing research on his life for my blog, I came upon this video about him created by Hilman Curtis.


The most poignant lines:

“I think the most interesting thing that one can say about one’s later life is that if you can sustain your interest in what you’re doing, you’re an extremely fortunate person. What you see very frequently in people’s professional lives, and perhaps in their emotional life as well, is that they lose interest in the third act. You sort of get tired, and indifferent, and sometimes, defensive, and you kind of lose your capacity for astonishment. And it’s a great loss because the world is a very astonishing place. So I think what I feel fortunate about is that I am still astonished that things still amaze me and I think that the great benefit of being in the arts where the possibility for learning never disappears us, where you basically have to admit you never learn it. “

2012 MacArthur Fellow and Pulitzer Prize Winner Junot Díaz on Reclaiming Our Education



Junot Díaz. Photography by Nina Subin. Via: (UVA)


I am writing this as a senior in college who has been pondering heavily about the value of education. I’m a little bit troubled when people say that an education is the key to change the world. Yes, I wholeheartedly believe it can change the world, but, what kind of education are we talking about here that can change the world? This is a common scene of our education that I have been slowly observing: someone goes to his class and then he is being taught by a professor who reads off his presentation slides. Then he sends him home to memorize facts from his presentation in preparation for the upcoming standardized examination. Sadly, this exam only assesses his rote memorization of facts rather than his ability to understand why it matters and transmute facts into knowledge, or even wisdom. If this is the kind of education that people talk about, what are the chances that he is going to be an agent of change in this world? I’d say zero.

Standing before the graduating women at Douglass College in September of 1977, Adrianne Rich (May 16 1929 – March 27 2012), one of the most insightful poets and thinkers of the twentieth century, says in her commencement speech that she believes that in order to reap the juicy rewards of education, students should think that they are claiming their education, instead of going to school to receive an education. The distinction between “to receive” and “to claim” is immensely striking. “To claim” an education is to utilize anything that can enhance our intellectual freedom, whereas “to receive” is to let others do our own thinking and chose the most convenient ways to avoid contentious problems of learning. The former is about leaning to do a solid work and the latter is being satisfied with a shallow work.

Between my opinion on the fragility of our education system and Rich’s powerful commencement speech, there’s Junot Díaz, a 2012 MacArthur fellow and Pulitzer Prize winner, who is not only someone who believes that radical hope is the best kind of hope, but also he shares Rich’s belief on claiming our education. On April 30 2013, in an intelligent conversation with Paul Holdengraber on NYPL Live podcast about his career as a fiction writer, Díaz, who is also a working professor of creative writing at MIT, was asked by Holdengraber about his thoughts on education. According to him, students need to take a full ownership of their education. When an education is taken seriously, it has a chance to transform people’s lives.

If we subscribe to Rich and Díaz’s shared belief of taking ownership of our education, we can expect to see more people to be an agent of change in this world.


Junot Díaz at Strand Bookstore. Via: (Flickr)


Note: PH= Paul Holdengraber and JD= Junot Díaz

The transcript of the podcast is below:

PH: I’m curious about your teaching career. What do you have your students do? What are your classes? What do you expect from them? Do you think that writing can be taught?

JD: […]

I guess my thing with me and my students is that part of what I want from my students is sort of utopian. You know, we want our students to take ownership of the class. The problem is that we live in a society where we’ve basically told most people that being passive is the best way to get your education. So most students don’t really take ownership of the class because they haven’t been taught that. And they usually don’t have the space to actually take ownership because most students are over fucking worked, they’ve got way too many classes, they’ve got way too many pressures. Most students are sitting on huge fucking loans and how do you sit in a class and take ownership of an art class when you are thinking about $ 120,000 loan that is sitting over your head.

We ask our students to, as a professor, I ask my students, to participate in a class pretending that the society did not break their legs before they showed up.


The point of any class is an opportunity to receive an education. And an education is an opportunity for you in contact with your material, in contact with your peers, in contact with the modeling of your instructors. An education is an opportunity to be transformed. And I think that’s what I want.

PH: That’s what you want to transmit?

JD: I want to use the sort of the critical lens of what we are doing in class to open them up to what education does best, which is to transform them. That the person walks into the class is not the same person leaves. And 99% of the time it doesn’t work but every now and then it works. And it’s worth everything. It’s worth everything to have a student who ten years later down the line says the opportunity that you offered me, that the other professors offered me to transform myself was foundational to who I am. That’s why we do this crap all of us.

We’ve been taught that you’re supposed to be in college because instrumental reasons.

PH: When you said instrumental , you mean in order to achieve a purpose?

JD: Basically college is just preparation for a job which means that when college is just preparation for a job, transformation is not on the table. Because to be transformed, you gotta take risks, but when it’s like college is just instrumental and it’s like, this is for a job, why would you take any risks? But when an education is education is good for education’s sake, you’re far more likely to take risks.

The full podcast:



Related reads:

  1. Some Thoughts on Knowledge Acquisition
  2. A Forgotten 1932 Book on Education and Recreation