Milton Glaser: Graphic Design and Political Power

Like most left-leaning New Yorkers, graphic designer Milton Glaser is worried about next week’s Republican National Convention. It’s not the threat of terrorism or the specter of Tom DeLay in our midst that concerns him: He worries that the two or three hundred thousand protesters drawn to the event without a proper venue will be a recipe for political disaster.

Offering an alternative to the scenario, he is organizing Light Up the Sky, an initiative calling for New Yorkers opposed to the Bush presidency to peacefully gather on the first day of the convention, wearing or carrying expressions of light. I spoke with Glaser—who also is the 2004 National Design Awards Lifetime Achievement winner—about his idea, the waning political power of graphic design, and the diabolical nature of political advertising.

How did the idea for Light Up the Sky develop?
What inspired it was the realization that the city was going to be transferred into the hands of the Bushies. And that the image of people confronting the police, being hit over the head, and taken away to jail would accrue to Bush’s benefit. If demonstrations become violent, it will further convince people that New York is full of nuts and psychos.

Yet the truth is there is no way to prevent people from expressing anger at the current political situation. So I thought there must be a benign way to do it. What if you did it as a kind of transparent effect that didn’t require a permit? What if people simply wore light, or some expression of light, and then went out on the street? So that everyone who opposed the president carried light—suits of light, lanterns, candles, flashlights. And everyone who lived with windows facing the street turned on their lights, so that at two in the morning the city was ablaze. And everybody understood what that meant.

My theory is that intelligence is simply an acknowledgement of what’s in your own best interest, and in this case what’s in our best interest is non confrontational, non-violent protest.

What has been the response to this idea?
We’re getting a lot of hits on our web site. This week, kids from the School of Visual Arts are going to put up posters around the city. We did this with the “I Love New York More Than Ever” poster following 9/11. We’re hoping to get some media coverage, because the only way this works is if the media picks it up.

I talked Air America into supporting the effort, having individuals talk about their vision of America at various points in the city. So they’re going to do that. But we don’t know if this idea is going to coalesce. This is an unfunded project. So it becomes a question of how ideas enter into public consciousness when you don’t have enormous organizational support to flog them.

Do you think graphic design in general possesses the power to sway political opinion?
No. Most graphic design is in the service of business, whose agenda is not the same as service to the community. In most cases, designers are conveying other people’s messages. Every once in a while, there’s a degree of social consciousness among designers, but fundamentally they’re talking to themselves. Often it doesn’t go beyond that, because it’s more about relieving themselves of tension than communicating to people in an effort to change their minds. That’s a failure of design intelligence.

Was it easier years ago to get unofficial ideas into the mainstream when the marketplace of ideas was less cluttered?
I think so. Look at how information comes out during the current campaign. If anybody comes out with a claim, it’s immediately countered. So what happens is everything becomes undifferentiated. You get two simultaneous messages, and they cancel each other out.

Whether they’re true is not relevant. Truth is not a factor, persuasion is. And lying has become the Eden drink of this effort, because the American public has become so trained by advertising to buy things even when they know they’re being lied to. When you see a commercial and know it isn’t true, you’ll still go out and buy the product because the commercial is entertaining. On that basis, I think the presidential race has largely become a question of what personality seems more entertaining. Nothing else seems to matter very much.

Do you remember a piece of graphic design that had a political impact?
I am sure that images have affected me, but it’s hard for me to recall what they are. There are of course slogans that persist in the mind, like “We have nothing to fear, but fear itself.” But when you move from that kind of narrative into posters, you don’t find too many that have the same affect.

It seems TV commercials have that resonance—LBJ’s mushroom cloud spot against Barry Goldwater or the first Bush’s Willie Horton spot attacking Dukakis. Those are the images we remember, rather than static ones.
The commercial is incredibly effective, because of its capacity to generate an emotional response. I watched this spot that the Bush people did about the Olympics—the fact that there are now two more free nations competing. It hooked right into the emotionalism and patriotic zeal of the event, and it was created to run right off the television coverage, sort of partaking in that world of accomplishment and optimism and patriotism. And even though you knew it was bullshit, your heart swelled anyway.

One of the terrible things about this is that you’re emotionally susceptible to it, even when you know it’s a lie, because the endless repetition ultimately becomes effective. You respond to it, even though you don’t really know what you’re responding to.

So the two-dimensional sign or poster can’t by its very nature compete with the 30-second political spot?
I don’t think so. But I don’t have any idea what part of the design community is politically active. My presumption has always been that they’re more likely to be on the left than the right. But I don’t know if that’s true anymore. The world has changed. Young people have different motivations for going into the field.

The only reason I see graphic design as being of a more liberal persuasion is its relationship to art. But if you think of yourself in the design profession as a businessman, you don’t have that association and might not be inclined to feel that you’re on the left side of most political issues.

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