Uncommon Threads: Rare NVIDIA T-Shirts Gain Cult Following

by Brian Caulfield

Don’t meet your heroes, they say, you might be disappointed. Use your heroes to meet other people, however, and you may just be delighted.

Rory Loeb, an NVIDIA creative director who leads the company’s branding efforts, found that out last year during a hike through the Berkeley hills overlooking the sparkling San Francisco Bay.

“A guy came up to me on the trail and stopped me,” Rory says. “‘You work at NVIDIA, right?’ It was the start of a great conversation.”

Company of Heroes

The gray shirt, emblazoned with the faces of nine of NVIDIA’s heroes — Edsger Dijkstra, Donald Knuth, Margaret Hamilton, Ada Lovelace, Alan Turing, Ivan Sutherland, George Boole, Grace Hopper and John Von Neumann — doesn’t speak to everyone.

But it speaks to enough of the right people that it’s the latest in a long line of T-shirts that have become sought after by fans and collectors alike.

The shirt is our best seller — after ones bearing NVIDIA’s distinctive corporate logo and the marks for NVIDIA’s GeForce brand. It’s only available to our employees and at NVIDIA’s Gear Store, the tiny, glass-walled jewel box of a shop stocked with bespoke NVIDIA gear at our Silicon Valley headquarters.

A quick visit shows it being scooped up by the armful by a busload of visitors from Brazil. “I love it,” said one, carrying a T-shirt and an NVIDIA ruler in his arms as he grasped a pair of $20 bills in his right hand. “Do you have this in extra large?”

The shirt reflects a collaboration between the company’s creative team and its engineers, who eagerly joined in discussions about who should be featured on NVIDIA’s shirts.

“Our goal with our shirts is to have it be a conversation piece,” Loeb explains.

Tee Are Family

While you can buy a choice of three T-shirts online from the company, you’ll need to visit our campus if you want to see our full selection.

That’s because our shirts are made in runs of as little as a few dozen. Some are handed out at events. Others are sold at the NVIDIA Gear Store. Almost all are made for a limited time.

When they’re sold at all — through the Gear Store for between $12 and $20 — they’re sold at cost. They’re not made to be worn once, then put in drawer and never seen again, Loeb says. So they have high-quality inks and soft, stretchy, 100 percent cotton.

Some shirts are made for special occasions — such as for staff to wear during a new product launch.

A few others are made for NVIDIA communities, such as NVPride, which includes supporters and members of our LGBT community. That shirt — worn by NVIDIANs to the San Francisco Pride Parade — features the NVIDIA logo and a heart covered with polygons, symbolizing the mesh of polygons our GPUs generate to represent 3D objects, in all the colors of the rainbow.

Maybe the most distinctive are the limited runs created for new employees, welcoming them to the company.

A few feature a bold, in-your-face logo. But most include the NVIDIA logo only as small tag at the bottom of the shirt.

“It’s a passion project inside of a passion project inside of a passion project,” says Loeb, a veteran designer who wears a belt buckle in the shape of a Nintendo NES controller.

The latest product of that passion is a shirt in bright blue, vivid reds and electric pink in the style of Andy Warhol’s iconic portrait of Marilyn Monroe celebrating NVIDIA Isaac — the public, robotic face of our NVIDIA Isaac software development kit.

“That was a fun project,” Loeb says. What originally started out as a T-shirt for kids also grew into a design that’s also being eagerly snapped up and worn by NVIDIA adults, too.

“So we wanted to reference an artist that was playful, to give the robot a playful, fun, emotional connection — and we wanted to convey the multitude of expressions Isaac shows, to convey emotion,” Loeb says.

A shirt in bright blue, vivid reds and electric pink in the style of Andy Warhol’s iconic portrait of Marilyn Monroe celebrating NVIDIA Isaac — the public, robotic face of our NVIDIA Isaac software development kit.

Shirt Off Our Back

But while some of the references can be obscure, many of the shirts have become widely sought after. Chris Betts — a gamer who serves as deputy head of information security for the Dallas Fort Worth Airport — got his first T-shirt a dozen years ago at Quakecon, one of the largest and longest-running gamer gatherings in the world.

Since then, the cheerful Texan — who games on a GeForce GTX 1080 — has amassed 13. Some from gaming events. Others from sellers on eBay. None were purchased from NVIDIA. Betts got his first shirt when the supply of T-shirts during a giveaway at Quakecon ran out and an NVIDIAN took it off his own back and handed it to him.

Ai Aligns with I Am AI

Others have similar stories.

Esmond Ai, a student at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, got his when an NVIDIAN met him at an on-campus event, noted his last name and insisted on getting him one of NVIDIA’s “I Am AI” shirts.

“‘I am AI’ makes a lot of sense to me,” Ai says with a grin.