Designing Your Heart Out: A look at the art and work of Milton Glaser
“Art is work!” was the mantra of native New Yorker and renowned graphic designer Milton Glaser (1929 - 2020). It was also the title of his book, which he published in 2000. Throughout his long career, Glaser mastered the art of observation and visual communication, creating a mind boggling body of work. “One must always be aware of what one is doing,” he used to say, musing on art and likely recalling his yoga and meditation practice from the late 1960s, which he engaged in just “like everyone else.”
Except that he wasn’t just like everyone else. In 2009, Glaser became the first graphic designer to receive the National Medal of Arts award, which was presented to him by then President Obama. He kept this award on crowded countertops that displayed gadgets and trinkets, many of which were sporting his logos and prints; his welcoming studio, which was slightly bigger than a decently sized New York apartment, was reportedly “covered in the creative, joyful abundance of artistic paraphernalia.”
Born and raised in the Big Apple, Glaser was the perfect embodiment of the city — restless and energetic and curious. His parents were Hungarian immigrants who moved to a working-class Eastern European neighborhood in the South Bronx; Eugene Glaser owned a dry-cleaning business a few blocks away from where the family lived, Eleanor was a housewife. When asked to describe the area, he said it was “very militant left wing and anti-capitalist” and that he enjoyed the fact that it was “the first neighborhood in the country to have interracial couples.”
Astute and aware of his surroundings, Glaser actively kept a sketchbook from a very young age. While his mother believed that he could do anything and convinced Glaser of that much, his father was a pragmatic man and told him to lead by example. “And that served to be a good beginning for me, because I really believed that I could accomplish something but that I would have to endure the world’s indifference,” he recalled. “I mean, who else cares about what you want except you?”
Before attending the High School of Music & Art in Manhattan, Glaser took drawing classes with Russian-born American artists and twin brothers Raphael (1899 - 1987) and Moses Soyer (1899 - 1974). Both contributed to Glaser’s understanding of liberal ideals, the power of propaganda, and the social class structure of American society. All of this may have contributed to his lifelong dislike of misleading advertising and industries built on manipulation. Still, though, Glaser was a firm believer in the power of design to do good and benefit people.
But one of Glaser’s biggest inspirations was Italian painter Giorgio Morandi (1890 - 1964). “Morandi was one of those artists who, the longer you look at him, the more you grow in your appreciation, the more you understand,” Glaser commented. “There is a sense of inevitability and incredible satisfaction in looking at his work.” After graduating from New York’s Cooper Union, Glaser had enrolled in a study abroad program. By sheer luck and coincidence, he was placed at a Bologna university where Morandi happened to be teaching.
Upon his return from Europe in 1954, Glaser, Seymour Chwast and Edward Sorel (with Reynold Ruffins (1930 - 2021) joining the group shortly thereafter) co-founded Push Pin Studios, a graphic design and illustration firm that influenced the industry for the next 20 years. Images full of historical references and the appropriation of vintage typography allowed the creatives to design work that escaped the “numbing rigidity of modernism, and the rote sentimental realism of commercial illustration” which dominated graphic design since WWI.
Glaser and Seymour Chwast directed Push Pin Studios for twenty years. Eye magazine contextualized the results in a 1995 article for their "Reputations" column:
In an era dominated by Swiss rationalism, the Push Pin style celebrated the eclectic and eccentric design of the passé past while it introduced a distinctly contemporary design vocabulary, with a wide range of work that included record sleeves, books, posters, corporate logotypes, font design and magazine formats.
The studio’s in-house publications included The Push Pin Almanack and The Push Pin Graphic. But outside of the studio, under Glaser and Chwast's direction, the team served as art directors of Audience; a high-end, subscription-only bimonthly arts and literature magazine founded in 1971. It used large colorful photographs and drawings to accompany the articles. While the magazine won the top award of the Society of Publication Designers in 1972, it folded due to lack of funding just two years later, in 1973.
In 1966, after suffering serious injuries in a motorcycle accident, singer-songwriter Bob Dylan was rendered bedridden and widely rumored to be dead. To generate positive publicity for his forthcoming album Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits (1967), Glaser was commissioned by John Berg (1932 - 2015), then art director at Columbia Records, to design a special poster to be packaged along with it, which he did by taking inspiration from Art Nouveau and Marcel Duchamp’s 1957 self-portrait.
Glaser depicted Dylan in profile, with the musician’s abundant curly hair rendered in saturated psychedelic colors that are in high contrast with the white ground. The now-iconic design has "Dylan" written at the bottom in Baby Teeth, one of Glaser's numerous typefaces. “That was just an accident. I kind of had it on my desk at the same time. And I said if I have to use the word Dylan I’ll use this typeface largely because there wasn’t anything that looked quite like that around and I wanted to make the word itself look peculiar.”
Despite the six millions printed and distributed copies, the Dylan poster became a hot collectible that sells for hundreds of dollars. (It has been reissued twice, but originals bear the folds from the album). But if you’re wondering how Glaser felt about it, “I would have redone the hair,” he said years later. “It’s a little clumsy.” That probably had to do with the fact that Glaser, at the time, was still new to poster design. “This was probably my third or fourth poster,” he recalled. Considering its impact on the design world, it was an astoundingly successful piece.
In 1968, Glaser and Clay Felker (1925 - 2008) founded New York magazine, an American biweekly generally covering lifestyle, culture, politics and fashion, with a particular emphasis on their beloved city intended to compete with The New Yorker. More assertive than its competitor, it established itself as a cradle of New Journalism, which combined journalistic research with the techniques of fiction writing in the reporting of stories about real-life events. But, in 1976, media baron Rupert Murdoch bought the magazine in a hostile takeover, forcing the founders out.
One year after co-founding New York magazine, in 1969, Glaser independently produced and headed the design of the one-minute silent animated film Short Subject, commonly known as Mickey Mouse in Vietnam. The 16mm underground was an anti-war film directed by Whitney Lee Savage (father of Adam Savage). According to Glaser, it was meant for the Angry Arts Festival which was "a kind of protest event, inviting artists to produce something to represent their concerns about the war in Vietnam and a desire to end it."
He chose Mickey Mouse due to the character’s symbolic innocence. Mickey is depicted walking happily until he sees the sign: "Join the Army and See the World." He walks offscreen and then returns with a helmet and gun. Mickey arrives in Vietnam during the war only to be shot while walking on the grass just a few moments later. The short ends with Mickey lying dead on the ground, his smile turning slowly into a frown. The film was positively received and earned an award from the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen in 1970.
Glaser started his self-titled design firm in 1974 and left Push Pin Studios the following year. At the time, the out of control crime was negatively impacting tourism and New York City was on the verge of bankruptcy. So, in 1977, William S. Doyle, Deputy Commissioner of the New York State Department of Commerce, hired advertising agency Wells Rich Greene to develop a marketing campaign under the directorship of Mary Wells Lawrence for New York State. Doyle also recruited Milton Glaser to design a logo and other assets for the campaign.
Using a red crayon on a scrap paper, Glaser designed the logo while sitting in the back of a taxi: the letter “I” and a heart shape followed by “NY” written on the same line. After giving it a bit more thought, he decided to use two lines, with the “I” and the heart shape stacked over “NY,” an idea that was likely inspired by Robert Indiana’s LOVE design. He set the final version in the slab serif typeface American Typewriter. Expecting the campaign to last a couple months, the self-appointed ambassador of the world’s greatest city did the work pro bono.
The logo was a massive success, but it became especially prominent following 9/11. Glaser designed a modified version for a poster to commemorate the attacks, which read: "I ❤ NY More Than Ever," with a little black spot on the heart symbolizing the World Trade Center site. The poster was printed in the New York Daily News and was a fundraiser for New York charities supporting those affected by the attacks. The text at the bottom said: "Be generous. Your city needs you. This poster is not for sale.”
In 1983, Glaser partnered with Walter Bernard and established a publication design firm called WBMG, which has worked on more than 50 magazines, newspapers and periodicals in the states and abroad. He’s also created some of the most recognizable logos across many thriving companies, from Brooklyn Brewing to DC Comics. Over his career, Glaser personally designed and illustrated more than 400 posters as well as numerous book covers, logos, and more. “I always wanted to be the best designer in the world; I mean, that was my dream,” he shared.
“If, compared to others, my work seems weak, inappropriate, unimaginative, I experience that very painfully,” candidly expressed Glaser. To him, the word “unimaginative” appeared to be the greatest insult, causing perceptible physical discomfort. And yet, the groundbreaking artist is considered a pioneer and thought leader in the competitive industry. The celebrated graphic designer died of a stroke and renal failure on his 91st birthday, but NY will always ❤ Milton Glaser.