Design for Good – A Lesson From Milton Glaser

By Josh Walz

A few years ago I traveled to New York City with some friends with the goal of visiting with as many world renowned creatives as physically possible. We visited with some of the largest agencies in NYC, all the way down to the smallest of boutique design shops. We learned what made each special and how each one tackled creative challenges, and it was amazing. Heck, I even got to hold the original, final Touchstone pictures logo (which was made before computers, back in a time when you could actually touch a logo)! I learned some amazing things from my trip, but nothing impacted me more than meeting Milton Glaser.

Me holding the original Touchstone Pictures logo.

Milton Glaser is probably one of the most famous and well known graphic designers on the planet. As you can imagine, meeting him was absolutely terrifying for a young designer. We spent an hour talking to him about all sorts of things, including his views on creativity, the future of design, and how he feels about the work that he has done. There was one story that he told that really struck me, and it was all about turning down a huge multi-billion dollar company

Milton began telling us this story about how he rejected working for this huge soft drink company. Of course, we had to ask; “why would you not take on that project?” I mean, who would ever reject such a massive project for such a well known company? He started off by telling us about the responsibility we have as designers to impact people’s lives and the culture around us. You see, normally our job as creators and communicators is to convince more people to buy into an idea or a product, in this case a soft drink. He told us that when he looked into it, soda inadvertently kills hundreds of thousands of people a year between diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular diseases. Soda is actually one of the most unhealthy things you can consume, and Milton wanted no part of that. He told us that when he thought about it, he realized how many people he would indirectly hurt just by creating a promotion for this company.

I’m not telling you this story because I want to express Milton’s distaste for sugar water. There’s a lesson to be heard here.

Stop and think for a moment about how we buy products—how marketing works. As creatives, we create brands and craft the perceptions of a product. Because of what we do, we inevitably change what people think. Because of this, we as creatives have an incredible impact on society—probably far more than what we’re given credit for. This is a big responsibility, and we need to be conscious of the stories we tell to the outside world. When you think about it, we have the power to persuade people in any direction that we visualize. We’re sort of like pixel-pushing super heroes, and need to choose if we use our powers for good or evil.

To make design for good doesn’t necessarily mean that you should only design for non-profits and super-good-doers (although if that is what you do, props to you!). What it means is that you get to always be making a conscientious choice in your head before you do work. You need to think “how will this affect people?” and consider if it will help or hurt them in the long run. As long as you can do that, you can always design for good.

Josh Walz