I met Milton Glaser only once, in 2016. But Milton Glaser being Milton Glaser—the energetic graphic designer, known for breaking 1960s formalism in advertising and creating the I :heart: NY logo—that was enough to give me a Milton Glaser story.
We were at his studio, filming a video about one of his projects lost to history, the design of a Trump Vodka bottle (about which Glaser minced no words: “I’d say this is appealing to the lowest level of human activity“). He was partially retired by then, spending more time out of the city. And you could feel things winding down inside his second-floor studio on East 32nd Street, which consisted of dozens of map drawers full of his work, and a diminutive sketching table in the corner where he drew.
As we set up in his conference room, we thought the only artifacts we’d have to film were a few Trump Vodka bottles. It was a great visual, but we needed more. Then he darted into the studio, beckoning my team to his stacks. “We found gold!” he shouted with glee, revealing a series of posters he had created for the launch, just unearthed from an unlabeled drawer. The crew was ecstatic. What a find!
It was only when I got back from the shoot and told a colleague about this dramatic moment that she burst my bubble: Glaser was an ad man, well-versed in the theater of the sell. He didn’t just “discover” anything.
She was probably right. I had just been hoodwinked by Milton Glaser. What an honor.
Glaser died at age 91 on Friday. He is survived by his wife. And he leaves a legacy of projects too large to do justice—having illustrated more than 400 posters and cofounded New York magazine along the way. Here are a few highlights.
Bob Dylan was already a cultural legend by 1966 when he released Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits. For the release, Glaser published one of his first posters, a shadowy silhouette of Dylan with an Art Nouveau-inspired kaleidoscope swirl of hair. The single word “Dylan” is presented in a typeface of Glaser’s design, too. How wild was this for the time? Try comparing it to the poster of the 1965 Sound of Music. Six million of these posters sold as part of the album package.
In 1968, Aretha Franklin was the top-selling female solo artist in the world. Glaser created this vibrant lithograph for Eye Magazine. The image takes a similar approach to color as Glaser’s Dylan poster, but the similarities end there. I particularly like how Franklin’s face pops out of the frame in 3D, while Dylan’s melts flat into the background—a fitting tribute to her dynamic musical style.
I love NY
In 1977, the state of New York hired Glaser to think up a campaign that could boost tourism. He didn’t find the answer until he was struck by inspiration as he rode in the back of a taxicab, drawing the simple sentiment out on a scrap of paper: I <3 NY. He didn't just make one of the most enduring logos in history—one that he fiercely defended and even remade after September 11. He turned the image of a heart into a verb for love, an idea so commonplace today that we use hearts all the time when communicating in emoji.
Typewriters aren’t the most enticing products; they are a tool for putting words on a page, not driving 100 mph with the wind in your hair. But Glaser’s posters for the Olivetti brand of typewriters are a master class in making a seemingly dull subject exciting. He did nothing to change the typewriter itself. He drew the product exactly as it was. But in these posters, he surrounded the typewriters with technicolor abstraction, capturing the sensation of imagination unlocked by the stoic machine.
When a beer startup named Brooklyn Brewery tried to hire Glaser, founder Tom Potter admitted that they couldn’t pay him. Instead, Glaser took a small stake in the company and created this effortless brand that could have been lousy nostalgic posturing in anyone else’s hands. The beer brand exploded, and the project gave him a financial stability late in life that many designers struggle to achieve. More than that, Glaser and Potter became great friends, who ate lunch together nearly every week.
Teaching at SVA
Glaser wasn’t just an artist; he was a teacher for over 50 years at the School of Visual Arts (SVA). As graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister remembers on Instagram, “I was proud to be invited to his summer course every year, and would afterwards often run into some of his students: When I asked them how they found the week-long course, I’ve heard the reply: ‘It literally changed my life’ dozens of times.”
A personal favorite Glaser project is 100 Years, a book he published in 2016. It’s a celebration of life and aging. Every page gets a year, from 1 to 100. Each page also quotes a famous writer, who is talking about that age. Glaser gave each age its own color, and you’ll find yourself pondering the significance of the hues. When I asked him what inspired the colors—research or history—he shrugged that off, saying it was more a feeling. Now, I can’t help but see 100 Years as, in part, an autobiographical experience of Glaser’s life, told in color.