The Iconic ‘I Love New York’ Logo
The iconic “I ♥ NY” logo was created more than four decades ago on an envelope in the back seat of a yellow taxi in Manhattan.
Graphic design has permeated the urban lifestyle and culture since the 20th century. The logo of Apple.Inc, the capital M of McDonald’s, the sign of the London Underground, all have become recognisable symbols throughout the world. But none have possibly been as popular and ubiquitous as the iconic “I ♥ NY” logo created more than four decades ago on an envelope in the back seat of a yellow taxi in Manhattan. It was a love letter to New York City, which at that time was engulfed in crime and financial crisis, and desperately needed a push to reinstate it to its former glory. It went on to become one of the most widely distributed and imitated images in the world.
Back in 1977, New York was on the brink of complete financial insolvency. More than fifty thousand workers had been laid off, the largest number in the history of the city. As a consequence there was a series of homicides, robberies became a daily affair, there was a historical surge in drug usage, and to add to all the woes, there was a serial killer on the loose. And the ‘City of Dreams’ had been tagged as “the Fear City” by the unions of New York City.
An article in the TIME Magazine said, “Scarcely anyone today needs to be told about how awful life is in nerve-jangling New York City, which resembles a mismanaged ant heap rather than a community fit for human habitation.” During such tumultuous times, the city administration had to take some immediate measures in order to boost the morale of the crowd, generate tourism and restore the reputation of the city.
In order to do that, William S. Doyle, the Deputy Commissioner of the New York State Department of Commerce, and Mark Donnelly, a staff of the Governor, hired Wells Rich Greene, an advertising firm to implement a state-wide marketing campaign. The extremely simplistic phrase, “I Love New York” was created by Mary Wells Lawrence and Charlie Moss, the principal and creative director of the firm, respectively. Along with an uplifting jingle by composer Steve Karmen, and a TV commercial featuring actor Frank Langella, the slogan was put out to the world and just the logo was left.
Doyle hired American graphic designer Milton Glaser for the task. Glaser had already made a name for himself as the co-founder of the New York Magazine and creation of a psychedelic portrait of Bob Dylan which was inserted into the singer’s 1967 greatest hits album. The story goes that Glaser doodled the “I ♥ NY” on the back of an envelope while sitting in a taxi on his way to meet the agency. According to Glaser himself, “I felt excited. My design had a sense of inevitability. The form and the content were united in a way that could not be taken apart.”
In the initial design, “I ♥ NY” was in a single line. As he proceeded to develop the design further, he stacked the letters in a square, with “I” and the heart symbol at the top of the letters “NY”. He later conceded that this style might have been unintentionally influenced by the steel sculpture of American pop artist Robert Indiana, called Love. Glaser did the entire design pro bono and he did not expect it to run it for more than two weeks. Doyle tested the design, while he was on his trip to Barbados, by wearing it on a custom-made t-shirt. After a number of enthusiastic queries from strangers about the same, the marketing campaign was finalized and fully endorsed. The rest became history.
The design gained instant popularity. By 1978, “I ♥ NY” had become “the most talked about and successful tourism program in the nation,” according to the city’s Department Of Commerce. The state’s visitor expenditure revenue had tripled within a year, and the campaign and design had won several awards. But according to the designer himself, the popularity was a reflection of the affection and commitment that the New Yorkers themselves had for their city, which the design had reminded, “I think its most profound effect was inward, which is to say it reminded New Yorkers of their own commitment to life in the city.”
Over the last four decades, the logo has been imitated all over the world numerous times. It has been adopted in varied forms and on diverse mediums in almost every city of the world. Till today the brand continues to reap in an astonishing amount of revenue every year, more than thirty million dollars annually, a portion of which is transferred to the New York State Empire State Development, who holds the trademark. It has also created some problems for the department, which has filed thousands of trademark objection cases. Though Glaser himself has never made any financial profit out of his own design, he has left his mark all over the world. His first state advertising campaign became one of the most successful campaigns in the history of advertising.
Milton Glaser was awarded America’s National Medal of Arts in 2009. He became the first graphic designer to receive this award, largely due to the success of his logo. The logo alone might not have been single-handedly responsible for the turn-around of the city, but it sure was a medium through which the world started to love New York City again, and that by itself, cannot be a mean feat.