Milton Glaser’s iconic 9/11 poster is now helping New Yorkers emerge from the pandemic

Image: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton
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Milton Glaser woke up with a heavy heart on Sept. 12, 2001. Like the rest of the world, the late graphic design legend—and New York native—was reeling from the unfathomable terrorist act that felled two skyscrapers on the tip of Manhattan.

“God, I have to do something to respond to this,” he told the New York Times a few days later. Glaser, who was then 71, had witnessed some of New York City’s darkest periods, including the fiscal collapse, the blackout, and mafia wars in the late 1970s. It was during this tumultuous era that Glaser came up with the world’s most popular city branding logo: I ♥️ NY.

Unpublished sketches for I ♥️ NY More Than Ever

But even Glaser hadn’t seen anything quite like 9/11. The towers had a special significance for him, as a longtime design consultant to the mythic Windows on the World restaurant on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center’s north tower.

What can a designer do? Glaser’s instinct was to reach for his drawing pad. He thought he could make an emblem, a poster, a button—anything to help repair New York City’s broken spirit, and perhaps raise funds for the recovery efforts along the way. He sketched a few ideas: “All Together Now”,  “Move Out Never,” “Art Against Terror”, “Your Neighbor is Not Your Enemy”—the last hoping to quell an anti-Muslim sentiment that besieged parts of the US after the attacks.

These previously unpublished sketches hint at how Glaser’s mind operated. As he worked out the graphic, he was also thinking about a dissemination plan. On the edge of the notebook is a list of people who he thought could help get the poster out quickly. (Pete) Hamill, a longtime columnist for the New York Post and Silas (Rhodes), co-founder of the School of Visual Arts, would prove instrumental.

Glaser's sketches.
Glaser’s sketch pad
Image: Milton Glaser/ Anne Quito / Quartz

His mind would eventually drift back to the logo he designed pro bono for New York state in 1976. Using the original rounded slab serif typeface American Typewriter, he stacked the words “More Than Ever” beneath the emblem to reassert the steely affection for the city crushed with grief. Glaser also made a small black flourish on the lower lefthand corner of the red heart to symbolize a wounded heart and cleverly hint at the geographic location of the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan.

Officials tried to block the new poster

A picture of the Daily News front page with Milton Glaser's I Heart NY MORE THAN EVER poster, after September 11, 2001
A wounded but resilient heart.

The New York State Empire State Development, which owns the trademark to the logo, didn’t like Glaser’s update. They threatened to sue him, condemning the smudge on the red heart as a branding violation. “They felt that anything that acknowledges the 9/11 event might be interpreted as a sign of weakness,” Glaser told Print magazine in 2001. He appealed to the state governor and the city mayor, and the smudge stayed.

The Windows on the World restaurant logo, designed by Milton Glaser
The Windows on the World restaurant logo, designed by Glaser.
Image: Milton Glaser

Glaser gave away the rights to the poster and encouraged people to distribute it widely. The School of Visual Arts, where he taught for over four decades, funded a print run. (He requested a small poster for bodegas, mom-and-pop eateries and small businesses, and a larger version was produced for the subway.) The New York Daily News used the artwork on the cover of its Sept 19, 2001 edition and the local radio station WNYC held a fundraising campaign using the poster as an incentive to donors and raised $190,000.

Glaser later added a postscript to dissuade enterprising vendors from reselling the poster. In small type, it reads: “Be generous. Your city needs you. This poster is not for sale.” His staff recall how reluctant Glaser was about getting involved in the business of selling copies. He eventually agreed to sell signed posters on his website and donated proceeds to the New York City Fire Department and other 9/11-related charities.

A jogger wearing a " I Love New York More Than Ever" t-shirt
Image: Reuters/Adrees Latif

“A symbol of our nation’s determination and resilience, now and then”

“I remember seeing Milton sitting at his desk when we heard that another plane crashed at the Pentagon,” recalls illustrator Mirko Ilić, Glaser’s frequent collaborator  “He turned white as a sheet.”

“That particular poster was very important to him,” Ilić says, surveying the 1,000 or so Glaser designed over his lifetime. “Except for the period he studied in Italy, he was thoroughly a New York creature. Everything that mattered to him was here.” Ilić says Glaser saw himself as a guide to New York’s overlooked gems. As New York magazine’s first “Underground Gourmet,” Glaser made seeking out cheap eats in every borough fun and even fashionable.

Ilić, who is the curator of a roving poster exhibition called “The Tolerance Project,” says “I ♥️ NY More Than Ever” made a significant impact because of its timeliness. “It was all over the New York within a matter of days,” he recalls. Glaser’s poster was a reassuring voice that broke through the silence of a shell-shocked city. “No one else was doing anything like that,” he says.

As New York City rallies from the Covid-19 pandemic, several campaigns are vying to recreate what Glaser’s poster managed to do 20 years ago—there’s “All in New York“, “New York City reawakens,” “It’s Time for New York City, and “Wish you were here at NYC” among them—but none quite rises to the level of immediacy and heartfelt resolve conveyed in “I ♥️ NY More Than Ever”.

Many New Yorkers are going back to the original. The poster and merchandise with the I ♥️ NY emblem have reappeared again in recent months, this time to pull people out of the doldrums of Covid-19 and other crises that divided the city. Saturday Night Live produced a sketch about I ♥️ NY underpants last year, and Kate Spade’s latest collection also features Glaser’s design.

Glaser’s poster is currently displayed in the 9/11 Memorial & Museum. On the museum’s website, curators wrote, “More than a poster, ‘I ♥️ NY More Than Ever’ represents the love and pride we feel for New York City. Glaser’s message extends beyond our city limits and is a symbol of our nation’s determination and resilience, now and then.”