Milton Glaser saves New York City

In the 1970s, New York City was in trouble. The economy was foundering. Residents and companies were fleeing the city. The tax base was diminishing and budgets were emptying out. Deinstitutionalization had released mentally ill people into the streets. Drug addiction was high. Murder rates were skyrocketing. During the blackout of 1977, there was heavy looting and civil unrest. New York City appeared to be in “irreversible decline.”

The Assistant Commissioner of Commerce for New York State, Bill Doyle, decided to do something. He hired Milton Glaser. The idea, Glaser recalls, was to create a new campaign to encourage tourism and raise residents’ spirits. Glaser created “I ♥ New York,” one of the most duplicated pieces of design in the 20th century. In fact, “it has become so much a part of the general language [of design] that it’s hard to imagine that it was actually designed by someone and did not always exist.”

Why was it effective? Not because it was beautiful. A student of Morandi, Glaser has done work that is beautiful (see his “Dante series”), but “I ♥ New York” was plain. And not because it was “designerly.” Glaser has pushed the boundary of his discipline, but his “I ♥ New York” was humble, unassuming. Some design reroutes our admiration from the design to the designer. It insists on giving the design his or her “cut.” But Glaser takes nothing for himself. As he points out, it doesn’t feel like “I ♥ New York” was designed by anyone.

The city was caught in a downward spiral. Markets, services, civility, coordination, cooperation, all were in peril. All human communities, and especially urban ones, depend on an invisible consensus. This consensus remains invisible when things are going well. But when things go wrong, people begin to withhold their consent, and things go much worse. Actually, they go from bad to worse. (I read that somewhere.)

New Yorkers were withdrawing from the contract that made city life practicable, from the idea that made it conceivable. Some were so miserable they were moving to Connecticut. What was needed was what the information processing theorists call an “interrupt.” This is the moment when our workaday perception ceases and we are forced to reassess the world and the assumptions with which we understand this world.

I ♥ New York forced an interrupt. On first sight, it was anomalous, a sentence with a hole in the middle. To read this sentence takes a special act of information processing. We say the first word but we’re forced to see the second word. The sentence starts with language and converts without warning or explanation into image and then, whoops, returns to language again. We loop the loop.

What does ♥ stands for? Our first guess is “emotion”. We say the heart is the organ of affect, the locus of feeling. But we don’t think feeling. We feel feeling. “I ♥ New York” didn’t merely say we love New York. No, it said, we ♥ New York. And that’s something more. “I ♥ New York” says our feeling for New York is foundational. We needed to retrieve it from another place in memory…because it was another order of emotion. What we felt for New York was ineffable. “Love” wasn’t going to do it. No, you see, we ♥ New York.

Built into this interesting little communication was another act of cunning. Glaser could have represented “love” with any number of icons, but he chose a corny icon, the ♥. He used the symbolic language of the sailor’s tattoo, the kid’s drawing, the Valentine, and those people who, charmingly, declare their undying affection in that least stable of media, sand on the shore. And this heart evoked the most populist face of New York, the crowd pleaser, democratic, Times Square, Coney Island, “give me your huddled masses” New York. Clever Glaser. Only something as corny and foundational as this was going to arm New Yorkers against the horror of 1970s New York. Glaser had found a way to move them to say “verily, this a shit box of a city, but after all is said and done, I love it.”

“I ♥ New York” skips media, from language into form, and the form is an icon, and the icon comes from popular culture and the most democratic face of a very democratic city. It forces us to move from language to the heart and from heart to emotion, from any emotion to a deep emotion, from this deep emotion to a feeling so grounded that it could survive even those moments when the city subjected us to chaos, danger and a crazy person screaming at us on the Upper Wide Side. “I ♥ New York” wasn’t ordinary or workaday meaning management. It wasn’t “brand building.” It was design triage. It was rescue. And here we may think of Glaser here as Superman, speeding to catch up to a falling city, putting his shoulder to the thing, forcing it to stop, and helping bring it around.

Eventually New York City would need many additional things to repair itself. It would take a City Hall with new heart and will. It would take mayors like Giuliani. It would take a return tide of investment, people and confidence. It would take new prosperity, new policies, and new communication campaigns. But none of this was possible if the city’s basic consensus was damaged. This is where design, designers and CCOs can intervene.

How did Glaser do it? What could we learn from him? He says he can’t tell us. He says, “Why and how it ever came about is mystery to me.” Right, sure! A guy as smart as this? Please. One of the first orders of business: how to decode and capture the genius of Milton Glaser. This may mean taking him to lunch.

[Milton Glaser died yesterday. I thought one way to memorialize him was to reproduced this is an excerpt from McCracken, Grant 2011. Chief Culture Officer. New York: Basic Books.]

Image, with thanks, from Fairs, Marcus. 2020. Milton Glaser. Dezeen. https://www.dezeen.com/2020/06/27/milton-glaser-designer-of-the-i-love-new-york-logo-dies-aged-91/.

I'm an anthropologist & author of Chief Culture Officer. You can reach me at grant27@gmail.com.