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Creative Don Smith

When Don Smith met Milton Glaser

By Don Smith, ECD

December 25, 2019 | 8 min read

As we wave goodbye to the 2010s, The Drum takes a look back through some of the best interviews to have graced the pages of our print magazine over the last decade. Here we go back to our May 2013 issue, in which Don Smith (the One Hundred Flowers founder and former Realise executive creative director) came over all starstruck as he met his hero, the American graphic design legend Milton Glaser.

This interview first appeared in The Drum's print edition in May 2013. You can subscribe to The Drum magazine here.

So, I met Milton Glaser. That I am actually able to write that is quite sublime.

He is a hero of mine. But beyond that, the man is a hero of my heroes. I was brought up at Leith Agency with Jim Downie passionately educating me about the Push Pin studios and the work of Milton and Seymour Chwast.

Then at The Union, Andrew Lindsay continued to reference the impact they had made on him and his career. Specifically referencing Milton as one of his all time design heroes.

The iconic work they did in the sixties and seventies influenced a generation of art directors and typographers, illustrators and graphic designers.

The New York Magazine masthead, the Bob Dylan posters, the Glaser Stencil font.

And they had achieved international fame and respect before Milton even began sketching out the iconic I ♥ NY logo, or the Brooklyn Beer packaging, or the Windows on the World identity (a personal favourite of mine as I dined there in the May before the 9/11 attacks).

So, I met Milton Glaser. How did that happen? It was never something I ever expected to do. So our story begins with an invite from the inimitable David Eustace to attend the opening of his ‘Highland Heart’ exhibition in New York, to celebrate the beginning of Scotland week over there. And you just don’t turn down an invitation like that.

At said exhibition, David introduces me to Katja Maas, a Glasgow born graphic designer who spent ten years working with Milton in his studio. And I tell Katja he’s a hero of mine, and of my old bosses. So she calls the studio and just tells them that some random Geordie creative director from Edinburgh will be popping in for a cup of tea with Milton on Monday. And that was kind of that. I didn’t really get a chance to think about it.

So, I met Milton Glaser. And in fairness, no one ever tells you what to say to your heroes when you meet them. When it’s an unexpected introduction at least you can do the whole “Hey, you’re Milton Glaser” thing. But not this time.

So we (my great friend Andrew, my copywriter from my HHCL days and my host whilst in NY) press the buzzer and a very nice young man shows us up the stairs and into the conference room. It’s like a treasure chest of design relics. An anthology of the best of Milton’s output over a 50 year career. It was all I could do to subdue my genetic predisposition to nick something.

And then the great man entered. He was old. The kind of old that doesn’t really seem to fit in the workplace. If I met someone like him in an agency back home I’d be asking if they’d got lost. Maybe make them a cup of tea. Call someone.

But Milton’s old came with an energy. He had a presence that almost seemed to glow. Like a Jedi knight (I know, I know). And he just shook our hands, sat down slowly, placed his hands on the table and said: “How are you?” And I stared at him and all I could think about was how big his ears were.

What exactly do you ask your hero when you know all his work, his history, his achievements, his life? Thankfully sense kicked in and I decided to have a conversation with him about my own views that we are in a renaissance period of technical innovation that parallels that of the Bauhaus movement around 100 years ago and that the mechanisms of our invention compound the creative opportunities before us.

To which Milton simply replied: “I don’t know.” And then he made a point that I already knew to be true but just hadn’t thought to conclude myself. He said: “It will be at least 30 years before we can look back and define this epoch, just as it was in the 70s. We knew it was important, but we didn’t focus on its importance. We just did what we were doing. We had ideas and we designed.”

I knew what he was saying. If you design for the sake of legacy you lose the true focus of design. Which is not to reflect the zeitgeist, but to contribute to the zeitgeist. I loved that. It reminded me of a time long ago when someone, I forget who, told me that advertising, at its best, could contribute to our cultural richness and not just reflect it.

And that in itself was enough. In just a few moments with Milton I had already been reminded of the very simple and very beautiful truth about the privilege we have as creative people. That we, more than most, and through our own individuality, get to make the world a more interesting place. I know that sounds a bit wanky, but it's true. And it’s quite wonderful.

“OK. Let me ask you something else Milton. I have to manage an increasingly diverse group of creative people with skills that cover so many disciplines it is often perplexing. How do you see the future of the creative industry? How does it conform itself? How do the multifarious disciplines collaborate to best effect?”

I had no idea what I was really asking. I just thought that I should make sure the question seemed big and important. I think Milton saw straight through that and just put me at ease with a simple answer. “All I have learned is that everything is connected. Everything. All notions and ideas can be brought together to create new ideas. Originality is simply about making connections. They’re already there. You just have to find them. This is the great skill of the designer.”

He continued: “Textiles, packaging, architecture, typography, fashion… the basic mechanism of thinking and having ideas does not change. There are no disciplines, there are no boundaries, there are no boxes. Designers design. Ideas are ideas. Of this I’m certain.”

And he finished with this: “I was in Africa recently with my wife and we came across these ancient, tiny, ceremonial knitted hats that were from one specific tribe that had existed for thousands of years. And we noticed that the pattern that was weaved around the circumference was exactly the same as two ancient Chinese statues that we have in our house that we had bought 30 years earlier. Exactly the same. And all I could do was smile and appreciate the vast and infinite connections of all things in this universe.”

I swear I could hear a John Williams orchestral score accompanying his words. It was just pure Zen. He said it with no great gusto or zeal. It was just a truth that he spoke to us quietly and with a comforting smile. And there was a great sense of comfort in hearing him speak.

In having some relatively universal truths, confirmed by someone who had no agenda and nothing to prove. It was moving and inspiring and valuable in a way I find quite hard to put into words. And it was a truly momentous day in my life.

So, I met Milton Glaser. And of course there was more to the conversation than the bits I’ve shared with you. But these were the bits that mattered. I’ve always been someone who needs heroes. They are there to inspire us. And I’ve been in situations where you meet your heroes and they are a real let down. But this was not one of those days.

I am so glad and so honoured that circumstances led me to that opportunity. And I hope one day, when I’m in my 80s, with huge ears, and I’m speaking to some ambitious, excitable creative director who an ex colleague asked me to entertain, I can inspire them with the words: “So, I met Milton Glaser…”

This interview first appeared in The Drum's print edition in May 2013. You can subscribe to The Drum magazine here.

Creative Don Smith

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