The History of the I Love New York T-Shirt

T-shirts have long been an iconic part of American fashion, but their influence has now spread globally. Each famous design emblazoned on them has its own unique history, making these shirts even more special. 


I Heart New York

It's widely recognized as one of the most influential branding campaigns in history, but it all started as a simple napkin sketch (or an envelope, depending on the story). The '70s were a rough time for New York City, with rising crime rates and a struggling economy. Times Square wasn't the bustling tourist destination it is today - it was seen as dirty and unsafe, especially for families. New York was in dire need of a transformation, both physically and mentally.

The advertising firm Wells Rich Greene was tasked with developing a campaign that would showcase the city in a positive manner, ultimately increasing tourism and boosting the economy. They devised the famous slogan "I Love New York," as well as a Broadway-inspired jingle and a television commercial. However, there was one important element missing - a logo. But before we delve into that, allow me to reveal a lesser-known aspect of this origin tale.

Meet Mary Wells Lawrence

The original creator of the “I Love New York” campaign was a groundbreaking female professional, Mary Wells Lawrence. She was the founding president of Wells Rich Greene and became the first female CEO of a New York Stock Exchange-listed company. In 1969, Lawrence was the highest-paid executive in the advertising industry and went on to have a distinguished career.


In 1976, graphic designer Milton Glaser met with an ad agency to create a logo for their campaign. He presented his idea on a torn envelope, scribbled with red crayon while riding in a cab on the way to the meeting. This simple concept would go on to become a cultural phenomenon and global icon, solidifying New York City's status as a beloved metropolis.


He essentially used an emoji before emojis were a thing. When incorporating this ideogram (known as emojis) with NY, the abbreviation for New York, Glaser shortened the message to three letters and a symbol.


To be fair, people have used the heart shape for centuries, and it has its own interesting history.

But it was: The I ❤ NY logo ad campaign using a heart in place of the word love that started it all. The design, stacked the “I ❤” on top of the “NY”, which obviously was inspired by Robert Indiana’s famous LOVE sculpture. This turned the graphic into a classic: elegant in its simplicity, yet unpretentiously earnest. It works at sizes large and small. It works on a black background as well as white. It also worked for the city.


An icon was born

Simple white T-shirts printed with the pop-art style logo became a huge hit and helped rapidly spread the image and the message in a way that would be akin to a meme going viral today. It began appearing on everything from stickers to mugs to license plates and much more.

With so many people trying to move out of the crime-ridden city, the heart design struck a chord with those who didn’t want to go, and became somewhat of defiant rallying cry.

“People were moving out and the people who were here wanted to be able to say ‘I Love New York’.” Glaser says.  It was a real, deeply-felt desire and there were so few opportunities that any of us have to express the deepest things we feel.”

Soon it seemed like everyone wanted to proclaim that they, too, loved New York– in the city, and beyond.

Tourism was suddenly on the upswing, thanks in no small part to the campaign, helped along by economic initiatives and a crackdown on crime. The New York State Department for Economic Development, which holds the trademark to the “I Love New York” logo and licenses its use, reportedly generates more than 0 million a year to this day.


A meme before there were memes

The campaign, which was expected to go for months, ended up sticking around for years. It became ingrained into the public consciousness and New York culture, going from sitting solely on marketing materials to living on a variety of promotional materials and souvenirs. The “I ❤” phrase has become a staple in souvenir shops and stores across the globe.

Ever since it was first created, many retailers and organizations have co-opted the concept to inspire those same feelings. From blatant knock-offs being sold by vendors on street corners to high-profile brands co-opting it for their purposes, to endless parodies and references, this simple graphic has truly taken on a life of its own.


Milton acknowledges that he’s put his stamp on the city in a way that few other natives have had, but he takes it all in stride, and attributes much of it to the inspiration of his true love of the city. And what he loves about it is its diversity.

The unique aspect of New York is that it is not a single location. New York has a distinct mentality," he says with pride. "In Paris, you always know you are in Paris. But in New York, every corner reveals a new place. It's a city that is multi-faceted and constantly evolving, so much so that it almost feels like an invention.

How about now?

Recently, New York pulled out all the stops to woo Amazon into building a new headquarters in the region, even offering billion in subsidies to make the deal happen. But nothing shows just how much the state was prepared to give away than what it did to its own logo. In its submission to Amazon, the city replaced the famous “I Love NY” logo with “I Amazon NY.”


What did Milton Glaser think of it?

According to Glaser, it's nearly impossible to protect your work from imitation without copyrighting it. He also mentioned that the Amazon logo does not blend well with the rest of the design, which in design language, can be interpreted as throwing some criticism. It was also suggested by his team that he would have declined this if he was consulted beforehand.


Glaser currently limits the amount of projects he takes on, but he is recognized as one of the top graphic designers and is credited with pioneering modern design techniques. Despite this, the Empire State Development Corporation, who owns the trademark, still sells merchandise featuring the iconic "I ❤ NY" design and actively pursues anyone who uses it without permission.


Hope you enjoyed this.