Milton Glaser: Designing the Truth
Graphic designer Milton Glaser spent a lifetime creating iconic brand identities. Yet his first priority always was truth.
Milton Glaser (1929–2020) was a preeminent graphic designer, best known for his iconic “I ♥ NY” logo.
Glaser’s parents were Jewish Hungarians who immigrated to the Bronx, where he was born and raised. He studied at the High School of Music & Art in Manhattan (now the famed Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School) and the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. He and three classmates from Copper Union formed esteemed design agency Push Pin Studios. The firm’s signature colorful aesthetic can be seen in Glaser’s covers for the Signet Classic Shakespeare series and his 1967 poster of Bob Dylan with psychedelic hair, which sold over 6 million copies.
In 1977, the state of New York hired Glaser to design a logo to increase tourism; the designer came up with and sketched his iconic image in the back of a taxi cab. He was also co-founder and former president of New York magazine, and part-owner of Brooklyn Brewery, whose branding he created in exchange for equity. He died in 2020 on his 91st birthday.
Milton Glaser is in the business of elegant, eloquent solutions and chances are that even if you haven’t heard his name, you do know his work, but Glaser is more than a graphic artist for hire. In many cases, he’s a partner to those he helps depict. In 1968, he co-founded New York Magazine and was its President and Design Director until 1977. In 1985, long before the craft beer movement was in full flow, two young Brooklynites, Steve Hindy and Tom Potter offered him equity in their brewery in exchange for his help with branding. Today the Brooklyn Brewery is a billion-dollar business. His model has been copied all over the world.
Milton Glaser: And they make good beer.
AJC: Which was important for you, I’m guessing?
Glaser: Very, yeah, if it was lousy beer, I don’t know if I could’ve done it.
Milton Glaser is a rare champion of truth and advertising in theory and in practice. He’s written extensively on the topic of artistic persuasion and the power of propaganda.
AJC: Are there differences between just that sort of soft playing with the truth of advertising versus fascistic propaganda? Are they just degrees of the same messaging?
Glaser: Well, once I think you obliterate the idea of truth being a key element in communication to others, there’s no difference.
And though Glaser has long rallied against propaganda, his best-known work could be perceived as just that. In the 1970s, New York was dilapidated, dangerous, and demoralized. The state grasping for a way to stop people from moving out of the city commissioned Glaser to create a visual rallying cry. It worked far better than anybody could’ve predicted.
Glaser: Well, you know, I don’t know what makes it powerful. I mean of course, the mystery of what we do is a deeper mystery to ourselves very often than anybody else. The mark itself is very complicated and represents three puzzles within the mark. One is the “I” is a complete representation of a word. New York is a symbol for a place, which is represented by its initials, and the heart is a symbol for a feeling, which basically has trouble finding language. So, there are three little shifts of perception and what we know is that when that perception occurs, things stick in the mind more. So, by the act of solving a simple puzzle, you ensure a certain degree of retention, and I guess if I were forced to guess that that’s why it stuck around. I did it in 1977. Who in the world would expect something like that to still be around? You walk into Chinatown, you think it’s—
AJC: No, it’s still alive, alive and well.
The state of New York owns the logo, making it their job to pursue thousands of copyright infringements every year. Now in his 90s, Milton Glaser still lives in the city where he was born in 1929 to a pair of Jewish-Hungarian immigrants, who modeled a fierce dedication to learning and an unwavering work ethic.
Glaser: My father went to work in a tailor shop, a dry-cleaning store, and he went in every day at seven o’clock to start the coal-fire that heated the store, and he left at eight. So, he was used to working 12 or 13 hours a day and I know that that’s in my head. I never think about it, but I know that the example of this man going to work, working, fulfilling the day, closing the store, the next day back.
AJC: Six days a week, probably.
Glaser: So, I know that that kind of model of endless work, which was probably characteristic of his parents and their history and memory somehow embedded itself in my brain.
AJC: It’s also a very immigrant response.
Glaser: Very, yes, precisely.
AJC: But I know that parents of new Americans, first-generation Americans, will often say, they’ll say one of two things, what your mother said, “You’re in America, you can be anything.”
AJC: The other side of that coin is, “We suffered a lot so that you could be born here, don’t blow it.”
AJC: Did you ever hear that?
Glaser: Yes, I mean, not even, maybe not explicitly but inferentially. There was always the thing. You have the opportunity for a great break, don’t blow it. I mean, that was certainly part of it, and, also, it’s interesting that you say that. In the neighborhood, which was largely Hungarian, Eastern Europe immigration, largely Jews, the idea of education was so powerful that I would say that nine out of ten of the kids went to college, and that’s from the implicit thing that, “here’s an opportunity, don’t blow it.”
Glaser: Of course, school was free then.
Glaser attended Cooper Union School of Art then earned a Fulbright Scholarship that took him to the Academy of Fine Arts in Bologna, where he absorbed the nuisances of Italian style. Years later, he would be commissioned to return the favor by Italian brands including Vespa, Olivetti, and Campari, and what makes Milton Glaser so sought-after the world over isn’t a particular aesthetic or style, but an overall ethos.
Glaser: I start with what is to be achieved. So, if I objectified it, I would say, what’s the most essential thing you want to do? What do you want to communicate to this audience, and consequently, who is this audience? What do they like? What do they want? You always start with that audience, with the receptor for this information and then raise the question, what you want, how you want them to respond. But without that, there’s no sort of professional life. I mean, it’s not making paintings.
Today, Milton Glaser remains unconcerned with expressing his own deepest thoughts and desires. He says he’s happy to stay productive.
Glaser: The most important thing in my life if I had to eliminate family, is my devotion and interest in making things. Making things is satisfying. It is the search for the miraculous. What you wanna find is something that only existed in your mind and then suddenly there’s this object.
AJC: What do you hope for now?
Glaser: Not much left to hope for. I mean, I’m now at the brink of 90, holy Christ, 90! Whoever thought, I love that line, if I thought I was gonna live so long I would’ve taken better care of myself. I hope to be able to go on a little while longer, make things. I work almost every day. I shorten the day by a half hour to 45 minutes because I just can’t sustain it anymore and during that time, I hope I can make something that is strong and I fail now more often. I fail in completing the tasks. So, I can do part of what I used to do, but I don’t have the physical drive very often to carry it to completion, but I accept that as the consequence of being an old man. I mean, you get to a point where it’s hard to press through.
AJC: Here lies Milton Glaser. What’s the next line?
Glaser: He made some beautiful things.
AJC: And he loved New York.
Glaser: And he loved New York.