Designed in 1969, the logo was the collaborative work of Owsley Stanley and artist Bob Thomas. Owsley was inspired by a freeway sign he happened to pass by—a round shape divided by a bold white line into an orange half and a blue half. The general shape and colors stood out, and Owsley had the notion that a blue and red design with a lightning bolt with make a cool logo. He shared his idea with Bob Thomas, who then drew up plans of the design.
Originally, there was no skull face—the logo was simply a circle divided with the lightning bolt. The skull face was added on a few days later, as a way to symbolize the “Grateful Dead.”
The band first used the logo as an identifying mark on their musical equipment, and later the symbol appeared on the inside album jacket of the self-titled album The Grateful Dead. The logo later appeared on the cover of the album Steal your Face, and has been known as the Steal your Face symbol ever since.
Perhaps its the lightning bolt that signifies transformation, enlightenment, and the raw powers of nature, juxtaposed with a skull image and striking, distinct colors that lends to the symbol’s equation to the whole “steal your face” concept. Through the band’s music and the scene and philosophy that the music inspired, people were transformed. Their everyday masks were “cracked” by the honesty, the openness and “realness” of the Grateful Dead culture, and their mundane, limited identities were left behind. The skull and lightning symbol just happens to perfectly symbolize and encapsulate this idea, even though it was created years before the song which eventually came to lend the iconic graphic it its name.
– By Melanie of Grateful Dead Symbols De-Coded