I grew up in a Bronx apartment complex known as the “Coops.” Hundreds of families came from all over to live in this building, which was one of the earliest and largest communally owned Communist enclaves in America. The orientation of culture was profound: The people wanted to hear music, so there were concerts; they wanted to learn, so there were lectures. The experience gave me the sense that it was possible to do things collectively. It also made me a permanent left-winger, as opposed to enterprise and money being the only values one grows up with. How it affected my work is incomprehensible to me—except for the idea that you could obtain what you worked for if you worked hard enough And I worked like hell.
My earliest commissions were in grade school, where I drew naked women for older boys for a penny a piece. I went to my first drawing class—at [the painter] Moses Soyer’s studio in Manhattan—when I was 12 years old. I never stopped.
When I was about 15, I was sitting at the kitchen table, looking at my mother. I suddenly realized that I had no idea what she looked like. This person who was always with me, and who was such an important part of my life, was invisible to me because I couldn’t look at her without a preconception of her appearance. Only drawing makes you observe what is in front of you. It is not a skill [used] to sell stuff. It’s a way of understanding the world.
Still, I never describe myself as an artist. One of the problems with art is that it is self-anointing: Anyone can be an artist by simply pointing to themselves and saying so. The truth is that there are very few artists. [Making the world a better place through art] is the highest attainment of the specialization. It is to recognize that it is not all about you, and that you have a communal function you can serve to help everyone get along. This is important for people to understand, especially in a capitalist society.
You can distinguish between art and design by talking about the art experience, which is the transformation of the self. You are no longer the same after experiencing art. In the applied arts, craft, and design, you are answering a series of problems, or trying to sell something. Art does not attempt to sell anything. The role of an artist, and this idea of using art to find what is real, is almost an enemy to the idea of “I am in it for myself and I can make a lot of money by selling this.”
Here is the problem with advertising: If you are designer, and Coca-Cola comes to you and asks you for a new bottle design, it’s a seemingly harmless issue. But Coca-Cola is responsible for the deaths of thousands, if not millions, of people because of the amount of sugar in its drinks, which leads to diabetes. You could say that it’s probably killed more people than Hitler. So the first question [should be], “Am I doing harm?” And, as you probably know, the question is never raised, because if it were, you’d find that so much of the work you decided to do was dangerous and harmful—but you wouldn’t be able to make a living otherwise. It’s too painful a question to face the consequences. If you have to admit you’re murdering people, you have to reconsider what you’re doing.
The [second] question [should be], “At what point does making a living become more important than doing good work?” If I ask people that, the potential of not being able to make a good living overcomes everything. You’re lucky to find a place where you have the authority to do your best work.
Art can’t be done for a client—it has to be internal. But when you’re in my profession, you’re always dealing with clients. Donald Trump came to the studio a few times [when we were working on the Trump Vodka bottle, in 2006]. He paid half the fee, and never paid the second half. He always tried to hustle out of every deal he ever made with anyone. His trick was to make you realize that if you sued him, he’d come back to you with every lawyer in his scope. He was willing to invest millions of dollars to squash you rather than pay the bill. You have to face the fact that there are going to be clients you can work with and ones with which you cannot.
The most successful thing I ever did was the “I Love NY” logo. That could be the most pervasive identity in the world at the moment. It’s certainly not about quality, but this little nothing turned out to be enormously significant, particularly in that it was one of the instruments used by the government to change people’s perceptions of the city [in the late 1970s], and what it meant to be a New Yorker. It [reflected] a certain desire in our population, something people wanted to express. They wanted to say, “I don’t want to move out. I love New York.” It wasn’t a logo. It was a cry for acknowledgement.
I never touch a computer, except inadvertently. Meaning, if I brush up against one. I have a marvelous associate who sits next to me and can read my mind. We use computers every day. I love computers when I am at arm’s length from them, and I hate computers because they structure your thinking. All technology has changed how people produce design, and it has changed everything in my universe in a way we don’t understand.
I have been teaching at New York’s School of Visual Arts for sixty years. I have had thousands of students. What you want to convey to them, and any generation of young or old people, is that they are responsible for what they do. Their work can have an impact for them and society. They should always try to be open-minded.
So many people go through life with their eyes closed and don’t see anything except what they already know. Pay attention to what is, in the Buddhist sense, which means recognizing what is really going on, and not an illusion that is established to make you feel better about what you do. Self-examination, questioning whether or not you’re causing harm, whether you’re willing to lie in order to survive—all of those things are more important than which typeface you use.