The Most famous T-Shirt Designs of all Time and their Creators

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Do you ever give any thought to the artists behind some of the most famous t-shirts of all time? Most people relate design to the product, band or brand without realizing the time and talent it took to create some of the most memorable designs of all time. Let’s take a peek behind the curtain and give credit where it’s due.

Rolling Stones  

The iconic tongue and lips logo that has graced the front of tees since 1971 was originally designed by a student attending the Royal College of Art. John Pasche was initially approached by Mick Jagger as the rocker did not feel the label supplied graphics represented The Rolling Stones. Since then, he went on to supply custom works for greats like Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Judas Priest, Paul McCartney and David Bowie. He is also the recipient of many esteemed awards including multiple achievements from D&AD, the Global Association for Creative Advertising & Design.

I Heart NY

Milton Glaser produced the original incarnation of this incredibly infectious, simplistic design in a taxi cab. As part of a campaign to promote tourism in the late 70’s, the already well-established graphic designer and proud New Yorker handed over the design on a pro bono basis. It’s hard to imagine New York without this logo. Since its initial design, countless t-shirts have been sold and I heart [insert town name here] have been copied across the world.

Che Guevara 

Ernesto “Che” Guevara is a tough one since we don’t truly know when or where he was iconized in screen print ink as a fashion statement known as Che Chic. We do know however that Jim Fitzpatrick an Irish artist who tended towards left wing activism wanted to commemorate the Marxist rebel before and after his death. A psychedelic poster was originally published and later Fitzpatrick created a two color, simplified print which we now see everywhere. He never sought compensations in royalties because he wanted the story and of Che to live on but has recently had second-thoughts regarding the commercialization of his iconic image.

Smiley Face

Most recently, we’ve been familiarized with the smiley face icon as it was embroidered into the decades encompassing film, Forrest Gump. However, the real story is far more lengthy and commercial driven. In 1963, a graphic artist and ad man was commissioned by The State Mutual Life Assurance Company to come up with a graphic to lift employee morale. The graphic was a hit and the company produced thousands of buttons initially. Since neither Ball nor State Mutual protected the design, others copyrighted the mark with some adjustments and made a mint. The Smiley face made it onto t-shirts when French journalist Franklin Loufrani registered the mark commercially. His son took the business to staggering heights reportedly reaping more than $130 million a year through licensing. 

Keep Calm and Carry On 

This design makes it onto the list as one of the youngest and oldest designs. It was commissioned by the British government in Pre-World War II days as a series of 3 propaganda posters meant to bolster spirits and unify their citizens. The crown is a graphic replica of King George VI’s crown and the typeface was uniquely created to make counterfeiting the posters difficult. Ironically, Keep Calm and Carry On was printed but never released as it was intended to be used only under the direst of circumstances such as invasion. The copies were forgotten until almost 50 years later when one was uncovered in a used bookstore in a recent order of antique books. One of the owners like it so much, she had it framed and it took on a life of its own. Now we see replicas, parodies and customized versions on t-shirts and more across the globe. 

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