You’ve seen them so many times: those shirts emblazoned with lists of related names in Helvetica. Usually white on black, with lots of ampersands. They work like cultural shibboleths—if you get the reference, you and the T-shirt wearer are automatically cool with each other. These kinds of T-shirts have been popping up everywhere lately (most recently on Fab.com), but where did that style come from?
Amsterdam design studio Experimental Jetset claims the first iteration of the style, a John & Paul & Ringo & George tee in 2001, a paean to the Beatles made for the Japanese t-shirt label 2K by Gingham. Experimental Jetset has this to say about the inspiration for the design:
When we designed the shirt, our idea was to strip down the idea of a rock band to a list of four names, in an attempt to reach the of essence of a group. In a way, the shirt is very much about abstraction: the process of translating figurative images into something less figurative. There’s also an iconoclastic streak running through the shirt: the idea of puncturing through the world of images, by using text.
In short, we took the idea of the most archetypical band ever (a band that has been a constant source of inspiration to us), and replaced the image with a simple list of names.
The fact that we used an ampersand (‘&’) after each name had a purely formal reason. When we put the four names under each other, without the ampersands, we thought the name ‘George’ was sticking out too much, as this word was the longest. We solved this by putting the name ‘George’ at the bottom on the list, and adding ampersands to all the other names. This way, the list of names looked more even. That’s how the ampersands were introduced in the design.
Experimental Jetset was amazed by the number of response T-shirts they started seeing, and started collecting examples on their website (where the above image was drawn from). “To us, it proves an important point: that a popular design doesn’t have to be made with populist intentions,” they say.