Exclusive Q&A: Legendary Graphic Designer Milton Glaser Looks Back At His Iconic Posters

Milton Glaser is the Dean of American graphic designers, one of the most influential—and prolific—of the past half century. With Clay Felker, in 1968, he founded New York magazine, the template for city magazines everywhere. Glaser redesigned Rio de Janeiro’s O Globo and The Washington Post, prototyped ESPN The Magazine and created the graphic program for the restaurants at the original World Trade Center. He’s had one-man shows at New York City’s MoMA and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, and in 2009, became the first graphic designer to be awarded the National Medal of Arts.

Glaser’s calling card, of course, is his posters. Perhaps you’ve seen his 1977 design, “I ❤ NY”? Many think the “NY” stands for “New York City,” but the logo was actually commissioned by New York State. And the state has returned to Glaser, a longtime resident of both NYC and Woodstock, again and again, to create posters promoting destinations from Lake Placid to, yes, Saratoga Springs.

His trademark visual style—unapologetically cerebral, layering both visual themes and cultural allusions—is on full display in Milton Glaser Posters (Abrams Books), which is out now. A visually stunning, 700-page colossal achievement, the tome boasts 427(!) of Glaser’s designs, alongside his very candid commentary: his inspiration and process—what worked, what didn’t and what he might’ve done differently. (To his credit, Glaser doesn’t take himself too seriously; his website offers three renditions of his bio: “In Brief,” “Medium Version” and “Interminable Length.”)

Knowing that Glaser’s been teaching at the School of Visual Arts in NYC since 1961, I raised my hand and asked the professor a few design questions. Class was very much in session.

The two posters you created for The Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC), in 1980 and 1982, both feature a satyr. How’d you end up choosing a satyr as the motif?
That question of “How did you end up…?” is really treacherous—and any answer generally meaningless. Although logical progressions can be traced, most poetic ones cannot. The image came to me because I’d frequently drawn satyrs engaged in musical activity, and I like employing mythological images because of their resonance. Outside of that, I don’t have an explanation.

Does the New York State Economic Development Council usually bring you to the locations they hire you to illustrate?
The Department never takes me anywhere, certainly not to any of the sites they assign me to represent. This is generally true of other clients as well. I do almost all my work at arm’s length.

You created the “I ❤ NY” logo in 1977. Does that make you the inventor of the emoji?
I suppose you sometimes do things in life that you don’t understand, particularly when those things engage the rule of unintended consequences. I don’t know what I’m responsible for in my life so far. I hope I’m not the inventor of emojis; they look so absurd. On the other hand, you could call me the inventor of emojis, and I wouldn’t worry too much about it.

Do you see the mode of image distribution today—digital technology such as smartphones and apps such as Instagram—affecting graphic design? If so, how? And for better or worse?
We have no idea how graphic design is being affected by the new use of electronic transmission. We know it is being affected, but precisely how is beyond our grasp. As we’ve discussed, all events lead to unimaginable consequences. I’ll just avoid the question. Incidentally, when you say better or worse, what are you talking about?

I think I, too, will avoid the question.

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