The Making of an Icon
Milton Glaser, 1929-2020
By Keith Hamilton
Graphic designers create symbols. We create visual treatments that strive not just to communicate, but to resonate and inspire. The end result is not quite art; art speaks solely for the artist, and done well, it is transcendent.
Graphic design speaks for a third party, a message sometimes commercial but always on the behalf of an entity other than its creator. Great graphic design is deeply memorable; it crosses the line from merely communicating to forging an emotional connection. Done well, it is transcendent.
Milton Glaser created these kinds of symbols. He was a pioneer, a visionary, an artist, and a salesman. He lived just long enough to see his 91st birthday, which was late last month.
Glaser’s best known works are not just immediately identifiable, but iconic. They are seared into our collective understanding of great visual communication. His ability to at once court and dominate the zeitgeist of overlapping eras is folklore, so much so that, well into his 80s, he was commissioned to promote the final season of Mad Men, tapping into his late-60s-psychedelic-hangover phase — an impossibly satisfying ouroboros of life imitating art imitating life.
With the “I ♥ NY” logo, he authored what may be the single most identifiable icon of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. It was, and remained, the embodiment of the city he loved, a city he describes as paradise. He thought it would last two weeks.
“The most significant things are not verbal, they’re not narrative, they’re something else.” Milton Glaser
Glaser describes the New York of the mid 70s as a city on the ropes, a cracked and dismal reflection of the burroughs he knew as a child. It was losing its hold against crime, sliding into insolvency, its people leaving. But when he was asked to create a visual representation of “I love New York,” its conception came from a place of love, of values inherited from his mother who, like so many immigrants escaping Nazism and oppression, felt like they had entered a land of unrestrained opportunity. It was a shared experience among his neighbours growing up in the Bronx, binding them as a community gilded with a second chance. This hope and optimism never left Glaser, and he found out he wasn’t alone.
“Strangely enough, it worked. It worked because it was a real expression of people’s feelings,” Glaser said.
In a short film of the same name, he eloquently puts words to a city that mostly defies them, and to a visual identifier that is equally enigmatic.
“Things become iconic for reasons that you don’t know. It’s not intellectual, it’s all emotional, a feeling state. The most significant things are not verbal, they’re not narrative, they’re something else. They are in the realm of feeling, and expression, and art.”
Of course Glaser’s works extend beyond a single mark; his Bob Dylan poster, DC Comics logo, Glaser Stencil typeface. He has created over his lifetime a body of work that has shifted cultural dialogues while winning awards unprecedented within his industry and outside of it. Among them, however, “I ♥ NY” stands apart. It summarizes Milton Glaser, an artist and designer who is equally iconic and unforgettable.
“My mother assured me that I could do anything,” Glaser said, “and I believed her.”
She was right.