Sam Greenspan: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Sam Greenspan in for Roman Mars.
By now, the story is well known. A man sits in the backseat of a cab, sketching on a notepad as night falls over a crumbling city. He scribbles the letter I. He draws a heart. And then an N, and then a Y. And right away he knows he’s got something. “This is it.” he thinks. This is the campaign.
Mooj: The man was a designer named Milton Glaser. The city was New York. The year, 1977.
Sam: A time and place commemorated by an entire genre of movies dedicated to making it look like a terrifying place to live.
Male voice: Enjoy a typical afternoon in New York City. The most violent town in the world.
Male voice: Let’s see the money, man.
Male voice: Can you dig it? Can you dig it?
Mooj: The city needed a miracle and it kind of got one in three letters and a symbol, I Heart NY.
Sam: Telling the story with me is reporter, Mooj Zadie.
Mooj: Milton Glaser created the design pro bono for the Empire State Development Corporation, that’s the agency that handles tourism for the state of New York.
Sam: So, the ‘NY’ actually refers to all of New York state, not just the city.
Mooj: So, I used to live in New York. And this logo is literally everywhere. T-shirts, hats, towels, plastic bags, oven mitts. For a long time, I didn’t even realize that anyone had designed it. I didn’t like it or dislike it. It was just part of New York.
Sam: Of all the pronoun, verb, noun combinations that have ever been turned into a piece of visual design, I Love New York is a pretty good one. I’ll guess that there’s not a single person out there in listener-land who needs a description. I do not have to tell you that we are talking about a 2×2 grid, the letters in a typeface with a friendly serif, conjoined by a plump red heart. Both New York City and state have their own official flag, but the heart logo may as well be it. And like any good flag, the logo can inspire a sense of civic pride.
Woman: I remember the first time I bought an I Heart New York shirt was actually a couple of days after 9/11. I was living in Brooklyn and I was on my way to work and saw the towers exploding. And after that experience, your first thought is how can I show this city that I love it. And of course, the first thing that comes to your mind is this beautiful piece of art that says, I Heart New York. And so, I went down to Chinatown and I bought a shirt. And I’m pretty sure it was probably not an officially licensed product but it was five dollars and I put it on and I wore it until it smelled bad and it helped me feel better.
Sam: The thing about the I Love NY campaign is that it was so successful that it became part of the built environment. So, people started doing with I Love NY the same thing that humans have always done when encountering something in nature.
Mooj: They started imitating it.
Wendy: My name is Wendy Bryan and I make plush internal organs for my company.
I Heart Guts.
Mooj: Wendy runs I Heart Guts out of her home in Tacoma Park, Maryland. She makes these anatomically correct plush dolls of internal organs, kidneys, spleens, prostates, urethra, all with faces full of joy. Wendy started I Heart Guts back in 2005 as a t-shirt business. The dolls didn’t come until later. And one shirt was in the style of I Love NY.
Sam: Which Wendy knew was not totally groundbreaking material.
Wendy: You see I Orange New York on the Tropicana ads. You see t-shirts that say, I stomach L.A. or I spade my cat.
Sam: Spade like clubs, diamonds, hearts, spades. Anyway–
Wendy: You see rip offs of this iconic, graphic design absolutely everywhere.
Mooj: Now Wendy is a huge fan of Milton Glaser. Remember, he’s the guy who created I Love New York.
Wendy: He’s a genius. He’s a brilliant graphic designer. You go on Etsy, there’s about a billion different I Heart New York rip-offs and nobody ever even says that Milton Glaser is the one who designed this. So, I wanted to give the man credit where credit is due.
Mooj: So, on her website, she put up a note right next to the t-shirt that called it a “fun new T based on Milton Glaser’s iconic I Heart NY design.”
Wendy: A few months later, actually on my birthday on July 8th, 2008–
Mooj: Your Birthday.
Wendy: It was my birthday. I got a cease and desist letter that said that I was infringing on the I Heart New York trademark with my design. And could I please destroy all the shirts and take them down from the website. So, I was completely freaked out.
Sam: I Heart New York or really I Love New York is intellectual property owned by New York State. You can’t just riff on it with your own design and sell it without paying for it. Wendy made some alterations to the merchandise in question. Like cutting the design out of the shirt and sewing it back onto another shirt upside down and off center.
Mooj: The difference between an I Heart Guts shirt and an I Orange New York Tropicana ad is that Tropicana paid for the rights to use it.
Sam: Most likely. It’s hard to get details on specific legal agreements. But for the most part–
Mooj: If you don’t pay and you get caught, you get a cease and desist letter. Ignore it and you’ve got a lawsuit on your hands.
Sam: Though as far as cease and desist letters go, Wendy said this one was–
Wendy: Really sweet. I’m looking at this scary cease and desist letter and all these like sweet little hearts all over it, just scattered all over the page.
Sam: Ironically, it may have been the shout out to Milton Glaser that got Wendy in trouble, or at least she thinks so, there’s really no way to tell.
Wendy: I figured that they probably have legal spider robots that are constantly searching for search terms like “Milton Glaser” or “I Heart New York” or “I Love New York.”
Clare: We do Google searches and we receive Google Alerts. I mean, I don’t think any of this information is very groundbreaking.
Mooj: That’s Clare Neumann.
Clare: My name is Clare Neumann and I am an IP licensing executive and legal counsel for CMG Worldwide. And we represent the New York State Department of Economic Development, who is the proprietor and owner of the I Heart NY trademark.
Mooj: So, it’s I Heart not I Love?
Clare: It is actually I Love. I can’t believe I messed that up. Yeah, it’s I Love New York.
Sam: CMG handles intellectual property licensing for– according to their website– celebratory individuals from then, now and forever. They represent the estates of Amelia Earhart, Malcolm X, Frank Lloyd Wright and a bunch of other famous dead people. And of course, I Love New York, which Clare Neumann represents from her office in Indianapolis.
Mooj: Claire says about half of her workload is related to licensing I Love New York. And she has a number of colleagues who work on it, too.
Sam: Though to be clear, it wasn’t Clare who sent Wendy the cease and desist letter. That happened before Clare was working with CMG.
Mooj: Her office works with interested vendors like T-shirt manufacturers to license the logo as is. Or a company can pay to remix the logo like Tropicana did with I Orange NY. Claire looks for infringements on sites like Etsy, Polyvore and Pinterest. She says people even report infringements to CMG. And sometimes, she just stumbles into them.
Clare: Like today, for example, we got a mailing from a cruise line and there was an infringement inside the letter. So, it was really coincidental but we found it.
Sam: Clare says they have some other methods for searching for infringements that she couldn’t talk about. Her job at CMG is about protecting artists. And Clare says that intellectual property is about protecting consumers, too.
Clare: If you buy McDonald’s french fries, you know you’re getting McDonald’s french fries. You’re not getting Burger King’s french fries. And so, if you started putting different french fries in the McDonald’s containers, that trademark–
Sam: That is the trademark on the container.
Clare: — would stop indicating the source and origin of those french fries. So, the reason people use trademarks is so that they can go back to trusted brands and trusted labels. And they know they’re getting the same standard and the same type of product each time.
Mooj: But if CMG is saying that an I Heart Guts t-shirt is too close to the Glaser design, I got to wondering, how close is too close? I want to play a game.
Mooj: Basically, I’m just going to give you potential logos that I came up with.
Clare: Okay. Like whether or not I would think that they would be an infringement?
Mooj: Let’s say you saw I Stomach New Jersey.
Clare: I mean I guess I would say yes.
Mooj: I Bike Melbourne. I and then a bicycle and then Melbourne.
Clare: I mean, yes, I guess. I would have to see it. It’s all about like the design and like what the visual is invoking.
Sam: CMG is vigilant about trademark protection because they have to be. The way the law works is that if you don’t defend your trademark well enough, you can lose it. Say, you think someone is ripping off work that you’ve trademarked and you try to sue them. If they can prove that you’ve done a bad job enforcing that trademark in the past, a judge can wind up siding with them. So, it’s CMG’s job to err on the side of thinking that something is an infringement.
Clare: My position is that everything is an infringement.
Mooj: Wait. Why?
Clare: Because it’s my job to protect the mark!
Sam: Though just because Clare think something is an infringement, it doesn’t always mean there’s a cease and desist letter in the mail from CMG. They send out about 200 I Love NY related cease and desists per year.
Mooj: Ironically, one of the people to receive such a letter was Milton Glaser, who, remember, did the original I Love NY design for free in 2001 right after 9/11.
Sam: In an effort to raise money for local New York charities.
Mooj: Glaser created a new modified design that read I Love NY more than ever.
Sam: The state of New York wind up apologizing to Glaser and chalked it up to a bureaucratic misunderstanding. Now, we can go back and forth about whether or not this indicates something is broken in trademark law. But really, the more interesting question is why does CMG need a whole team of people working on I Love NY? I mean who would have thought that a government ad campaign from the 70’s would need to be defended by a team of lawyers from getting stolen and remixed and modified into countless permutations?
Milton: I don’t get it. I just– I totally don’t understand. And I have done a lot of things that are persistent in the culture, stuff that last five years, six years. Nothing like this. It doesn’t make any sense at all.
Sam: And you can probably guess who this is.
Milton: My name is Milton Glaser. I’m a designer and I spend my day pushing things around until they look good. That’s what I do.
Sam: It was clear from the beginning of our conversation that Milton Glaser is really over talking about I Love NY. He’s done a ton of other work. He did an iconic Bob Dylan poster and Philip Roth book covers. He co-founded New York Magazine. And at 84 years old, he’s still working. Just recently, he designed an entire visual identity for Brooklyn Brewery. Yet for all his expertise as a designer, even he doesn’t understand the success of I Love NY.
Milton: I would have thought it would have lost meaning a long time ago. In fact, I thought that it would be a six month campaign. I thought that in ’77, it would probably last six months then I’d be done with it. And then when it went through ’77 and ’78, I thought, well, maybe it has another six months to go. Then it went through ’78 and ’79. And here we are, after so many decades and it still persists. I can’t believe it. I mean there is no doubt that I will go out into the street today and I will see half a dozen versions of it. If you go down to Chinatown, every building, every street, every side of a wall is covered with I Love New York. I mean there are far more I Love New York’s than dumplings in Chinatown. I mean, why? Why does it persist?
Mooj: I thought you maybe tell us.
Milton: I wish I could. Why isn’t it tiresome? Everything is tiresome!
Sam: Maybe I Love New York is still around because people just love New York. But Milton Glaser thinks that its success has less to do with what the design represents and more with what it is.
Milton: I think it really is– it has more to do with the peculiarity of brain function than it does to any kind of logic. It has something to do with the rigidity of that letter form. The attempt of the grid to contain the erotic nature of the heart. There’s something that creates an act of closure in peoples minds when they see it that they want repeated, that doesn’t bore them. They can look at it a thousand times, a hundred thousand times. And soon they’ll say, “I’ve had enough.” It’s a trivial mystery. But maybe not. Maybe it’s a profound mystery, why people are willing to look at certain things over and over and over and over.
I mean there’s a show of Pura Dela Francesca at the Frick this week, and I’m going to try to go up there today. I’m thinking of Pierro. I love Pierro. Why am I willing to look at the same pair of feet and the way they cling to the ground in a Pierro? No other feet in any other painting can make me pay attention for that long. For my whole life, I’ve been looking at that same pair of feet and I’ll be looking at it till the day I die with astonishment. Why? Well, maybe beyond the I Love New York and the phrase and the meaning to the city, there is simply the mystery of form. Why does a certain curve and a certain color and a certain contrast hold our attention and why do certain other forms bore us? I don’t know. It’s a profound mystery.
Mooj: Even still.
Milton: I think the most wonderful thing about all of this stuff, all of graphics and all of language and all of color is effect. You never get to the reason.
Sam: Maybe the I Love NY design continues to hold our attention because of it’s infinite capacity for remix that you can substitute literally any part of the equation. The I, the heart, the NY and the cultural reference still comes across.
Mooj: In fact, even New York state is doing this. You can now find official spin off logos like I Pizza New York and I Beach Ball New York.
Sam: It is now easier than ever before in human history to take something and change it just enough to make it your own. Imitating and altering and remixing has always been the way that humans engage with the world. But there is a limit here. There will always be a baseline need for new ideas to break free of what’s been done and say something truly original. And should you ever fall short of the mark, somewhere out there is a cease and desist letter waiting to tell you precisely that.
Sam: Here’s a post script. Wendy Bryan from I Heart Guts says that there is a silver lining to getting that cease and desist letter from CMG.
Wendy: The language was obviously very frightening. “It will not be tolerated. Immediate cease and desist. There will be a fee.” So, it was terrifying, right? But later on, I actually was able to use the language from the cease desist to send out my own cease and desist to people who were ripping off my stuff.
Male voice: Remix.
Wendy: I’m not the only person who put a happy face on an organ and I don’t claim to be. But you have to use different colors and different shapes and you have to come up with your own idea. So, again, thanks Milton!
Sam: 99 percent Invisible was produced this week by Mooj Zadie, Roman Mars and me, Sam Greenspan. We are a project of 91.7 local public radio KALW in San Francisco and the American Institute of Architects in San Francisco. Special thanks to Debbie Millman for helping this episode come together. If you like hearing designers talk to other designers about design, then you will love Debbie Millman’s Design Matters podcast. You can subscribe to Design Matters in the iTunes store or Anywhere Else Podcast or RSS.