I [Thumbs Up] NY. I [Space Invade] NY. I [Wu-Tang] NY. You find phrases like these on coffee mugs, T-shirts, G-strings (yes, really). You also find them in cease and desist letters that intellectual property manager CMG Worldwide sent on behalf of the New York State Department of Economic Development to vendors of those items for violating the state’s trademark icon: I ♥ NY, designed by legendary graphic designer Milton Glaser.
Glaser died last week at the age of 91. As cofounder of Push Pin Studios, cofounder of New York magazine, and a stylistic counterpunch to midcentury modernism, he created a body of work that not only shaped the graphic design landscape; it changed the vocabulary for describing the world around us. A slew of essays in memoriam last week captured his design impact. But NYSDED’s battle over the years to maintain its “branding power” and prevent companies from infringing on that iconic I ♥ NY trademark show just how deeply Glaser’s design saturated popular culture at large.
Glaser was also huge inspiration to New York Times graphics editor Larry Buchanan. After coming across an episode of the podcast 99% Invisible about the I ♥ NY trademark, and an article detailing a coffee shop’s dispute with the NYSDED, Buchanan went down an I ♥ NY trademark infringement “rabbit hole,” as he detailed on Twitter. He submitted a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request to New York state’s Empire State Development department in 2015, requesting all the cease and desist letters the state had sent for trademark violations of I ♥ NY the previous year.
He got a “glorious” 381-page PDF back, chock full of out-there iterations on the logo. The companies that New York claimed had implemented an “unauthorized and confusingly similar use of the I ♥ NY ® logo and design” included big names—such as Bloomingdales, Walmart, and Reddit—and small ones, located everywhere from Utah to Oregon to Belgium. Many of the rip-offs verge on the absurd (I [dog pooping] NY??), which prompts the question: Why did the logo resonate so broadly? Even Glaser didn’t know, musing in that same 99% Invisible episode, “Why does a certain curve and a certain color and a certain contrast hold our attention and why do certain other forms bore us? I don’t know. It’s a profound mystery.”
Glaser designed the I ♥ NY logo for a New York state tourism campaign in 1977 pro bono. Initially, he thought the campaign would last six months—not decades. Forty years later, the heart reads so clearly as a stand-in for love, it no longer needs explaining.
According to The New York Times, the symbol’s trademarks expired in the 1990s, which brought it into more widespread use. But since then, the trademark has been renewed, and the NYSDED is fiercely protecting it—and the millions of dollars at stake through associated licensing agreements. NYSDED even threatened to sue Glaser himself for an update he made to the logo after 9/11.
It’s a testament to the logo’s power that so many of the rip-offs are complete nonsense. Take the I [dog print] NY on a hoodie for dogs. There’s an I Jeter NY on a hoodie for humans. And of course, the aforementioned I Space Invade NY, I Wu-Tang NY, I Dog-Shitting NY, and the G-String Love NY. “‘I Space Invade New York’ makes no literal actual sense,” says Buchanan. But the brilliance of the design is that “you don’t need the heart to say ‘love’ if you use the form.”
So why has it been so endlessly ripped off? “It’s just so unbelievably simple,” Buchanan says. “It feels like something that wasn’t even designed. It just feels like a thing that has existed in the world. The heart stands in for so much.”