Writers & Company

The legacy of Milton Glaser: Designer of the iconic I Love New York logo

Milton Glaser died on June 26. In this 2010 interview, the influential graphic designer spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about his profound experience of creating life through pictures.
Milton Glaser was an American graphic designer. His iconic designs include the I Love New York logo and the psychedelic Bob Dylan poster. (Michael Somoroff)

Groundbreaking graphic designer Milton Glaser died on June 26 on his 91st birthday. He leaves behind iconic designs that are emblems of pop culture around the world.

His best-known work, the design for the "I Love New York" slogan, is one of the most universally recognized and imitated logos. 

This iconic logo by graphic designer Milton Glaser was created in the back of a taxi and was drawn with red crayon on scrap paper. (Submitted by Milton Glaser Inc.)

Created in the mid-1970s as part of a statewide publicity campaign, the simple design — featuring a red heart as a symbol for the word "love" — has been used for everything from gelato to country music. As observed in the Los Angeles Times obituary, Glaser's design "taught us how to talk in emoji." 

Glaser also worked extensively in the world of music, designing the poster included in Bob Dylan's 1966 greatest hits album — Dylan in black silhouette with a swirling mop of psychedelic hair. 

He created book covers for the novels of Philip Roth and logos for DC Comics, and designed newspapers and magazines around the world. In 1968, he co-founded New York Magazine and created its widely known title design. 

Glaser's work is so influential that it's been featured in exhibitions and museum collections, such as London's Victoria & Albert and New York's Museum of Modern Art. In 2009, he became the first graphic designer to receive the U.S. National Medal of Arts. 

Glaser was born in 1929 in the Bronx. He studied at New York's renowned art and design school, The Cooper Union, and in Italy, under the tutelage of master artist Giorgio Morandi. 

He spoke with Eleanor Wachtel in 2010 from the CBC's New York studio.

Milton Glaser: Graphic Design, left, is a 1983 book that explores the early decades of the pre-eminent graphic artist; the 2018 book Milton Glaser Posters includes Glaser's most iconic posters. (Harry N. Abrams)

A leap of faith

"Both my parents were from Hungary — or from that area of Eastern Europe, which was variously described as either Czechoslovakia, Romania or Hungary. In fact, all those names appear on their immigration papers. They came here to make a life.

"I never realized how heroic that whole generation of people were … until I went to live in Italy and realized that I had no understanding of how to survive. The idea of finding a job and making a living and raising a family was so incomprehensible; after all, I was being subsidized by the government so it was easy for me. I think, to some degree, that is responsible for our development as a country — you've got a nation of people originally who came here out of a courageous leap in the dark.

I realize that watching my father... was the thing that led me to the idea of making things as the primary basis for my life.

"My father was a tailor. In order to accommodate the questions of survival in the United States, he opened a dry-cleaning store. Someone asked me if my father had any influence in my chosen profession; I realize that watching my father take a pattern and cut out all the separate pieces and then put them together and suddenly, there was a woman's dress or a jacket.… This amazing transformation — of something that is only potential in one form and then becomes real — was the thing that led me to the idea of making things as the primary basis for my life."

U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with Glaser after presenting him with the 2009 National Medal of Arts during a ceremony Feb. 25, 2010, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

Do good work

"I was very good at science as well as being very interested in art. I was in junior high school, and I had a kind and encouraging science teacher who wanted me to go to the Bronx High School of Science, which is one of the pre-eminent high schools.

"I had to make the decision on which school I would apply to — either Bronx Science or the High School of Music & Art — and I elected to apply to [the latter]. A day or two later, I was walking in the hallway, and my science teacher tapped me on the shoulder and wanted to talk to me. I felt really depressed because I knew he wanted me to apply to Bronx Science. So I came into his little room, and he asked me to sit down. 

He bent down, reached into his desk and he pulled out a box of French Conté crayons. He looked at me, gave me the box of crayons and he said, 'Do good work.'

"I thought he was really going to scold me because he was very encouraging about my scientific interests and my interest in biology. He bent down, reached into his desk and he pulled out a box of French Conté crayons. He looked at me, gave me the box of crayons and he said, 'Do good work.'"

"I suppose, fundamentally, it meant to devote myself to the activity that I had chosen —  not to shortchange it and to be the best that I could be. It was a profound moment for me. It all coalesced around this idea that, if somebody else was willing to support your desire over their own … that was a kind of send-off and blessing that I would never find the equivalent of again. It made it necessary for me to fulfil that agreement."

A New York state of mind

"A guy named Bill Doyle came into my office. He said he'd been hired by the commission of commerce to develop a new tourist promotion for New York state. They had the line 'I Love New York' — and they said they needed a symbol for it. I did something that week and sent that to him. It was OK. It was approved by the state commissioners. 

The logo I originally had was all typographical; it was perfectly acceptable but not very distinguished.

"The logo I originally had was all typographical; it was perfectly acceptable but not very distinguished. But then a day or two later, I was in a taxi, and I said to myself, 'That really wasn't very good.' And I took out a little envelope, and I drew the sketch that would become the 'I Love New York' logo.  When I got to my office, I called Bill and told him I had something else for the campaign. But he didn't want to be bothered as he thought it would be too hard to get the six commissioners together again to approve it. 

Milton Glaser’s 1966 poster of Bob Dylan’s silhouette in profile with kaleidoscope hair is perhaps his second most recognizable image. (Submitted by Milton Glaser Inc. )

"I said, 'Let me show this to you.' So I ran up to his office, and I showed him this little sketch. He said, 'You're right.'

"They called up the commissioners. A week later they met. They rejected the first one, and they approved the second one and that's how it happened. It just missed not ever coming into existence."

Creating the Bob Dylan poster

"So much of that time was about hair. Everybody identified themselves, to some degree, through their hair. The hair became the metaphor for opposing the establishment.

"The poster was influenced by my interest in Islamic and Persian paintings and the kinds of forms and overlapping layers of colour that would occur in those paintings. I was always interested in collecting my ideas from different sources and putting them together on a single surface. 

It was taking those three elements and making a single thing out of them, which is something that I've done throughout my life.

"The poster represents a reference to Marcel Duchamp's Self-Portrait in Profile, which has stuck in my memory for years. It's a very powerful and simple cutout, which was like the Dylan profile to some degree, and then I added the psychedelic — although it wasn't psychedelic, it was the Islamic hair reference. The stylized letterform for the word was from something I found on a Mexican sign.

"It was taking those three elements and making a single thing out of them, which is something that I've done throughout my life — this kind of collage sensibility where you find pieces all over and put them together in some meaningful ways so that they become something else."

Glaser at work in this undated photo. (Leo Sorel)

The power of art

"People who desire to be an artist most often have no idea of what that word means. But I remember it coalesced in a moment when my cousin Saul came to the house to babysit when I was a child. 

"My parents were going out — which was a rare occasion — and he was about 15, and I was five. He had a paper bag with him and he said to me, 'Would you like to see a bird?'

The idea wasn't so much art; it was the idea of taking something that existed in your mind and making it a physical reality.

"I thought he had a bird in the bag. But he reached in and pulled out a pencil. He drew a bird on the side of the bag. That seems like a simple experience, but for me, it was profound. 

"The idea wasn't so much art; it was the idea of taking something that existed in your mind and making it a physical reality. That extraordinary event — to go from an abstraction, that you can only think about, to something real that you could look at — was the profound influence.

"I almost fainted with the realization that you could create life. And at that very moment, I decided that that is what I wanted to spend my life doing.

"And I have."

Milton Glaser's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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