How the ‘I Heart NY’ Logo Transcended Marketing and Endures 4 Decades After Its Debut

It still represents the spirit of the city

The iconic logo appears on everything from key chains to coffee mugs to ads in the subway. Neville Elder/Corbis via Getty Images

Sixteen years ago, Milton Glaser was sitting at his usual wooden table at his design studio on 32nd Street, looking out the window at the black smoke billowing from Lower Manhattan, where the World Trade Center Towers had stood until the previous afternoon. Like most New Yorkers, the famous graphic designer was shocked and numb from the 9/11 terror attacks. But unlike them, Glaser had the means of making an immediate difference. Breaking out the famous I ♥ NY logo, Glaser singed the left side of the heart and added the words “more than ever.” It was, he would later explain, a reflection of “what all of us were experiencing after the tragedy, a deepening of our sense of love and commitment to the city that is our home.”

Designer Milton Glaser began with the American Typewriter font, but rounded off the edges because the “actual typeface is clunky,” he later explained. The designer’s use of a symbol in place of a verb was decades ahead of its time. Today, emojis and emoticons have become the norm. First used on July 15, 1977, the logo has since been trademarked by the New York State Department of Economic Development.
Courtesy of Milton Glaser Studio

Tragedy notwithstanding, those sentiments were not new to Glaser. They had, actually, led him to create the original I ♥ NY some 25 years before. In 1976, Glaser was a young designer making his name in a city teetering on the brink. Having barely staved off bankruptcy the year before, New York reeled from bad headlines (658,147 violent crimes were reported that year) and middle-class flight to the suburbs. Desperate to reverse its falling tourism revenue, the New York State Department of Commerce decided that a PR campaign was in order. Ad agency Wells Rich Greene had already cooked up the “I love New York” slogan, and jingle king Steve Karmen had set it to music for TV spots. Glaser was tapped to draw the logo.

Glaser’s original crayon sketch done in the back of a taxi is now in the Museum of Modern Art’s collection. New York state’s economic development office moved in to copyright the famous logo about a decade after its introduction, by which time it was everywhere from T-shirts to shot glasses (above.) Today, the state prosecutes unauthorized uses of the logo, even as it draws a healthy revenue stream from licensing it. Meanwhile, creator Milton Glaser (above, left) has yet to see a cent from any of it.
Glaser: Courtesy of Milton Glaser Studio; Keychains: Getty Images

This he did—in a few seconds. On his way to a client meeting, Glaser was in the back of a taxi when he fished a red crayon out of his pocket and drew I ♥ NY on a used envelope. Later, he stacked the text on two lines and turned his creation loose. “The I ♥ NY logo Milton Glaser created so many decades ago was really the world’s first emoji,” observed Chris Lowery, president and chief strategist of Chase Design Group. “In a diverse, multicultural city like New York, anyone who saw it instantly knew what it meant.”

Told the campaign would only run for a few months, Glaser did his work pro bono and refused to copyright it. The thinking was that if the logo was free to everyone, it would become part of the city’s iconography.

After Glaser modified his iconic logo the day after 9/11, students from Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts distributed posters of it free of charge. Among those to get a copy was the New York Daily News, which ran the new logo on its front page on Sept. 19, 2001.

Which it has. Four decades after I ♥ NY first appeared in 1977, the logo designed by Glaser (who didn’t copyright it) still benefits the state’s Economic Development Corp. (which did.) It appears on everything from key chains to coffee mugs to ads in the subway, even though a resurgent New York—which now draws some 59 million tourists a year—is well past the point where it needs to be advertised.

So why has the logo endured? Toufan Rahimpour, COO of Logoworks, observes that I ♥ NY was a symbol of its time (a “scrappy” logo for a “scrappy city”) that became so culturally omnipresent it transcended itself. “It’s no longer just a logo,” Rahimpour said. “It conveys emotions. It represents the spirit of New York.”

And never more so than it did in those dark and uncertain weeks after 9/11, when a brand logo transcended marketing to become a reason for an entire city—along with a world that cared about it—to keep going.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 11, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.
@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.