We’ve all seen “I Love New York” t-shirts, mugs, posters, and other branded products, but few people know just where they came from, and even those who do are missing some of the trivia surrounding the slogan. The slogan is old enough that most people can glance at I Love New York t-shirts without wondering just where the brand came from, but at the same time it looks modern enough that we know it can’t be more than a few decades old.
This intuition about the vintage of I Love New York t-shirts is correct. The origin of the design was in 1977: the Deputy Commissioner of the New York State Department of Commerce, William S. Doyle, knew that New York had incredible potential to attract tourists. At the same time, he was aware that many tourists didn’t bother to visit the city — some were worried about crime, or annoyed by high prices, but most simply never thought to go there. He needed a slogan that would not convince people that it was a good city to visit — he needed a slogan that would take the millions of people who were already convinced, and catalyze their decision to make the trip.
The story of I Love New York t-shirts takes an interesting turn after that: Doyle hired an advertising agency, Wells Rich Greene, to create a new tourism campaign. This was a fairly conventional move: New York has long been a center for the advertising business, and many large, reputable advertising agencies were and are headquartered in the city. But then Doyle did something a little less conventional: he tapped the design talent of Milton Glaser, a well-regarded designer.
Surprisingly, Glaser didn’t think the job was a big deal. Unable to envision the fact that, decades later, I Love New York t-shirts would be ubiquitous across the country, Glaser whipped up the new logo for free. Glaser had plenty of reasons to stay busy: in addition to being a successful, independent designer, Glaser had cofounded the popular New York Magazine, and was involved in work both locally and internationally.
Soon after the first I Love New York t-shirts were printed, Doyle, Wells Rich Greene, and New York itself knew they had a hit on their hands. Although the ad campaign was meant to be one of many temporary attempts to juice tourist revenue for the city, it was a surprisingly long-lived campaign. The ease with which people could copy the design (occasionally replacing the American Typewriter font with the more common Courier) meant that the design was often referenced and even parodied. Even so, the vast majority of observers were only reminded that I Love New York t-shirts are the original.
Surprisingly, the I Love New York t-shirts don’t just refer to the city. Doyle worked for the state, and the campaign was designed for the entire state. But as most wearers of I Love New York t-shirts are aware, it’s a design that reminds people almost exclusively of the city.