Milton Glaser obituary

Not many graphic designers manage to touch the wider world and reach beyond those who, like them, spend a great deal of time worrying about the relative legibility of serif and sans serif fonts. Milton Glaser, who has died aged 91, touched almost everybody with a project that was both entirely characteristic of his approach to design, and at the same time an atypical one-off.

In the crime-raddled and bankrupt New York of 1976, a difficult period epitomised by the Daily News’s famous “Ford to City: drop dead” headline, the state commissioned an advertising agency, Wells Rich Greene, to produce a campaign to turn perceptions around and attract tourists back to the city. The agency in turn asked Glaser to give the campaign a visual hook. The sketch defining his idea made on the back of a torn envelope in a taxi is now in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art.

“The image of I♥NY is basically a little puzzle,” Glaser told one interviewer. “There is a complete word, ‘I’. There is a symbol for an emotion, which is the heart, and there are initials for a place. These require three little mental adjustments to understand the message. But they are so easy to achieve that there is very little possibility that somebody won’t be able to figure it out.”

It was a project that reflected Glaser’s distinctive ability to use words and images blended together to send a powerful message, as well as his magpie-like way of picking up and repurposing visual ideas that were already in the air. He was far from being a plagiarist, but he was exceptionally fluent in making use of the many languages of design. He once conceded that Robert Indiana’s LOVE sculpture might have been a subliminal reference for him for the New York project. He based his Bob Dylan poster, designed to be slipped inside the first Greatest Hits album in 1966, with its monochrome silhouette subverted by psychedelic tendrils of hair, on a Marcel Duchamp self-portrait. And his poster marking Vincent van Gogh’s centenary quoted René Magritte.

I♥NY was also a reflection of Glaser’s belief that a designer had a responsibility to worry about more than simply getting paid. He donated the idea, and never saw a penny from it, even as licensing income grew over the years. For Glaser, the campaign was a love letter to the city that had allowed him to go to college without paying tuition fees, and in which he lived and worked for most of his life.

From then on, the logo was plastered over every conceivable piece of merchandise, some licensed, others crude knock-offs. And yet the idea was still strong enough to survive the battering of so much careless handling. Glaser’s modified black typewriter font, the splash of colour, and the sense it gave you of being smart enough to figure out the puzzle made it a meme long before we even knew that there was such a thing.

But I♥NY did lack what was perhaps the most essential aspect of Glaser and his work. He was a brilliantly gifted draughtsman who never stopped drawing until almost the last day of his life. The simple, direct forms of the logo with a message betrayed little sign of his exquisite painterly skills.

Born in the Bronx, New York, Milton was the son of Eugene and Eleanor (nee Bergman), Hungarian-Jewish immigrants who owned a dry-cleaning and tailoring shop. After the Manhattan high school of music and art, Glaser studied design at the Cooper Union in New York, graduating in 1951. He then won a Fulbright scholarship that allowed him to spend two years in Italy at the Academy of Fine Arts in Bologna, where he was a student of the distinguished painter Giorgio Morandi.

While still at the Cooper Union, Glaser and a group of fellow students, including Seymour Chwast, had set up a design practice. On his return from Italy, they resumed their collaboration: Push Pin Studios was established in 1954, and immediately began to draw attention from advertising agencies in the city.

In 1968, Glaser, with the editor Clay Felker, started New York magazine, from the ruins of a weekly supplement to the defunct New York Herald Tribune, for which he had written a food column, The Underground Gourmet (the column continued in New York magazine). Every cover packed a punch. Glaser deployed his pen and paintbrush on most of them to tell a powerful story. He also used boldly cropped photography to highlight such issues as an out-of-control police force that, depressingly, is still with us.

The magazine was a showcase that attracted newspaper clients from all around the world for the consultancy that he opened in 1974. By the time of the I♥NY campaign Glaser had already established himself as one of the world’s leading graphic designers.

In 1983, with Walter Bernard, Glaser set up WBMG, a publication design company. Clients included L’Espresso in Milan, the New York Times and even Sir James Goldsmith in London, with the short-lived weekly Now!.

Glaser lived long enough to understand the cycles that reputations go through, and to outlive them. He was a student modernist, made his reputation as a postmodernist, and then saw a recycled modernism return. He was also a teacher for more than 50 years at the School of Visual Arts, in Manhattan, and, in partnership with his wife, Shirley (nee Girton), a fellow designer whom he married in 1957, an author of children’s books, including If Apples Had Teeth (1960) and The Alphazeds (2003).

As he grew older, he became increasingly active on environmental and social issues. Well aware that, as a designer, he was in the business of persuasion, Glaser always wanted to use his powerful skills to worthwhile ends, while knowing that he would not always succeed.

“While we don’t often originate the content of what we transit, we are an essential part of communicating ideas to a public that is affected by what we say,” he said. “Should telling the truth be a fundamental requirement of this role? Is there a difference between lying to your wife and friends, and lying to people you don’t know?”

Glaser devised a test for himself that he called the Road to Hell. The first couple of questions are easy. “Would you design a package to look larger on the shelf?” “Would you do an ad for a slow-moving, boring film to make it seem like a light-hearted comedy?” Then, further along the road, “Would you design a promotion for a diet that you know doesn’t work?” It culminated in “Would you design for a product that you know could kill its users?”

By way of explanation he told an audience that he had just finished illustrating a section of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and confided that he was unhappy about being allocated Purgatory. “As an illustrator, Hell had always seemed more interesting.” It’s an ambiguous revelation that might explain why there is a Trump Vodka bottle in Glaser’s portfolio.

Glaser reminds us of a US that we can admire. He designed its logos, its magazines and record covers, its cafes, its posters and its book jackets. He designed the cover for the first edition of Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, artwork for Mahalia Jackson, Dick Gregory and The Lovin’ Spoonful. Inevitably these are images that speak powerfully of the time they were created. But, like his posters for Olivetti, a long-dead company advertising a moribund product category, the typewriter, though they have outlived their original purpose, they have the quality to transcend it. His America is full of colour and wit. It is playful and it has a conscience.

He is survived by Shirley.