TED1998

Milton Glaser: Using design to make ideas new

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From the TED archives: The legendary graphic designer Milton Glaser dives deep into a new painting inspired by Piero della Francesca. From here, he muses on what makes a convincing poster, by breaking down an idea and making it new.

- Graphic designer
If his career began and ended with "I [heart] N Y," Milton Glaser would still be a legend. But over his multi-decade career, his body of work is sprinkled with similarly iconic images and logos. Full bio

'Theme and variations' is one of those forms that
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require a certain kind of intellectual activity,
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because you are always comparing the variation
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with the theme that you hold in your mind.
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You might say that the theme is nature
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and everything that follows is a variation on the subject.
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I was asked, I guess about six years ago,
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to do a series of paintings
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that in some way would celebrate the birth of Piero della Francesca.
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And it was very difficult for me to imagine
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how to paint pictures that were based on Piero
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until I realized that I could look at Piero as nature --
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that I would have the same attitude towards looking at Piero della Francesca
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as I would if I were looking out a window at a tree.
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And that was enormously liberating to me.
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Perhaps it's not a very insightful observation,
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but that really started me on a path to be able to do a kind of theme and variations
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based on a work by Piero,
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in this case that remarkable painting that's in the Uffizi, "The Duke of Montefeltro,"
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who faces his consort, Battista.
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Once I realized that I could take some liberties with the subject,
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I did the following series of drawings.
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That's the real Piero della Francesca --
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one of the greatest portraits in human history.
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And these, I'll just show these without comment.
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It's just a series of variations on the head of the Duke of Montefeltro,
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who's a great, great figure in the Renaissance,
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and probably the basis for Machiavelli's "The Prince."
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He apparently lost an eye in battle,
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which is why he is always shown in profile.
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And this is Battista.
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And then I decided I could move them around a little bit --
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so that for the first time in history, they're facing the same direction.
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Whoops! Passed each other.
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And then a visitor from another painting by Piero,
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this is from "The Resurrection of Christ" --
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as though the cast had just gotten of the set to have a chat.
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And now, four large panels:
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this is upper left;
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upper right;
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lower left;
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lower right.
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Incidentally, I've never understood the conflict between abstraction and naturalism.
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Since all paintings are inherently abstract to begin with
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there doesn't seem to be an argument there.
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On another subject --
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(Laughter) --
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I was driving in the country one day with my wife,
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and I saw this sign,
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and I said, "That is a fabulous piece of design."
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And she said, "What are you talking about?"
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I said, "Well, it's so persuasive,
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because the purpose of that sign is to get you into the garage,
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and since most people are so suspicious of garages,
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and know that they're going to be ripped off,
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they use the word 'reliable.'
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But everybody says they're reliable.
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But, reliable Dutchman" --
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(Laughter) --
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"Fantastic!"
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Because as soon as you hear the word Dutchman --
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which is an archaic word, nobody calls Dutch people "Dutchmen" anymore --
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but as soon as you hear Dutchman,
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you get this picture of the kid with his finger in the dike,
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preventing the thing from falling and flooding Holland, and so on.
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And so the entire issue is detoxified by the use of "Dutchman."
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Now, if you think I'm exaggerating at all in this,
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all you have to do is substitute something else, like "Indonesian."
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(Laughter)
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Or even "French."
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(Laughter)
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Now, "Swiss" works, but you know it's going to cost a lot of money.
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(Laughter)
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I'm going to take you quickly through the actual process of doing a poster.
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I do a lot of work for the School of Visual Arts, where I teach,
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and the director of this school -- a remarkable man named Silas Rhodes --
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often gives you a piece of text and he says, "Do something with this."
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And so he did.
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And this was the text -- "In words as fashion the same rule will hold/
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Alike fantastic if too new or old/
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Be not the first by whom the new are tried/
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Nor yet the last to lay the old aside."
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I could make nothing of that.
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And I really struggled with this one.
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And the first thing I did, which was sort of in the absence of another idea,
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was say I'll sort of write it out and make some words big,
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and I'll have some kind of design on the back somehow,
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and I was hoping -- as one often does -- to stumble into something.
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So I took another crack at it --
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you've got to keep it moving --
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and I Xeroxed some words on pieces of colored paper
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and I pasted them down on an ugly board.
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I thought that something would come out of it,
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like "Words rule fantastic new old first last Pope"
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because it's by Alexander Pope,
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but I sort of made a mess out of it,
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and then I thought I'd repeat it in some way so it was legible.
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So, it was going nowhere.
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Sometimes, in the middle of a resistant problem,
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I write down things that I know about it.
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But you can see the beginning of an idea there,
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because you can see the word "new" emerging from the "old."
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That's what happens.
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There's a relationship between the old and the new;
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the new emerges from the context of the old.
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And then I did some variations of it,
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but it still wasn't coalescing graphically at all.
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I had this other version which had something interesting about it
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in terms of being able to put it together in your mind from clues.
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The W was clearly a W, the N was clearly an N,
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even though they were very fragmentary
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and there wasn't a lot of information in it.
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Then I got the words "new" and "old"
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and now I had regressed back to a point where there seemed to be no return.
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(Laughter)
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I was really desperate at this point.
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And so, I do something I'm truthfully ashamed of,
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which is that I took two drawings I had made for another purpose
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and I put them together.
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It says "dreams" at the top.
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And I was going to do a thing, I say, "Well, change the copy.
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Let it say something about dreams, and come to SVA
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and you'll sort of fulfill your dreams."
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But, to my credit,
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I was so embarrassed about doing that
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that I never submitted this sketch.
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And, finally, I arrived at the following solution.
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Now, it doesn't look terribly interesting,
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but it does have something
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that distinguishes it from a lot of other posters.
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For one thing, it transgresses the idea of what a poster's supposed to be,
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which is to be understood and seen immediately, and not explained.
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I remember hearing all of you in the graphic arts --
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"If you have to explain it, it ain't working."
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And one day I woke up and I said, "Well, suppose that's not true?"
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(Laughter)
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So here's what it says in my explanation at the bottom left.
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It says, "Thoughts: This poem is impossible.
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Silas usually has a better touch with his choice of quotations.
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This one generates no imagery at all."
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I am now exposing myself to my audience, right?
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Which is something you never want to do professionally.
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"Maybe the words can make the image without anything else happening.
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What's the heart of this poem?
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Don't be trendy if you want to be serious.
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Is doing the poster this way trendy in itself?
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I guess one could reduce the idea further
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by suggesting that the new emerges behind and through the old,
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like this."
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And then I show you a little drawing --
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you see, you remember that old thing I discarded?
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Well, I found a way to use it.
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So, there's that little alternative over there,
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and I say, "Not bad," -- criticizing myself --
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"but more didactic than visual.
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Maybe what wants to be said is that old and the new are locked in a dialectical embrace,
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a kind of dance where each defines the other."
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And then more self-questioning -- "Am I being simple-minded?
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Is this the kind of simple that looks obvious, or the kind that looks profound?
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There's a significant difference.
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This could be embarrassing.
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Actually, I realize fear of embarrassment drives me as much as any ambition.
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Do you think this sort of thing could really attract a student to the school?"
10:10
(Laughter)
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Well, I think there are two fresh things here -- two fresh things.
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One is the sort of willingness to expose myself to a critical audience,
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and not to suggest that I am confident about what I'm doing.
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And as you know, you have to have a front.
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I mean -- you've got to be confident;
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if you don't believe in your work, who else is going to believe in it?
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So that's one thing,
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to introduce the idea of doubt into graphics.
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That can be a big contribution.
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The other thing is to actually give you two solutions for the price of one;
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you get the big one
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and if you don't like that, how about the little one?
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(Laughter)
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And that too is a relatively new idea.
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And here's just a series of experiments
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where I ask the question of -- does a poster have to be square?
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Now, this is a little illusion.
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That poster is not folded.
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It's not folded, that's a photograph
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and it's cut on the diagonal.
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Same cheap trick in the upper left-hand corner.
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And here,
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a very peculiar poster because,
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simply because of using the isometric perspective in the computer,
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it won't sit still in the space.
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At times, it seems to be wider at the back than the front,
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and then it shifts.
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And if you sit here long enough, it'll float off the page into the audience.
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But, we don't have time.
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(Laughter)
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And then an experiment --
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a little bit about the nature of perspective,
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where the outside shape is determined by the peculiarity of perspective,
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but the shape of the bottle -- which is identical to the outside shape --
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is seen frontally.
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And another piece for the art directors' club
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is "Anna Rees" casting long shadows.
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This is another poster from the School of Visual Arts.
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There were 10 artists invited to participate in it,
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and it was one of those things where it was extremely competitive
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and I didn't want to be embarrassed,
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so I worked very hard on this.
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The idea was -- and it was a brilliant idea --
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was to have 10 posters distributed throughout the city's subway system
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so every time you got on the subway you'd be passing a different poster,
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all of which had a different idea of what art is.
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But I was absolutely stuck on the idea of "art is"
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and trying to determine what art was.
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But then I gave up and I said, "Well, art is whatever."
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And as soon as I said that,
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I discovered that the word "hat" was hidden in the word "whatever,"
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and that led me to the inevitable conclusion.
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But then again, it's on my list of didactic posters.
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My intent is to have a literary accompaniment that explains the poster,
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in case you don't get it.
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(Laughter)
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Now this says, "Note to the viewer:
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I thought I might use a visual cliche of our time -- Magritte's everyman --
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to express the idea that art is mystery, continuity and history.
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I'm also convinced that, in an age of computer manipulation,
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surrealism has become banal,
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a shadow of its former self.
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The phrase 'Art is whatever'
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expresses the current inclusiveness that surrounds art-making --
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a sort of 'it ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it' notion.
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The shadow of Magritte falls across the central part of the poster
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a poetic event that occurs as the shadow man isolates the word 'hat,'
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hidden in the word 'whatever.'
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The four hats shown in the poster suggests how art might be defined:
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as a thing itself, the worth of the thing, the shadow of the thing,
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and the shape of the thing.
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Whatever."
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(Applause)
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OK.
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(Applause)
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And the one that I did not submit,
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which I still like,
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I wanted to use the same phrase.
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There were wonderful experiments by Bruno Munari
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on letterforms some years ago --
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sort of, see how far you could go and still be able to read them.
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And that idea stuck in my head.
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But then I took the pieces that I had taken off and put them at the bottom.
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And, of course those are the remains, and they're so labeled.
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But what really happens is that you read it as:
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"Art is whatever remains."
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Thank you.
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(Applause)
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About the Speaker:

Milton Glaser - Graphic designer
If his career began and ended with "I [heart] N Y," Milton Glaser would still be a legend. But over his multi-decade career, his body of work is sprinkled with similarly iconic images and logos.

Why you should listen

Milton Glaser's work is easy to spot in a lineup -- it's simple, direct and clear, while leaping over conceptual boundaries, so that his work connects directly to the viewer like a happy virus. His best-known work may be the I [heart] N Y logo -- an image so ubiquitous, it's hard to believe there was a time when it didn't exist.

Glaser's other well-known work includes a cache of posters that defined the style of the '60s and early '70s, and numerous logos, including such instantly familiar identities as Barron's and the Brooklyn Brewery. He is a co-founder of New York magazine and helped set that magazine's honest and irreverent tone.

Recently he's been exploring the space where paintings and graphic design meet. A show in 2007 celebrated his explorations of Piero della Francesca's work. The 2009 film To Inform and Delight: The World of Milton Glaser tells the story of his celebrated career.

More profile about the speaker
Milton Glaser | Speaker | TED.com