Graphic designer Milton Glaser thinks that being uncertain is a good way to be.
“Certainty is preposterous,” says Milton Glaser (TED Talk: Using Design to Make Things New). “Fundamentally, one cannot be certain about anything.” Glaser, who doesn’t shy away from speaking plainly, prefers a mindset that embraces ambiguity. For the 86-year-old, this is “a basic tool for perceiving reality” — and a driving force throughout his storied career.
Get them thinking; get them buying. Glaser drew the I [Heart] New York logo on a napkin in a taxi, and gave it to the New York State Department of Economic Development in 1977. As the designer of logos for the likes of Brooklyn Brewery, Bread Alone and many others, it’s safe to say that Glaser does commercial work: His main task has been to communicate ideas or brands in ways that prompt people to buy his clients’ products. So it might seem counterintuitive for him to advocate confounding his audience. But, of course, the answer is in the balance. After all, there’s a difference between stupefying people and engaging them. “The purpose of ambiguity is to make you question information,” he says. “Ambiguity initiates thought.”
Watch and learn from the master. Glaser has been enamored of the Leonardo da Vinci mural painting The Last Supper ever since he bought a penny print of the masterpiece when he was in kindergarten. He remains in awe of its multi-dimensionality. “It is one of those paintings that is as full as life itself is; full of ambiguity,” he says. “You cannot be certain of any of the meanings of The Last Supper.” But that, he says, is part of its power. “Da Vinci clearly believed that ambiguity was a way of arriving at truth. As a result, the painting moves us in a deeper and more profound way than any direct statement.”
Don’t lose your customer. Glaser refers to an “ambiguity principle,” wherein a designer must dance on the spectrum between certainty and ambiguity by creating a puzzle that the audience can solve within a reasonable amount of time. “The mind refuses to stay focused if it is having problems understanding what it is looking at,” he says. But if an image is too obvious or doesn’t provoke the mind, then that’s bad too. “You ignore what you are looking at because you have 10,000 impulses in the day and you don’t want to pay attention to all of them.”
The relative certainty of I [Heart] New York. “It was a mark that was easily translatable to almost everybody,” says Glaser, who explains the light mind crunch necessary for understanding his most famous idea. “You have to interpret it initially. ‘I’ is a complete word, not an initial. ‘Love’ is a symbol for an experience. We are transforming the noun into a verb. That requires an intellectual intervention to understand that you can do that. And ‘NY’ are initials for a place. So the mind goes through three separate acts of transformation to understand that thing. And yet it’s so theoretically simple that everybody gets it. That doesn’t happen very often.” Is it his most unambiguous idea? “I’m sure I’ve done work that is even less ambiguous than that,” Glaser says with a chuckle.