Milton Glaser, graphic designer behind the famous I ♥ NY logo – obituary

Telegraph Obituaries
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President Barack Obama after presenting Milton Glaser with the National Medal of Arts in 2010  - Mandel NGAN/AFP
President Barack Obama after presenting Milton Glaser with the National Medal of Arts in 2010 - Mandel NGAN/AFP

Milton Glaser, the graphic designer, who has died aged 91, created the “I ♥ NY”, logo, perhaps the most imitated motif of the postwar era.

New York’s fiscal crisis of the early 1970s had resulted in the largest public-sector default on record; litter, graffiti and violent crime were increasingly common.

In a bid to revive a flagging tourism industry, the deputy commissioner of New York State, William Doyle, oversaw a new marketing strategy featuring a series of television commercials with the slogan “I love New York”, and charged Glaser with the task of devising an accompanying logo.

Glaser was not much taken by the project, which he doubted would outlive the advertising campaign. However, in a taxi one day, he hit on the idea of replacing the world “love” with the outline of a heart. In doing so he created a symbol of American pop culture that has spawned countless variants the world over.

Glaser made no money from the success of “I ♥ NY”, which he had done pro bono. In later life he came to resent the association of his name with a single project, pointing out that he had done “a lot of other work, much of which I think is more complex, more interesting and more worth talking about.”

New York City firefighter Kevin Bohan at a memorial service near ground zero in New York - Stan Honda/AP Photo
New York City firefighter Kevin Bohan at a memorial service near ground zero in New York - Stan Honda/AP Photo

In 1968 he had co-founded New York magazine, and through his work as founder-editor of Push Pin Graphic magazine, was part of a movement that embraced hand-drawn type and illustration as a design tool.

He was responsible for a 600ft mural that ran along the loggia of the Minton-Capehart Federal Building in Indianapolis and for restaurant graphics on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center.

Glaser’s posters hung at the Juilliard and Carnegie Hall, and there were permanent exhibitions of his work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Disdaining categorisation, his output remained consistent only in its diversity.

Milton Glaser was born in the Bronx on June 26 1929 to Hungarian Jewish parents; his father was a tailor who ran a local store. Bed-bound for a year as a child, Milton passed the time building miniature armies and cities. He also fostered a passion for comic books.

At 12 he began taking weekend classes in life drawing and from 1943 attended New York’s High School of Music and Art, then the Cooper Union Art School.

He then gained a Fullbright scholarship to the Academy of Fine Arts in Bologna, where he studied etching under the still life master Giorgio Morandi.

On his return to New York in 1954 he co-founded Push Pin Studios. Push Pin Graphic, a magazine for friends and clients, showcased Glaser’s brightly coloured designs for posters, record-sleeves, book illustrations, magazine covers and small advertisements. 

An I Love NY sign in front of the New York state Capitol in Albany, NY - Hans Pennink/Ap
An I Love NY sign in front of the New York state Capitol in Albany, NY - Hans Pennink/Ap

From 1961 Glaser taught at the New York School of Visual Arts. He first came to widespread public notice in 1966 with his insert design for Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits, depicting Dylan in black silhouette, his hair a riot of psychedelic, multicoloured curls.

In 1968 the Italian manufacturer Olivetti commissioned him to produce cartoons and graphics for press packets distributed at the Olympic Games in Mexico City.

That same year Glaser worked as design director with Clay Felker on the launch of New York magazine, whose lifestyle format was adopted by many rivals. There was a strong focus on food and Glaser co-wrote “The Underground Gourmet” – a regular restaurant column.

Glaser had left Push Pin in 1974 to set up his own eponymous design company, and in 1983 he joined forces with Walter Bernard to found the publication design firm WBMG. This developed new formats for publications including Time and the Washington Post.

Glaser’s clinets included – from 1978 – the Grand Union chain of supermarkets, which had been bought by the English financier Sir James Goldsmith in the earlier part of the decade. When the designer protested that he knew nothing about supermarkets, Goldsmith replied “Good. When can you begin?”

Milton Glaser, 2013  - Robin Platzer/
Milton Glaser, 2013 - Robin Platzer/

The result was a complete transformation of the mall aesthetic: new signage and packaging, a striking red-dot logo (“When you see the dot you save a lot”), and redesigned interiors, with up-and-down aisles replaced with piazza-like spaces. Glaser even devised a button for the staff to wear, reading: “Ask me. I’m here to help.”

His abiding interest in logos saw him create the off-kilter “bullet” logo for DC Comics, which the company used from 1977 to 2005, and the symbol for the World Health Organisation’s campaign against Aids in 1987.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks he reworked his most ubiquitous logo, adding a smudge on the red heart and inserting the words “more than ever”. The state of New York threatened him with legal action for copyright infringement, to no effect.

Glaser received a National Design lifetime achievement award in 2004, and a National Medal of Arts in 2009. He published numerous books and catalogues of his work, among them Graphic Design (1973), Art is Work (2000) and Drawing is Thinking (2008).

He married, in 1957, Shirley Girton, who survives him.

Milton Glaser, born June 26 1929, died June 26 2020