Picture this: You hear the sweet chimes of a children’s song piping loudly from a white sticker-clad truck just down the street. As it turns the bend, you find yourself sprinting, quarters in hand, hoping with every step that you’ll make it in time to taste that decadent chocolate cone (or fruity push pop).

Ah, the ice cream truck — a quintessential slice of childhood and archetype of leisurely summer days. But there’s more to the story than simply serving up cool treats. Through the decades, ice cream truck design has used playful, memorable elements to wow salivating customers and stand out among the competition.

Here we have the scoop on the well-designed truck, how these sweet fleets got their start, and the whimsical, deliberate designs that continue to lure crowds street side today.

Sugar-Coated History

America’s first settlers brought ice cream to the land of opportunity, and the 1920s took these delicious delights on the road. Ice cream wasn’t the first food to be dispensed on city blocks; street food was sold to the businessmen of New York City as far back as the 1860s. The earliest portable ice cream was by way of push carts, but it wasn’t long until Harry Burt of Youngstown, Ohio invented the Good Humor Bar — also known as ice cream on a stick. In the early 1920s, shortly following the bar’s creation, Burt formed the first fleet of a dozen refrigerated ice cream trucks.

One of the first Good Humor trucks, from the 1932 court case of Good Humor vs. Popsicle. Credit: U.S. District Courts/National Archives.
An early Good Humor ad, submitted as evidence in Good Humor vs. Popsicle in 1932. Credit: U.S. District Courts/National Archives.

The Good Humor trucks ruled the road for a few decades, but they certainly weren’t the only game in town. Mister Softee, started by the Conway brothers in West Philadelphia in 1956, upped the game by introducing soft-serve to roadside patrons. Burt sued the Popsicle Corporation and another frozen treats maker, Citrus Products Company, in the 1920s after claiming he had patents on all frozen treats on a stick. He dropped the lawsuit and Good Humor and Popsicle entered into a (short-lived) turf-splitting agreement. Good Humor later sued Popsicle again over sherbet.

Good Humor eventually abandoned its ice cream trucks in 1976, instead choosing to focus on the grocery-store market (though it took them out of retirement last year). Mister Softee, on the other hand, has remained a constant on city and suburb roads thanks to carefully staked-out market territories. (Mister Softee has been in a turf war with other NYC vendors for years.)

Design and Delight

Ice cream truck design — from hand-painted lettering and imagery, to the music announcing its arrival on your block — remains iconic and forever sketched in our collective memory.

New York Ice Cream has been involved in fierce turf wars with Mister Softee trucks. Credit: pio3 / Shutterstock.com.

Many trucks on the road today still evoke this classic imagery, but some vendors have taken chances on changing a tried-and-true formula partly inspired by the food truck renaissance.

Sugar Shack ice cream truck is clearly vintage-inspired but has a cleaner, more modern and streamlined look. Credit: Sugar Shack Ice Cream Truck.

Considering how many food trucks have hit the streets in the past decade, and particularly in the past few years, trucks have to be more eye-catching than ever. Whereas trucks in the past had a mosaic of red-white-and-blue rocket pops and other treats slapped next to service windows, many modern ice cream truck owners (and food truck owners in general) are opting for sandwich board menus next to the truck, or iPad menus allowing customers to swipe through their options.

While the trucks themselves haven’t changed much over time, this particular evolution has allowed for more polished and minimalist design. This change helps reduce the visual clutter on trucks’ exterior walls, leaving room for more striking color palette combinations and graphic components.

Types, Flavors, and Colors

Typography and logo design on ice cream trucks run the gamut from vintage to modern, some featuring hand lettering, while others make use of clean, simple sans-serif fonts or highly stylized graphic lettering.

Cincinatti’s Dojo Gelato uses a bright color palette and a playful, sans-serif font on their gelato truck. Credit Dojo Gelato.

Trucks from companies such as Ann Arbor’s Hello! Ice Cream and the Cincinnati-based Dojo Gelato tout stylized, snappy logos to help grab the cone-crazy crowd’s attention. Hello! keeps it simple with a single logo in a retro font, prominently displayed on each side of the truck, while Dojo finds boldness in simplicity. When it comes to colors, Hello! embraces its old-school truck with an equally old-school palette. Mint green and white with pink-peach accents communicates a fresh and festive feel, while simultaneously highlighting the brand’s throwback quality.

Elsewhere, the highly stylized Recess truck is wrapped top-to- bottom in doodles and phrases spelled out in graphic lettering. The circular fuchsia logo truly pops against the truck’s black-and-white background. Notice the logo is strategically placed on multiple parts of the truck for optimal visibility.

Recess ice cream truck, whose lighthearted doodles were created by Farm Design. Credit: Recesstruck.

The Parfait Organic Artisan Ice Cream truck design reflects a sustainable, organic brand identity. The palette of brown and tan earth tones, and the printed imagery of butterflies and flowers reinforce the brand’s emphasis on using handmade, nature-based ingredients (and may also help patrons visually associate it with certain flavors, such as chocolate, caramel, and toffee).

Parfait’s ice cream truck uses an earthy, monochromatic palette to communicate its organic roots and rich flavors. Credit: Parfait Ice Cream.

Nostalgia Factor

From a psychological standpoint, there are a lot of reasons why people are naturally attracted to vintage items. Whether it’s the act of participating in a company’s history, subconsciously associating careful truck design with product quality, or enjoying a throwback to your own childhood, there are myriad reasons why ice cream truck design hasn’t changed much throughout the decades.

Emack and Bolio’s ice cream truck catches eyes (and stomachs) with its vibrant colors and space-themed drawings that are truly “Out of this world.” Credit: Emack & Bolio’s

Gatsby, the bright blue 1963 ice cream truck for Zsa’s Ice Cream, makes its rounds of Philadelphia with retro curb appeal: a menu affixed to the truck and basic vinyl graphics. Credit: Zsa’s Ice Cream

Check in on #icecreamtrucks on Instagram between May and September and feast your eyes on the trucks roaming American city (and suburb) streets. And the next time you’re in line for a sweet treat, stop and take notice of the truck’s design chops. Whether a look to the past, a more modern evolution or something in between, each truck’s design communicates its unique personality and brand.

Let’s face it, though: The best part of any ice cream truck should always be the ice cream.

Top image by anastasialya