Want to wear one of the greatest advertising campaigns of the last century? Take a look at some “I Love NY” t-shirts next time you have a chance. The design — brainchild of the brilliant Milton Glaser — couldn’t be simpler. The letter I, a heart N, and Y, arranged in a square. In fact, the only thing simpler is the message — of course people love New York. How could the city maintain millions of residents and attract millions of tourists if that weren’t the case?
The genius of the “I love NY” t-shirts is that they lay a unique claim to a common feeling. By wearing “I love NY” t-shirts, people are saying something fairly common — that they’re fans of New York city — but they’re saying it in an aesthetically appealing way. This is one of the best design tricks around: find a simple way to express a simple thought, but in a way not quite like what anyone has done before. As the uniqueness of the “I love NY” t-shirts demonstrates, it’s pretty hard to do this consistently.
One effect of “I love NY” t-shirts is that copying or referencing the design has become a major part of popular culture. The phrase “I love [x]” was rescued from mawkishness by “I love NY” t-shirts, and forever turned into a lighthearted way to express an exuberantly positive, common emotion. So it’s no wonder that numerous organizations have used the logo with slight variations (including puns on ‘spade’ and ‘club’ as opposed to just ‘heart’).
Another side effect of the “I love NY” t-shirts is that the ‘heart’ logo has transcended the slogan, and turned into an actual verbal expression. Originally textual, the phrase “I heart [x]” has developed as an even more free and fun version of “I love…”, even finding its way into the title of a film, I Heart Huckabees. There aren’t many advertising slogans that can claim to be so ubiquitous. Among the other slogans that have reached a similar level of popularity, few have been able to maintain it for so long. A reference to “Where’s the beef?” today leads to awkward stares, rather than laughs.
Interestingly enough, this popularity simply fed into the original trend. With so many people referencing “I love NY” t-shirts, the shirts themselves turned into a crucial fashion item. With so many reminders of the shirts, someone who briefly considered buying one wouldn’t have the chance to forget — during a single day, they might stumble across a review of I Heart Huckabees, an “I love…” line, and a logo that used a heart icon.
This is the most crucial lesson from “I love NY” t-shirts. If you’re going to create a successful trend, you’ll want to make one that’s self-reinforcing — that gives people a reason, not just to participate, but to make their friends want to participate, too. If you look at the sites of retailers who sell “I love NY” t-shirts, you’ll find that many of them also offer different versions, or plays on the same theme. If you can get people doing that, you probably have a design that’s going to last.