Milton Glaser's feelings for New York aren't limited to love—they're as varied as the city with which he's synonymous. Over a career spanning seven decades, Glaser has shaped the look and personality of city institutions including New York magazine, co-founded with Clay Felker; Brooklyn Brewery, which he branded; and the School of Visual Arts, where he teaches. Outside the city, he's best known as the designer of the iconic "I ♥ NY" logo, which presaged the mixing of copy and image that would evolve into more symbolic representations like smilies and emojis.
Now a true elder statesman of the design community, Glaser uses his platform to wax philosophic about design as a craft. He goes high—he incorporates Buddhist thought, theory of mind and discussions of purpose and meaning into his ruminations—and he goes hard as a pugnacious skeptic of design in marketing.
Though there are few accolades the 88-year-old National Medal of Arts winner has yet to collect, he still creates. This September, for instance, there will be an exhibit of his landscapes at Edward Hopper House in Nyack, New York. In April, Glaser appeared in the documentary "I ♥ NY," a short film directed by Andre Andreev of production company Dress Code that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. Glaser spoke with Ad Age about the film, his feelings about ads and the city that he will forever belong to. Our conversation has been edited.
The "I Heart New York" logo was first used in 1977. Why do you think it still resonates, even with people who have never been to New York?
I'm not exactly sure why, but I think one reason is that it's truthful, and that it's not a piece of advertising copy. It was the real response of our population, all of us who lived here, to an existing condition, which was that things were terrible. And we suddenly realized that the city could fail, that it could become desolate, that it could become a place where you didn't want to live, that all its virtues and the things we love it for could vanish within our lifetime. It's like somebody you hear going into the hospital—they suddenly got sick, and you realize how much you love them.
Do you think being authentic or truthful and being a piece of advertising copy are mutually exclusive?
Frequently. The role of advertising is to sell things to people. If advertising didn't convince you to buy something, its purpose would collapse. That's not to suggest that advertising doesn't frequently enable people to do things that are also good for them and that benefit the community. It's just that its inherent need comes out of the needs of the client rather than the needs of the audience.
Certainly, a number of your students at the School of Visual Arts end up in advertising and marketing or content marketing, which is—
I don't teach advertising and marketing.
But some people who come to your class probably end up going into it.
They probably do, and they may even come to class thinking they'll learn about that. The first question a designer or an aspiring designer should ask is, "What effect will this have on the people who follow this advice?" So we know what happens when they drink too many sugary drinks. But at the time, nobody would have thought of refusing a commission from Coca-Cola. So if you were responsible to your community or cared about your neighbors or your wife or your children, you would say, "Wait a minute, I don't want to tell people that they should drink sugar. I want to tell things as they are."
What do you think is the next big issue that design or designers could take on or frame in a useful way?
I believe that design can be an agent of change, absolutely. It's becoming increasingly popular, for one reason or another, to address our political system, the distribution of wealth, how people acquire money, the nature of the legal system. The daily issues of what it means to be a citizen in a good society are, for me, the great issues to address'