Milton Glaser on originality, book covers and imitation, 1972
The following is an excerpt of a Q&A published in Issue 114 of Idea magazine. In it, Japanese designers ask Milton Glaser questions around design and his impressions of Japan. Below are three questions, and Glaser's answers, on originality, the price of designing a book cover, and imitation.
What do you think is true originality?
It is hard to define what originality is, because by definition it is something we haven't experienced before. However, we know it when we see it. Originality means a new way of perceiving the world that can be transmitted to an audience or to someone else, and make them perceive the world through the eyes of the artist that has interpreted it. For instance, when I saw a Japanese landscape in the U.S., I was made aware of certain aspects of landscape that I have never conceived of before, through the work of arts. Then when I experience the real world, I see the real world differently. I see the real world modified by the work of arts that I have experienced. This change in perception is, I imagine, what we call originality; that an artist can show us a new way of looking at life, or new way of seeing, and make us understand the way he sees.
What is the book-cover design fee you would normally charge?
Book covers happen to be in an area of work that does not pay very well. There is considerable range in price for book covers in America. Hard-cover books pay less than paper back books. Fees are really determined by the use of the work rather than any particular amount of time you spend on it. In the U.S., the fees for book jackets that we charge at the studio begin at $300 for a hardcover book, and for a paper back book, maybe as much as 600 to 800 dollars. This doesn't really represent the best area for financial purposes, on the other hand, it happens to be in the area of great interest to me. In fact, I will not do a book jacket for any book that I am not interested in, or that I think is destructive to the community that it speaks to. So I do book jackets for other reasons besides the financial rewards. In fact the studio has always operated under theory that the central reason for existing is to do work of the best quality possible regardless of what the fees were.
What do you think about Japanese 'mimicry'?
The question is really a deep psychological question. But I think we are at a point in history where the whole world is becoming highly susceptible to information in a way never existed before. Everybody learns by imitation. That's how learning occurs. We all start our life by imitating. The essential artistic problem is how to use influence, how to imitate, how to synthesize, transform and transcend all the influences. The real question is not whether one imitates, but how one uses the imitation process. I think the problem for Japanese designers is not to limit the amount of imitation, but to transcend and transform the material that they imitate, which is to say, synthesize it and to use it and to make it personal, instead of merely copying the form that exists. We all have to stay open to the influences and to what is around us. We also have responsibility to ourselves to transform it into a personal idiom. If imitation stops at aping, it becomes dangerous to a person's development and self-esteem. If it is merely used as a beginning of a process then it becomes a significant way to learn.