Was Milton Glaser right about computers destroying design?

In a previous article, I wrote about design before computers became commonplace in the design industry. A fun look back at the days of toxic chemicals and scalpel-sharp cutting tools.

The number of social media shares and tweets showed people were either nostalgic about those days not so long gone by, or fascinated by the process involved in non-electric designing. Where, however, has the computer led us? Is it a slice of Heaven or does it byte?

I was a student of some incredible designers, but Milton Glaser, whose course I admittedly never finished, still stands out in my mind. He was not a proponent of computers for design and while we young designers using computers with Photoshop 1.5 (2.0 had LAYERS!) were confused by his dislike of computers, reasoning they were faster and cheaper for design production, he stood fast. It caused us to suspect his teaching was obsolete. I hope Milton forgives me for that statement as I was young and foolish.

Years later I was reading a blog rant where some designer was blasting Glaser for saying something about the computer being to design as a microwave is to gourmet cooking. Ah-HA! That’s when it hit me. Milton, more mumbling about his dislike of computers, truly saw the future of design. He just didn’t put it in a way that made sense. A quote with a moral or haiku would have been nice!


The biggest change

Unfortunately for Glaser’s comparison, there are too many people who actually believe that a gourmet meal can be cooked in a microwave in just four minutes. There are also those who believe having Adobe CC is as good as a diploma from design school. How did Glaser see it so soon as the technology was so young? Was it the students who floated past him in his class? Every student had to show him a portfolio to be accepted into his class. Once class started, it was obvious he was really casting a season of The Real World: Art School. 

I guess he just knew what the computer, as a tool, would mean to design. It was a crutch for those who couldn’t keep up with the pack. While devotees of Leonardo are practicing drawing perfect freehand circles, there are others who create a perfect circle with a click. Is one person obsolete? Is another person using technology to their full advantage? Is one person right and another wrong?

There is no denying that the current state of personal technology has brought design tools into the hands of the public. From pre-school drawing games and puzzles to the functions adults use to make birthday announcements and garage sale flyers, everyone has seen that design is easy and we are overpaid jerks.

Computer Monster

There are those who study the functions of software, skipping color theory, typography, design history and other classes forced upon art students with the purpose of knocking pre-conceived notions out of near-empty heads so they can absorb lessons on creativity and explore the possibilities of design, and they still consider themselves “designers.”


The biggest gain

I’ve always had a terrible eye for right angles. I can’t center anything and using one of those clear blue rulers with picas to inches and everything in between, just never worked for me. Anything that was being used as the layout board that had a grid printed on it (which were most boards), was my only chance at surviving those few years before the computer became my eyes and shaking hands. I blame the chemicals.

The layout functions of design programs have made it a breeze to pump out an entire publication. As I worked for a large publication as the computer age washed over us, I saw it not only cut production time in less than half the time, but the cost savings on production were over half of previous costs.

The personal computer, aside from having the digital age blamed for the slaughter of print, brought about a financial boom for the world. Complain as we might about bidding and crowdsourcing sites, they gave designers throughout the world a chance to compete for work not available in their locale.

It gave small businesses a tool to succeed globally via the internet. Suddenly the world was a possible customer.

Through software, half the administrative chores that bogged down sole proprietors is now automated.

More millionaires are emerging from internet/computer based businesses.

Computers are great for pranking coworkers and destroying the lives of your enemies.

With the number of desktops, laptops, tablets and mobile devices, the world has become connected. We get real news taken on camera phones, meet people in different countries and different cultures on Facebook, Skype and foreign bride sites. Every day the world gets a bit smaller while we learn more and more about each other. That’s a positive thing!


Opportunities abound

Need we talk about the market for apps? It’s not just about coding, it’s also about creativity. The idea, the need and the fulfillment are always driven by creative problem solving.

Other creative projects can be produced over the internet as well as marketed and sold. The options for people to be their own boss, control their own carer paths and steer their own futures is a great thing for creatives who can think of self-initiated, commercial projects.


Taking back design

Anyone can pick up a hammer but that doesn’t make them a carpenter. As creative thinkers, we must master the computer as a tool and apply different, better ways of designing with them. Whether it’s scanning objects for textures or elements of design, hand rendering type for a logo, or breaking rules when designing a web site.

Those who know the tool only for mechanical uses, will never measure up to those who know creative design thought, and can artfully apply it through such a cold, lifeless machine.

Design, of course, must evolve on its own. The tools will change but it is the creativity that will always be the foundation of design. For a while it was Photoshop filters that created the WOW! in design but it was those who mastered the filters and used them in different ways that really set the high bar for such design elements. Photoshop and Illustrator tips and tricks continue to amaze those who learn them and that is part of the evolution of design. In the end, however, we need less to learn about how to make the software work and more about how to make design work!

Was Milton Glaser right about computers destroying design? Has the computer helped or hurt the industry? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

Images ©GL Stock Images

  • Rama Krushna Panda

    Nice post.. thanks for sharing…

  • OttoRobba

    Interesting post.

    I feel Milton’s complaint is valid. Not that computers are bad (they aren’t) but rather that many misuse them (myself included at times).

    Everytime I go to the computer first to do a design or even to code software or illustrate, I’ll frustrate myself. I need pen and paper to help me think, to help me iterate quickly and without restrictions. I need something that I can grab in the the middle of the night and scribble without having to look at a bright screen.

    In many ways, computers are daunting and curb experimentation.
    And in many ways, knowing the analog way will translate greatly into digital. Working with stencils teaches you about masking layers. Understanding color theory allows you to actually understand what is the effect of color & blend modes in digital applications.

    All in all, I’d say that computers are an excellent tool but they should never be used as a magical solution. Education and experience are still paramount.

  • Brandon

    First, I don’t think design is “being destroyed”, that’s a bit of an extreme view. If we were to entertain that idea anyway, I wouldn’t say it is the computer that would be doing it, it’s the things the computer does. Design is a business, and that means it is driven by money. You make the statement that it’s more efficent, and that’s what it is. If design were being killed, it isn’t the computer, but that the computer makes design more accessible to the general public. This makes the workers cheaper, which then makes the design suffer. It’s a classic case of “you get what you pay for” (although I understand there are exceptions to this rule).

    • Max Monastyrev

      Exactly, designers have been reduced to ‘mac ops’ – the days of mad men are well behind us.

    • Tim

      But design can also be a hobby or a passion, not only a business driven by money. No matter what the tools used, the designer is the one who controls the final result.

  • Hannah Joy

    Computers have made both good and bad design easier. They won’t make you a designer; if you are a designer they’ll make your work easier.

  • The Ace

    I’m an art director and I was there when Milton was in his heyday. Got into the business in 1965 and still at it.

    I think OttoRobba got it right. Couldn’t have said it better.

    When the computer hit our business I recoiled. Somehow I instinctually knew that creating design on a machine was wrong. I used to hold up a #2 pencil and say “This is my computer” For that reason I never learned graphic programs on a computer. To me, design goes from the brain to the hand. Hitting keys and drawing perfect circles was never my idea of a good or productive time.

    To survive, I hire people who just love to hit keys. But the people I hire MUST know how to draw. First they draw than they go to the keys. That way the computer becomes what it was meant to be. A tool. A facilitator.

    Show me a layout and I’ll tell you if it was conceived on a computer or with a pencil.

    Dennis (The Ace)

  • http://neonc0de.zz.mu/ Widy Graycloud

    I have no idea

  • http://speiderschneider.blogspot.com Speider Schneider

    I was hoping Milton would chime into the discussion, but his Twitter accounts are inactive. Perhaps he has some opinions on the internet? ;-)

  • Michael Meininger

    From my experiences, It seems that many who are afraid to accept newer methods are just simply stuck in their ways. Computers have opened up a load of opportunities for artist and designers.

  • Energy Mud

    I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more digitally generated designs in 2000-2014 then in the recorded history of man.