T-Files 028: George Lois

This week I was lucky enough to spend an hour on the phone with George Lois, a veritable legend in the worlds of design, art direction, and advertising. A New Yorker of Greek heritage, in 1959 Lois  worked for the Doyle Dane Bernbach advertising agency for just a year before branching out to found one of his own (along with partners), and then another in 1967. Along the way, he became a legendary adman, coining the term, “The Big Idea.” He is very well known for his iconic series of covers for Esquire magazine, from 1962 to 1972, which were exhibited at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2008. This was followed by a book on the same topic, released this year. George has also provided logos for an impressive selection of companies, including Nickelodeon, MTV, Jiffy Lube, New York magazine, and many more. The list of design awards and accolades attached to his name is of gargantuan proportions, and he has 9 books to his name too. On top of that, he has no end of interesting stories to share…

Where are you today? Right now, I’m at my home. I usually work with my son at his studio.

What are you working on today? Working on scripts for some kind of a TV special that I’m trying to get produced. I can’t tell you what it is. I get involved in all kinds of strange things.

Yes, I’ve noticed! Where do you find inspiration? God…you know I did a book, a couple of years ago, called George Lois on His Creation of the Big Idea. It was a book I always wanted to do because when you talk to creative people they always say, “It came to me in a bolt of lightning.” I explain in the book, I have a hundred things that I’ve done on the right-hand page, and on the left-hand page, something in my DNA, or something in my scholarship, in my learning about the world, 5000 years of the history of art etcetera, something that somehow inspired what I did on the right-hand page. I could be involved in teaching a class of young people already in business, and I’d ask them, “How many of you have been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art this year?” No hands raised, none, not one hand raised. “How many of you have been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the last five years?” Two people raise their hands. I’m always astounded; there’s so much expression in the city of New York. The culture abounds here, left and right, anything you want; opera, theatre, ballet, movies, Off Broadway, the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, etcetera. I’m astounded at the lack of interest and excitement, not just in graphic things for advertising and communications people, but in everything. So if you look at that book, “The Big Idea” comes from your knowledge and your involvement in understanding movies, and going to the movies, and your understanding of sports, and obviously politics. You can be a macho guy and you should still understand the ballet. You should just understand everything there is to understand.

So when you ask where I get my inspiration, specifically, when you talk about the Esquire covers I did, you know I have a new book which just came out which is basically a retrospective of everything at the Museum of Modern Art, and I explain that when I did my first Esquire cover, I did them on the weekends, I squeezed them in, you know? People ask how much experience I had doing covers, and I say I never did a magazine cover in my life. They ask, “How did you know what to do?” Every advertisement, every piece of design communication that you’re about to do, you understand that you have to immediately surprise and, in many times, shock people, and is controversial or thrilling and has to absolutely be memorable. It should be so memorable that if 20 years from now I should mention something, you should say, “Oh I know that, well.” You know? So when I was asked by Harold Hayes [Esquire editor ’from 61-‘73], to show him what kind of covers can be done, the first time I talked to him, he was creating the covers, and five editors sat down with a bunch of the designers and they’d sit there and have a meeting once a month on what topic they should use from the coming issue. Then they’d all go away and come back a couple of days later, and each person would come in with an idea or two, and they’d all listen to the ideas, and 4 or 5 would interest them and…I told him, that’s ridiculous! He said, “Well, how would you do it?” I said, “Obviously you don’t have anybody there who has the passion or understanding of how to do a great cover, because otherwise they’d be running up to you and saying, ‘Why don’t you do this?’ so go outside and find somebody.” And he said, “Like a freelancer? How could anybody possibly understand my magazine who doesn’t work here?” I said, “You get a great graphic designer, and someone who understands politics,” and who understands all the things I was talking about before; 5000 years of the history of art, and understands movies, someone who understands sports, and is literate etcetera. “Then you show what’s coming up in the magazine and let them pluck something out and do a cover for you.” And he thought I was crazy. I started to give him names and he said, “No, George, do me a favor, please, can you do me just one goddamn cover? Just one?” So I said, “Sure, ok, tell me what’s in your next issue.” He said, “The cover’s due next week so I’ll give you the one after that.” I said, “Give me what’s due next week.” I think it was a Thursday, and he needed it on Tuesday. I said, “I’ll deliver a cover to you on Tuesday. Tell me what’s in the issue.” So he went through a whole bunch of things, and he almost didn’t mention it but he said, “Oh, and also, we have a spread where I show a photograph of Sonny Liston.” He was challenging Floyd Patterson for the world heavyweight championship. Floyd was the champion and he was the favorite. So that’s going to be in the issue, a week or so before the fight. I went away, and he thought I was really crazy, and that Tuesday I delivered a cover, and I got a guy who was built like Floyd Patterson, and even though he was a big, big favorite, I’m a sports fan and I know more than the writers, and I knew Sonny Liston was gonna destroy him, I just knew it. So what I did is, I was predicting the fight, and I was predicting the champion would be knocked out, and not only knocked out, but left for dead. In boxing, if you lose, they leave you for dead, but it was also a metaphor for life, you know? In business, or in anything, if you lose, everybody forgets about you, and leaves you for dead.

So I sent him the cover, and we’re on the phone and he says, “George, I’ve never seen a cover like this in my life.” So I said, “Yeah, that’s my job.” And he says, “But George, you’re calling the fight, and you’re calling it contrary to what every sportswriter in America is saying. You’re crazy!” I said, “No, you’re crazy, because you’re gonna run it.” In any case, I found out years later, that he actually showed it to everybody, all his editors and the publishers, and everybody hated it. Everybody laughed at it. Everybody thought it was ridiculous. The only reason it ran was that he threatened to quit if they didn’t run it. When the issue came out, on the publisher’s page, one of the guys who had founded the magazine, a guy by the name of Arnold Gingrich, he literally said, “You see that cover? We had nothing to do with it. We don’t agree with it. A young designer by the name of George Lois did it, and we don’t think he’s right about it.” There was literally a disclaimer. And the issue came out, and as expected, everybody pooh-poohed it, and laughed at it. It was on TV, and sportswriters were holding it up and saying, “Look at this!” Anyway, the fight came on, Liston knocked him down four times in the first round and it was all over. Esquire had the biggest newsstand sales in the history of the magazine. And I found out later they were deeply, deeply in the red. I talked to the editors a few years later and they said they didn’t even expect a paycheck that week, that’s how badly the magazine was in trouble. Harold didn’t tell me any of this. He had started to create a really great magazine, and the covers didn’t let you know that. I was a hotshot art director in advertising and once a month there was a story in the New York Times about me, and that‘s what made him come to me and ask me if I had any advice on how to do a cover. People say to me, “How did you have the balls to do those incredible images?” I say, “It was easy for me to create them, Harold had the balls.”

At the time, in the ’60s, it was still the Jim Crow South. The racism was rampant. It was all over the country, but really down South. Many of the advertisers of Esquire magazine were Southern mills, and Southern accounts. One Christmas, Harold said, “You gotta give ‘em a goddamn Christmas cover!” It was a time of racial tension. I’m kind of a leftwing liberal, you know, so what I did is I got the meanest motherfucker in the world, Sonny Liston, and he was a mean, bad man, and I showed him as the first black Santa. If I had done the cover with the great Joe Louis, who even most whites revered back then, it still would have been a shock. But the real shock was showing the last man white America would want to see come down its chimney, and that was Sonny Liston. And I did that, and I sent it to Harold, and he almost dropped dead, he was so excited. I told him we were going to get into a lot of trouble, and lose a lot of advertisers, and you know what he said? “Yeaaaaah!” He understood what I was doing. He understood that I was just raising hell. I was saying on the covers, that this magazine is hot shit, this magazine is not your usual magazine, and that this magazine was on the edge of the culture, in fact, ahead of the culture. So he understood what I was doing and I understood what he was doing, because he was doing the same thing with his articles. But for the months before I did the covers, you didn’t know it. The only people who knew it were the people who were buying it and there were 480,000, but when I started doing the covers, we went to 2 million. They were deeply in the red when I first started doing the covers and 6-8 months later, they were doing a couple of million dollars a year, which was a big, big thing back then. It was gigantic. So it all comes back to your question about inspiration – it’s all built into my DNA, and my understanding of what’s going on in the world. I never had trouble getting an idea.

Did you ever have a hard time executing the ideas? Such as with The Champ posing as Saint Sebastian? It was a scream with Muhammad. What was great about Harold is, he agreed with me instinctively about politics. After Ali became a Muslim, and he was viciously attacked by everybody, and then he was hated because he refused to fight in that terrible goddamned war, 9 out 10 people in America hated him. I told Harold, “I want to do a cover defending Muhammad Ali, are you with me?” And he said, “Absolutely.” Most editors in America would have said “No way!” He asked me what I wanted to do and told him I wanted to go and talk to Floyd Patterson. What had happened a couple of months before, was Floyd, who was a good Christian, in the best sense of the word, he was caught up in the whole hysteria about Ali and he refused to call him Muhammad Ali. He kept calling him Cassius Clay, and then he really rubbed it in and said he was going to bring the championship back to America, meaning a Muslim should not be the champion of the world. Muhammad was furious, really, really furious. I never saw him mad at a fighter before. Yeah, he gave everybody a hard time with his funny stuff, but he was never that furious. What he did was, in the fight, he probably could have knocked him out in the 2nd or 3rd round but instead, when it looked like Floyd could go down, he backed off, going “What’s my name? What’s my name?” and kept him standing for 10 or 11 rounds and finally knocked him out. You know, Floyd was in the hospital for two months. I told Harold I wanted to go to Floyd Patterson and for him to come out in support of Muhammad Ali. Harold said, “Why would Floyd do that?” And I said, “Because I know him, and I know he’s a good guy.” I went to Floyd and talked him into it, without much argument. It was a tremendous controversy. Everybody was shocked because here was the guy who should have the biggest reason in the world to hate him, and he was coming out and defending him.

A year passed and I said to Harold, “I want to do another cover with Ali. I want to show him as Saint Sebastian, as a martyr.” Harold went, “Wowwwww!” Half the covers I did, everybody at Esquire hated them. They were all afraid of the advertisers. Harold and I knew that you don’t create a magazine for the advertisers, and you don’t create a magazine for the readers, you create for yourself. You create a magazine with the passion of what you want to talk about, and if you know what you’re talking about, and do a great job, you’ll get the readers. We were getting millions of young college readers, by the way, the brightest and the best. So anyway, I call up Muhammad, and they took away his title and his license, and he was appearing at colleges, making speeches, so I said, “I wanna shoot you as Saint Sebastian.” So he shows up, he dresses, he puts on his trunks and stuff. I found a painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and I showed him the postcard of it, and I said, “Ok, Muhammad, I want you to pose like this.” And he’s looking at the postcard, and he said, “Hey George, this cat’s a Christian!” So I said, “No shit! He’s a saint! But he’s the symbol of martyrdom throughout the world. This image of you is going to be an image that talks about race, religion, and the Vietnam War all at once.” I told him it was gonna be an iconic shot. And he said, “But George, I’m Muslim, I can’t pose as a Christian.” I said, “Oh my God. Who can I talk to? Can I talk to Elijah Muhammad?” He was his leader in the Nation of Islam. He goes, “I guess so.” So he gives me the phone, and I do about 20 minutes with Elijah Muhammad. We’re talking theology, he asked what religion am I, I said Greek Orthodox, he asked if I was a believer and I told him I was, which is a lie, but that’s ok. Finally he said, “Young man, that sounds like a very exciting image, put Muhammad on,” and he told him to go ahead.

Incredible. Can we talk about your logo design? Oh sure. That’s funny, I’m working on a logo book right now. I haven’t gone to a publisher yet, but I’m gonna go to Assouline in another 2-3 months and have it produced for maybe a year from now or so. It’s funny because a lot of people don’t really understand how many logos I’ve done. I started to gather all my logos a month or so ago, and I think I’ve got 135 or so, so far, 135 that I really love. The book’s gonna be the Lois Logo.

A lot of your logos incorporate a hand drawn lettering into them… My logos are human. I don’t do abstractions. I do logos that when you look at them, you get it. One of my logos was a great chain of restaurants, a kind of a German hotdog place, called Zumzum, and the words are made to look like sausages, beautifully designed. You look at it, and you get it. There’s a logo for Jiffy Lube, where you drive in to a station and they change your oil, and what it is, it’s like a directional sign. My logos really let you know what it is. That doesn’t mean that the type isn’t beautiful. I showed a great designer friend of mine Tony Palladino, I showed him my book of logos, and he’s turning page by page, he’s falling down, he’s going “Wowwww.” Because you look at them, and you get it. Most logos, when you look at it, you don’t get it. You only get it if somebody spends $20. $30, $40, $200 million in advertising, then they become known.

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