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Idea Generation

Milton Glaser: We’re Always Looking, But We Never Really See

A peek behind the scenes at iconic designer Milton Glaser's creative process from Jonah Lehrer's new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works.

Did you know that Milton Glaser designed the I ♥ NY logo on a scrap of paper while stuck in the back of a taxi cab? I’ve been tearing through Jonah Lehrer’s excellent new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, over the past week, and Glaser’s “a-ha!” moment is just one of the many insightful stories contained therein.

We’ll admit to being avid RTers of most anything Lehrer writes over @the99percent, and our enthusiasm for the new book is no exception. In a very digestible 253 pages, Lehrer digs into the stories (and the brain chemistry) behind incredible creative achievements.He explains how Dan Wieden came up with Nike’s “just do it” slogan, why Bob Dylan had to give up on music to write “Rolling Stone,” and how a uniquely critical culture has made Pixar one of the most successful film production houses of all-time.With Glaser, Lehrer captures a wonderful moment on the importance of paying attention. Not just looking at the world around us, but seeing it.

Here’s Lehrer:

When Milton Glaser was sixteen, he decided to draw a portrait of his mother. “I was just sitting in front of her one night and I thought it would be fun to sketch her face,” he says. “So I got out a piece of paper and charcoal pencil. And you know what I realized? I realized I hadn’t the faintest idea what she looked like. Her image had become fixed in my mind at the age of one or two, and it really hadn’t changed since. I was drawing a picture of a woman who no longer existed.”

But as Glaser stared at her face and then compared what he saw to the black marks on the paper, her appearance slowly came into view. He was able to draw her as she was, and not as he expected her to be. “That sketch taught me something interesting about the mind,” he says. “We’re always looking, but we never really see.” Although Glaser had looked at his mother every single day of his life, he didn’t see her until he tried to draw her. “When you draw an object, the mind becomes deeply, intensely attentive,” Glaser says. “And it’s that act of attention that allows you to really grasp something, to become fully conscious of it. That’s what I learned from my mother’s face, that drawing is really a kind of thinking.”

Glaser is eighty years old, but he still works in a small studio on East Thirty-second Street in Manhattan. It’s a cluttered space, the white walls hidden by old art books stacked ten high. Above the front door, chiseled into the glass, is the slogan of the studio: ART IS WORK.

For Glaser, the quote summarizes his creative philosophy. “There’s no such thing as a creative type,” he says. “As if creativity is a verb, a very time-consuming verb. It’s about taking an idea in your head, and transforming that idea into something real. And that’s always going to be a long and difficult process. If you’re doing it right, it’s going to feel like work.”

For those of you attending the 99U Conference on May 3-4, 2012, you can look forward to seeing Jonah Lehrer speak in person.. In the meantime, check out “Imagine: How Creativity Works.”

Jocelyn K. Glei

A writer and the founding editor of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei is obsessed with how to make great creative work in the Age of Distraction. Her latest book is Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distraction, and Get Real Work Done. Her previous works include the 99U’s own bestselling book series: Manage Your Day-to-Day, Maximize Your Potential, and Make Your Mark. Follow her @jkglei.

Comments (6)
  • Dominique Masson

    Very inspiring!

  • James

    That’s so true! We don’t really ever take the time to TRULY see things as they are until we notice something is “off” – a person gets a new haircut, grandmother changes something in her house (mine has me guess what it is…lol), or a store re-arranges. 

    I plan to do this more, but I’m going to take time out each day to relax and really “see” what’s around me. For some reason I’ve always been interested in trees – the way they move, their colors, branch arrangement. It’s like they have a life of their own and their own unique personality. 

    I’ll do this with people, but trees just seem so fascinating right now!

    Another inspiring article!

  • binary trading

    For some reason I’ve always been interested in trees – the way they move, their colors, branch arrangement.
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  • Julio Ferro

    Another brilliant idea skecthed on a tissue. I think I´ve read something like this before. Wait, I read too many!!

  • Do what, now?

    Am I the only one who isn’t impressed by the supposed creative-profundity of the “I ❤ New York" design? It's merely a small progression from "I ❤ Tits" or "I Hate Jews." Neither aesthetically, nor philosophically, does it carry any kind of clever act of finesse within its essence. Maybe I'm just crazy.

  • Jannatul

    Its always pleasure to hear from Milton Glaser and also its inspiring to follow his words.

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