How To Find Your Identity as an Artist
"Go to a different country and experience a new culture."
"Don't assume you know a stranger's thoughts, feelings and desires."
These are the lessons I learned from one of the greatest designers of the modern era: Milton Glaser. But he did not define himself by a label. It would minimize his abilities. He was too curious and, by today's standards, would not fit in with our need to define ourselves.
Today, I could envision him telling a student that their career as an artist is not limited by titles such as graphic designer, product designer, web designer, motion designer, etc. If you love the arts, stay in the arts. That is your career path. For one project, you could be designing a website, the next, illustrating a book cover. Don't force your way. Finding your purpose in life will never be determined by you but through the gifts of our Creator. Let Him guide you.
Milton Glaser: Career as an Artist
Growing up north of New York City, I encountered many visual pop icons — none more significant than the "I ❤ NY" graphic created by Milton Glaser for the New York State Department of Economic Development. In 1977, William S. Doyle, Deputy Commissioner of the department, hired the advertising agency Wells Rich Greene to produce a tourism campaign for New York. The Department of Economic Development challenged the agency to promote the state and, specifically, a bankrupt and crime-ridden city. In addition, William S. Doyle commissioned Graphic Designer Milton Glaser to create a graphic based on the slogan Wells Rich Greene wrote, "I Love NY."1 Glaser created the initial concept of the logo on a scrap paper on a taxi ride through the city. You will find that scrap archived in the Museum of Modern Art.2 Glaser's work would become a critical element in the state's tourism campaign. Doyle requested that the piece be available in the public domain, which means that any entity may use it to promote the state. This cost Milton Glaser an unimaginable amount of wealth with the loss of royalties (but more on that later). Today, you will find t-shirts in every gift shop in NYC and various versions adopted for use in other tourism campaigns. The "I Love NY" campaign is still in use today and has become an authentic piece of Americana.3
A Symbol to Inspire
The graphic is simple, but it speaks to a complicated city. One must experience New York City — if you can live there for a few years, even better. Now, this is not New Yorker pride talking but rather as that of someone who moved from the New York metro area to Chicagoland to Arizona. I have experienced other cities in this country, and there is nothing like NYC. Living there daily, I hated the crowds, pollution, smells and garbage lining the streets in the early morning. However, it is one of the world's most diverse and eclectic cities. It's the one place I lived where one block could be end-to-end Korean stores. Just walking a block over, you would see Jewish delicatessens and diamond shops, one more block over, you run into a city street fair. Manhattan Island is a melting pot of American and cosmopolitan culture. You step into the global community just by hopping on a train to the city.
That is why "I ❤ NY." It's a place that preserves uniqueness in a country of repeating chain stores and declining main streets. Similar to Arizona's mountainscapes, with time you may come to take New York’s wonders for granted. Many people left NYC in the '70s, but Glaser chose to stay. He loved the city. During a tumultuous time, Glaser — a kid from the Bronx —fell back in love with the city and created a symbol that would unite the city for generations.
However, my feelings about the graphic changed as I entered college. After time had passed, the "I ❤ NY" symbol became nothing more than a ubiquitous tourist graphic — a piece of New York City a tourist could take home so they could brag about having made the pilgrimage. "I ❤ NY" became overused, overhyped and played out. No self-respected "true" New Yorker would wear it.
A Country and a City Mourn
On September 11, 2001, I woke up in my college dormitory to panicking dormmates tuning into breaking news that a plane had struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center. We watched a second plane crash into the South Tower shortly after, and a realization soon crept in. The comfort and protection of living in America evaporated. My peers and I experienced vulnerability for the first time. This experience changed a generation.
A year after those tragic events, I attended graduate school at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in NYC. To say I was unenthusiastic about living in a city targeted by a terrorist attack was an understatement. When I arrived at SVA, I noticed a familiar design. A revised version of the "I ❤ NY" graphic was hanging throughout the various buildings of SVA. However, now it read "I ❤ NY More than Ever."4 The heart was now bruised in the lower left corner and to serve as a metaphor for Manhattan Island and the former location of the World Trade Center. I saw a sense of pride in my home and the felt comfort that I was not alone in my emotions. It was reassuring to know that others were experiencing the same feelings I had at the time. It healed me.
Artist Careers: A Mind to Emulate
While attending SVA, I studied illustration under some of the industry’s best professors. In addition, we were privy to fantastic guest speakers who shared their artistic careers and knowledge. To my surprise Milton Glaser walked into my classroom one day and sat down in the front of the room, unfolding his scarf. I was awestruck. He had no slide presentation; he just spoke to us as if we were invited over for dinner. We all stood in awe in front of this creative giant. Casually, Glaser discussed the many jobs and experiences he had in the industry.
He was most proud of redesigning the Grand Union supermarket experience.5 I was shocked; the supermarket seemed so pedestrian. However, after listening to Glaser discuss the user experience of walking through the store, I never looked at supermarkets the same way again. I realized that our work is only as interesting as we make it. Throughout the evening, he continued discussing various projects and his travels across Europe. A classmate asked him the big question, "Do you regret creating I ❤ NY as a work-for-hire project with no royalties?" He laughed and said, "First, I had no idea it was going to take off the way it did, so the money sounded good then!" However, what came next really impacted me as a young designer. He said, "I am very fortunate in my career to create such an iconic piece of design that has had a tremendous impact on culture. You can't put a price on it."
The Purpose of Art in Life
All impactful art should be created through conviction and meaning. A simple message created and applied to a graphical treatment can profoundly influence our communities. However, not every project will have a profound cultural impact, but we should treat the creative process rigorously, nonetheless. As it says in scripture, "Whatever you do, do from the heart, as for the Lord and not for others," (Colossians 3:23, NABRE).
Milton Glaser's design work inspires me, but I am just as inspired by the man himself. Proverbs 16:3 says, "Entrust your works to the Lord, and your plans will succeed." The symbol that he created became more than the next payday. His focus was on creating fantastic work that communicated a message to inspire. He did not define himself as an illustrator, art director or graphic designer. Milton Glaser was a creator.
His career as an artist embodied what I try to instill in my design students as professor at Grand Canyon University. No matter your major, in our curriculum, we tell stories through ad campaigns, interface designs and motion graphics. Those graphics need to have an intention and thoughtfulness behind them. Our students learn about viewing a project holistically and do not engage in frivolous tasks. Instead, they craft thoughtful and strategic work. That is the purpose of art in life. That is why I am proud to teach in the Digital Design Department in the College of Arts and Media at Grand Canyon University.
I ❤ GCU.
1 Logoworks, A Brief History of the I Love New York Logo in September 2022.
2 The Museum of Modern Art in September 2022.
3 I LOVE NY in September 2022.
4 9/11 Memorial & Museum, The Story Behind the Iconic Post-9/11 “I Heart New York More Than Ever” Logo in September 2022.
5 UX Design, Milton Glaser’s Grand User Experience in September 2022.
Approved by the author on Oct. 14, 2022
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.
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