Origins of I Heart New York
I sat down with Milton Glaser last week. Not only am I working with Milton at my day job, I also recorded our conversation for Dwell too. Meeting legends typically don’t phase me. I’ve met them all from design icons to rock gods. But Milton is the quintessential New Yorker. It was quite a joyous event for me. The below statement about “I Love New York/I Heart New York” was particularly fascinating for me as he not only explained it’s design inspiration, something I’d never heard, but also explained how ubiquitous the statement had become. It’s a fun read:
I am sure you have answered this about a million times, but I have to ask about “I Love New York” or “I Heart New York.” I don’t even know what to call it! Love or heart?
What you may not realize that is that the heart, a symbol used as a verb, has now entered into the Oxford English Dictionary. This happened a couple of weeks ago. So heart is now a verb. It entered with an acknowledgement that “I Love New York” was the manifestation that did it, the first symbol ever to enter the Oxford Dictionary. You can call it either one as both are correct.
So how did you get that gig?
The state and city were in trouble in 1975. Were you alive in 75?
No, no I was not. 1976, actually. I would fit into your office. I would be the oldest person!
Things were bad financially, spiritually, and metaphysically. And the state knew that it had to do something. One thing that had happened was that the city had become very dangerous and, if you can imagine this, people were literally afraid to go out at night. If you were sitting on 62nd street and you said to your wife you wanted to go out to dinner, you would not go, if it was after dark.
Unimaginable in the New York of today.
Yes! Tourism plummeted and people stopped coming to New York City. The economy was in the toilet and people left; real estate plunged too. It was the greatest time though, to get an apartment! So, the state realized it had a problem. They hired a smart ad agency, Wells Rich Greene, who came up thematically with “I Love New York” and the assistant commissioner of commerce came to the office and said to me “I have an assignment for you.” And the assignment was to make a visual equivalent of “I Love New York.” That is how it happened.
And now it is everywhere.
Everywhere! Except that you realize how little you know about the nature of the world. Try to figure out why if you go to Chinatown you see ten gazillion “I Heart New York” logos. There is no city in the world you can go to that does not have an “I Heart” shirt or logo.
That is so telling about how important the slogan is. Yesterday in a meeting at Fab, I was telling my team I was coming here to meet you. And the design people all knew your name. But others on my team don’t know you as a household name. And I said, “He’s most famous for designing ‘I Heart New York’” and the employee who did not know your name opened his jacket and he was wearing an “I Heart New York” shirt!
I love it. The great mystery is why that happens. I have done things people remember, the Dylan poster for example, but nothing like this.
Is there anything you can think of that is replicated as widely?
I cannot think of anything as universal. Across borders. Everywhere. The world was waiting for some way of expressing the idea and they had not received it.
It is and it all derives from the heart carved in a tree with initials, but with a minor shift in syntax. I cannot figure it out.