I happened to see Milton Glaser interviewed on CBS Sunday Morning in the spring of 2000. Three months earlier I had lost my job in “Silicon Alley,” New York as the dot-com bubble was bursting. I was a single mother with six children and desperate to find a job.
I had never heard of Milton Glaser, and so, having accepted my fate of solitary, thankless hours wrestling with Quark Express, this fairytale of a graphic designer being interviewed on national TV fascinated me intellectually and gripped me emotionally.
There he was: a celebrity! An illustrator of posters and album covers, a designer of restaurants and beer labels, logos and ad campaigns—a multi-faceted artist who’d been able to use his imagination for more than just print layouts and email banners. My mind was racing. I needed to meet him. I wrote him a letter that went something like this:
Dear Mr. Glaser,
I saw you on “CBS Sunday Morning,” and felt so strongly that you and I would connect on a profound level, that I was encouraged to write this note. I found you wise, insightful, dynamic and yet down to earth. I’m certain we would make a connection that would benefit us both – were we to meet.
I’m a graphic designer (as well as a poet and single mother of six). I am 43 and feel that I am at a turning point. I want to focus on design in earnest, and not just to make a living. In my resumé I have design directing for a seven-magazine publishing company, designing as well as marketing displays for the jewelry industry, and most recently I designed marketing for a software company. My freelance work is just as varied … but I see something beyond just a critique of my artwork, and I don’t mind taking the risk to discover for myself what that might be.
I feel that our exchange of ideas, personal and professional, would provide the mentoring experience I crave, and that you would likewise find me a delight.
Please have dinner with me and let me see what this magic is that I need to see. I promise to bring as much fascination to you as I take away.
Well, my boldness accomplished it’s good work and I received a reply just a day or two later—
Dear Miss Strazza,
At some mutually convenient occasion I would be glad to chat with you. Call my assistant, Charlotte, and she will be glad to set something up upon your visit to the city.
My appointment set, I took great care in preparing my portfolio for his review. I was counting on Glaser to assess my potential and advise my next move. Did I have the necessary talent to be a great designer like him?
His studio, at 207 E 32nd Street, was in the heart of Manhattan. I took a train in from New Jersey, rode a subway that stopped a few blocks away, and, emerging from subterranean darkness, I floated lightly, in spite of my big portfolio, with the city’s sidewalk traffic, toward every possibility. Next door to his building, playful metal artwork designed by Glaser adorned a playground fence. I immediately recognized his style and my heart skipped yet another anticipatory beat. Could I ever be a designer like that?
The beautifully maintained, heavy wooden doors of number 207 reminded me that, like the skilled minds and hands that build them, all things used repeatedly need care. Care of a place is a very good indication of care for the people that visit it. I was the visitor that day, and, in my estimation, uniquely blessed as someone who took a chance, made a bold move, and was rewarded with the kindness of an invitation by a generously kind man.
My portfolio and I climbed a set of stairs from reception to the studio, where I waited in a small conference room. I lifted my hopes and dreams onto a golden oak table in the center of the room, unzipping their black shroud so that my attempts and vulnerability could be efficiently revealed to the master.
When he arrived, after a brief cordiality, he looked slowly and thoughtfully through my portfolio without a single comment. I stood quietly by. He knew who I was from my letter. I knew there were no apologies for imperfection or lack of expertise. My lips remained obediently tight.
He carefully turned back the pages and closed the heavy cover. He looked at me seriously for a short while, and then smiled. “Let’s have lunch.”
I followed him into his work area so he could gather some things. He showed me his drafting table, a dozen little inspirations taped to the wall within view. “I still design the old fashioned way,” he said, turning to me as he nodded toward his workspace, “with a pencil or a china marker.”
I strained to absorb all of this; he was showing me for a reason. This was the master’s way of working, his drafting table is still in my memory. The assistant designers, all younger than me, toiled away except for a quick smile, concentrating on their computers. I got it. I got his process in that glimpse and it still inspires me.
It was difficult not to be star-struck. It’s like having sugar in your gas tank. You just can’t receive the valuable input provided. Mental processing is choked off. You’ve seen fans on TV, stammering in the presence of their idols. It’s unforgivable. So I fought with all my resolve, determined not to lose a moment of time to brain fog.
As we left his studio and descended the stairs toward reception, he told me that my work was “not great.” That didn’t hurt my feelings at all—one of the foremost designers in the world was speaking to me. I assumed my work was not great – but I needed to know if I had potential. And, most importantly, What should I do right now?
But I didn’t ask any questions. I was uncharacteristically quiet in the presence of the Einstein of my chosen field. So many sayings and analogies I had absorbed over the years never popped to mind, but I obeyed them instinctively. Something about a fool opening up his mouth to remove all doubt. I was the student, here to learn, not to explain myself.
Consciously recording every moment—ears perked, eyes wide—my heart paced itself to the rhythm of each happy step down his stairs. “Not great,” was the sweetest music of potential to my ears. The opportunity to become the artist I wanted and needed to be for my family. I was ready to absorb. The presence of mind and thoughtfulness that was apparent on CBS Sunday Morning had turned its focus on me. There would be much to take in.
Glaser spoke about his favorite hat as he put it on, walking out the door. His jacket was such soft, fine suede, maybe doeskin. Don’t be offended. I don’t know anything about leather or the leather trade, I just noticed that the design and quality of everything about him was superior, and that he very much enjoyed those things. And I enjoyed seeing him enjoy them. The fruits of his labor, of a long career doing what he loved, loving what he did.
We walked only about a block, maybe two, to his favorite Italian restaurant. When he greeted the host and wait staff in cheerful, fluent Italian, I assumed he patronized it almost daily. We sat at a sunny square table, angled so that both of us could see each other and out the nearby windows. It was late for lunch, and wasn’t busy, so he took the liberty to engage the host in a brief conversation. I didn’t understand the Italian, but I well understood the tone, facial expressions and body language. Evidence of Glaser’s kindness was abundant in every encounter.
For more than an hour over lunch, then coffee, Milton Glaser carefully tended the gardens of my heart and my mind, knowing that what could grow from them would feed the family of an artist who’d had some pretty difficult times.
He began by relating anecdotes from his life. His privileged childhood and education, attending art school abroad—while learning the Italian he spoke fluently that afternoon—had set the stage for his successful career. His dexterity and eye for design did not spring out of innate genetics or spontaneous play. He’d been trained by masters and had always, even at the time, genuinely appreciated that luxury. Rather than taking it for granted with frivolous behavior during his school years, he’d worked very hard, practicing what he was taught, generating endless sketches, developing his skill and his personal style.
As he spoke we made frequent eye contact, ensuring for both of us that the gravity of his careful lessons were set before me as heavily on our table as the dishes and the tableware. I knew he could see the hunger in my eyes, as I earnestly digested the feast he shared. Giving came as naturally to him as receiving came to me. The symbiosis of his care and my need was brightly reflected in a spoon shining with an afternoon sunbeam that came searching for its mirror.
After the story of his personal journey from art school to the launch of his early career, the iconic artist reached deep into his beating, human heart and brought forth his most precious gifts: the wisdom I could not have wished for, not having known the distillation of secrets he held for me.
The power of visual communication lays a heavy burden at the designer’s feet. To pick it up is to accept a calling, not just a career. Glaser was called to design and, by answering the call, he has infused his work with as much truth as beauty. I knew the question he alluded to without asking me: did I think this was my calling? Did I have the passion and commitment I would need to do what it would take to answer the call?
Was it the goodness-but-not-greatness of my portfolio? My desperation as an unemployed single mother of six? The boldness of my letter? The hunger in my eyes? It didn’t matter what cheered him inwardly on, he’d answered the call to be my teacher that afternoon. His familiar Italian restaurant was our classroom and I the willing pupil: humbled, not yet seasoned with my ten years of design experience, but ready to learn.
The gems I’m sharing with you, I’ve shared with countless others since that day, having scribbled as much as I could possibly remember into a notebook on my hour-plus train ride home to Rockaway, New Jersey that day.
Locked into the rock-solid foundation of decades of personal research and experience, was Glaser’s three-step, immutable secret to success. He had uncovered these principles fairly early on in his career and, through his work with students at the School of Visual Arts and countless years-long relationships with all manner of people pursuing all manner of careers, these principles have proven themselves absolute in the consistency of their outcome. Omitting Step One or Step Two would as surely prevent success as fulfilling both steps would guarantee it. Step Three, necessarily, was not possible without the first two. I’ve given them my own alliterative names and paraphrased his concept, but here it is as fully as I can express it for you.
Step 1. Align: Your heart and your head must agree. You have to feel passionately about your decision when you choose your career. Know in your heart that you were born for this. You are called. You can’t help but pursue it. You can’t sleep because you’re so excited about it. That’s your heart. Your head must be exactly as convinced as your heart. You must believe with your logical, intelligent mind that you should do this. This is what makes the most sense for you. Logic without passion will kill it. Passion that you should, without believing you can, will kill it. Your heart and your head must align.
Step 2. Learn: No matter how strongly you believe it’s right and how passionately you feel about it, if you don’t get the training required to be excellent at your career, you will fail. That’s a guarantee. Passion, or heart, and 100% cerebral buy-in don’t create skill, but they do energize you, enabling you to keep up with the hard work of training. You will stay in school, or practice until perfect, or hunt down the mentor or teacher you need… because your heart won’t let you quit, your determination will make sure you learn.
Step 3. Leap: You’ll never finish learning, but one day during your training a door will open and you will be ready to make a move. Whether you know you’re ready or not, a door will appear. If you’re not ready, you won’t see it. If your heart is not in it, you won’t take the leap. If your head is not in it, you won’t take the risk. But if those first two steps are in place—your heart and your head agree and you’ve become highly skilled—you will see the opportunity, you will leap through that door, and you will succeed. Milton Glaser guaranteed it.
“The real issue is not talent as an independent element, but talent in relationship to will, desire, and persistence. Talent without these things vanishes and even modest talent with those characteristics grows.” – Milton Glaser