A conversation with the design guru at Big Think.
George Lois is a pioneering advertising executive and designer best known for a series of covers he created for Esquire magazine between 1962 and 1972 (some of which were featured in an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in 2008). He coined the phrase “I want my MTV!” created a new gourmet frozen foods marketing category with Lean Cuisine, and has devised memorable ads for companies ranging from Jiffy Lube to USA Today to Tommy Hilfiger. He is also the author of nine books about advertising and design, including “George, Be Careful,” “$ellebrity,” and “Iconic America.”
Question: When did you know you wanted to be a designer?
George Lois: From the time I was three or four years old, I drew all the time. Drew all the time, every second. When I worked in my father’s florist, he was a, from the old country, and he was a Greek immigrant, along with my mother, but when I worked, and I worked at his store as a good Greek son always did, I drew all the time and when I was in the store and I wasn’t actually working, I was drawing, drawing, drawing, drawing, drawing.
I was at the High School of Music and Art, I call it the greatest school of learning since Alexander sat at the feet of Aristotle, but I took design courses among, you know, along with history of art courses and along with academic courses. And I had a flair for it, whatever that means, but at the very beginning of the design courses, they were basically, you know, kind of a retro, you know, Kandinskys and […] and Paul Klees, and we did designs with circles and then we did a design with circles and triangles, and then with the circles, triangles, and squares, etc., rectangles. And at the end of my very first term, after doing that for a term, you know, along with all my other courses, he, Mr. Patterson gave us a beautiful 18 x 24 sheet of Strathmore, expensive sheet of Strathmore, must have cost at least a quarter in those days, which was big bucks. And he said, “What we’re going to do in the next hour and a half will be one half of your mark for the term.” You know, we had dozens and dozens of them. And he said, “And the subject this time is rectangles—period.” And everybody started to work and I just sat there for an hour and a half and I didn’t move, just kind of looked around the room. And he was furious, you know, you could see him walking around, everyone trying to, everybody busy as hell cutting out squares and, you know, and doing a shape here, doing Maleviches, you know, red-shape-blue-shape… and I didn’t move. And an hour and a half later he said, “Time’s up.” And he started to pick up, he was furious, he was turning red, and he came up to me and he went to grab my 18 x 24 sheet and I said, “Hold it just a minute, Mr. Patterson,” and I wrote, I stuck my name, my signature in the corner, and I handed him a 18 x 24 rectangle. And he still didn’t get it, he was furious. And he tore it away, and I said, “Oh, my God, he didn’t get it, oh, boy.” And I came in the next morning and there were two or three teachers in the hallway who stopped me and they said, “George, what you did for Mr. Patterson’s class was brilliant,” he obviously had gone into the locker room or something as they were leaving school and he said, “What’s wrong with that George Lois? You know, he’s a terrific student and he’s, he… he did nothing, he just handed me an 18 x 24… rectangle.”
Anyway, that was kind of a, I’ve always said that was kind of a, my epiphany, my self-induced epiphany, when I realized that, and I made public, over at the High School of Music and Art, that any problem, any design problem, any communications problem, there’s a chance to do something unusual, exciting, dramatic, unique. And my whole career is based on the fact that everything I work on, what I have to create, whether it’s an advertisement or, you know, a music video, or a magazine cover or promotion piece, that my answer’s got to be totally surprising and unique and thrilling.
So somehow in that first year at the High School of Music and Art, I knew what I was going to be, some kind of a communicator, a designer—and also, I was really inspired greatly by the work of Paul Rand, who at that time, that was ’45, and I was 14 years old, and he must have been like 26 or something, he was a wunderkind, and he was a, he was writing and creating his own advertising for people, for clients like Orbach’s, and he was doing IBM logos, etc. And it was thrilling to look at his work, not that my work is anything near what his is, but I was thrilled with the idea that you could work as a communicator, as a designer, as an advertising guy, and create your own work and not be a whore. And not do, you know, awful, terrible work. So that inspired.
Question: How did you get into advertising?
George Lois: Well, I started in advertising, after the High School of Music and Art, that was all, that was basically my graphic arts training, as far as I’m concerned, it was, you know, it was four incredible years. I then went to Pratt Institute and I met my future wife that first day of school, and I was nuts about her. And I realized after one or two, after a week of Pratt that they weren’t anywhere near as the High School of Music and Art, but I stuck it out, because I wasn’t about to leave her. And I went through the first year and then the second year, I didn’t quite know what to do, and I knew the school was so awful. But I went to my first classes at the second year, and again, I ran into another great mentor, a teacher by the name of Herschel Levit, and he looked at my, and he saw what I did for him and he said, “George, why are you, why are you in school?” And I said, “I’m trying to make a living, you know?” And he said, “No, no, get out of here, you’re not going to learn any more here,” and he gave me a piece of paper with a woman’s name—a woman art director, which was very unique back then—who had an art studio, and she sent me to him the next, and I went there the next morning and I left school in the, in my second, before my, actually my second year started. And she did promotion and advertising, et cetera, it was a great, great first job because she was a superb designer. What happened was I lost my exemption in the army, it was during the Korean War, and I got drafted and wound up going to Korea, came back alive… and she wanted me to be a partner with her, and I didn’t want to. And she said, “What do you want to do?” “I really want to work at CBS Television,” because it was a really dynamic time in corporate imagery and corporate design with the great Bill Golden at the head of it, they had just done the CBS eye, et cetera. So I went in at CBS and it was incredible atelier of design and advertising. But somehow, it wasn’t the big, it wasn’t the big time advertising, you know, worked on products, et cetera.
And from there, and so I left there, you know, and Bill Golden said to me in ’53 or ’54, whatever it was, ’54, “George, you can’t go out there, it’s a world of, the ad world is terrible, they’re all Philistines, they’re all hacks.” And he was right, you know, he said, “You’re not going to be happy there, they’re not going to appreciate your talent.” And I said, “Well, I,” well, somehow, something drove me to do it, and … the job I went to was pretty awful, and a lot of stories… seemingly apocryphal but actually true… when I kind of acted up in my first agency and overturned a desk, etc., did some kind of crazy stuff.
After that I went, and I worked with some of the great, other great pioneers in advertising, and advertising designer, Herb Lubalin and I worked, then I went to Doyle Dane Bernbach and worked for Bill Bernbach and Bob Gage. And again, I did something insane: I left Doyle Dane, I went to Bill Bernbach and I told him I was leaving to start the second creative agency in the world, because Bill Bernbach had started the only creative agency in the world. And the reason he started it, it was based on the fact that he had worked with Paul Rand early in his career and somehow he understood that if you worked with good, terrific graphic designer, especially one who was prolific and could write like Paul Rand, that you could do better advertising if you worked, if the art director could work, could conceive advertising with the writer… up to that time, basically all advertising was, the art director sat in his room with his thumb up his ass and waited for the creative director, for the copywriter to come in and throw him a piece of paper and say, “Make a layout.” You know, “Lay this out,” and the layouts were, you know, these typical, awful, you know, unambitious layouts.
So I left Doyle Dane Bernbach and when I left Doyle Dane Bernbach, Bill Bernbach said to me, “George, you don’t know what’s out there.” You know, the they could, and he literally said that Doyle Dane Bernbach was basically a creative freak, that somehow they were miraculous, a group of people that somehow together could forget a great advertising, and it couldn’t happen again, not in this Philistine world. But I started an agency called Papert, Koenig, Lois, with two writers actually, and we were successful almost immediately, almost immediately. And then after a couple, one, two, or three years, coming out of my agency were two other agencies, you know, Carl Ally and a guy named […] and then another guy left my agency and started, went into business with Mary Wells and started, Wells Rich Greene, and before you knew it, by the mid ’60’s, you know, I realized that I had triggered, with starting that second creative agency, I had triggered something called the creative revolution in advertising. And it became the golden age of advertising, I mean, the ’60’s and ’70’s, basically was the golden age of advertising, in advertising.
Question: How true is the show “Mad Men” to the atmosphere back then?
George Lois: The producers of “Mad Men,” you know, think I hate their show, which is true. You know, when they first started the show, before it premiered, I got a call from one of the producers and he said, “You know, we’re looking at, we’re shooting, we’re doing little spots with the people who were the original ‘mad men,'” he said, “Of the period. And, you know, we’re shooting it,” and he named four, five, or six people. I had never heard of a couple of them. “And whoever we talk to mentions your name.” I said, “Time out. You’re doing a show on the advertising of the ’60’s and you never heard my name?” He said, “Oh, no, we’ve heard your name.” I said, “Bullshit, you never heard my name.” “Well, okay.” I said, “If you want to know what happened in the ’60’s, if you want a real understanding of what happened in the ’60’s, I did a book in 1972 called ‘George Be Careful.'” Which is basically, you know, my story about growing up in New York and, you know, growing up in the New York School of Design, I became one of the wunderkinds of the New York School of Design, and how I started, you know, the second creative agency in the world and how that became the creative… it’s all about the ’60’s, etc.” And I called it “George Be Careful” because when I was a kid, you know, I remember the hand of God coming into my bedroom, you know, it was Michelangelo’s hand, and it said, “George, be careful,” and my mother, my mother told me, that George, all my life, my mother told me “Be careful.” My father, my sisters, my coaches in sports, you know, my, when I went into the army they’re telling me to be careful. And then when you go into advertising, that’s when everybody tells you to be careful, you know? Anything, you know, anything unusual, anything over the top, anything edgy, you can’t do that. So “George, Be Careful” was my anti-slogan. “And if you wanted to know anything about the advertising of the ’60’s and the advertising world of the ’60’s, read that book. Goodbye.” You know, and was saying fuck you… and he called me back a couple days later, I had told him to go get the book at Amazon because it was out of print. He called me up a couple days later and he says, “Oh, Jesus, wow, we could have done the show on that!” I said, “No, shit,” you know, because that was the ’60’s, anybody who knows anything about the media world, anything, you know, anything about it, when you mention the ’60’s and you mention advertising in the ’60’s, they don’t think, now they think of “Mad Men,” of that dumb show. Before that they thought of it as a heroic age, of really, of the age that I was talking about, about… leaving Doyle Dane Bernbach was a giant part of it obviously, and then with another three or four agencies after that kind of came out of my agency, that was the most heroic age in media communications since the twelve apostles.
Question: What is your concept of “The Big Idea?”
George Lois: Well, you know, to oversimplify, the “big idea” is a concept that takes the unique selling… the unique virtues of a product and searing it into somebody’s, into people’s minds that somehow forces a extraordinary sales increase in whatever you’re talking about. But, you know, and I always talk about the big idea, I’m kind of called the Mr. Big Idea. You know, but what I’m really talking about is true creativity. And I say creativity, you know, can solve almost any problem. The creative act, you know, the defeat of habit by originality can overcome everything.
But at the same time that I talk about the creative act, I really tell people who are trying to do creative work that creativity isn’t really a creative act, it’s an act of discovery. And they look at you like, “Huh?” You know? And I did a book called “George Lois on His Creation of the Big Idea,” you know, where I show 100 things I did on the right-hand page and on the left-hand page, before I show something in my DNA, something in my understanding of 7,000 of art, something in my understanding of movies, of ballet, of sports, of humor, of dirty jokes, whatever it is, something in there that inspired what I did. And I tell the young people especially, you know, that that background, of high art and pop art and intellectual background of understanding the world around you, and especially, you know, the 7,000 years of art, is essential to doing creative work, and that once you have that understanding, you know, and that ethos of trying to understand everything, when you have any kind of a problem, if you then look at the problem and look at the competitor, and et cetera, and get your basic information… once you really understand the problem, the answer is, the answer it there. It’s like floating by and all you got to do is grab it. It really isn’t an act of creativity, it’s an act of discovery. I sound very mystical talking about it, but I absolutely, that’s absolutely what creativity is to me. If I learn all that there is to learn about something and I know I’m ready to come up with an answer, it’s there. And it’s not a bolt of lightening, what it is, is coming out of your own, out of your own sensibilities and your own understanding of the world.
Question: Is it a methodical process or is it organic?
George Lois: The method is to be interested in everything and the organic part of it is a passion for everything around you, the passion for, you know. I mean, you know, I, when I teach a class at the School of Visual Arts as a favor to somebody, and I’ll say to a class of 25, once the, once, “Have any of you been to the Museum of, Metropolitan Museum of Art this year?” Okay. “Have any of you been to MOMA this year?” One hand. “Have any of you never been to the Museum of Modern Art?” You know, five people, eight people, you know. I’m astounded, you know, I’m just truly astounded, you know. Talking to design students and people who are supposed to be communicators, you don’t, so, you know, that total, that’s why when people say today, how, they say, when is the second creative revolution going to come? I said, “No.” I said, “I mean, you got the Internet and you got Google and you got all the information at your fingertips and they don’t know shit, nobody knows shit.” You know?
Question: What’s the worst design advice you’ve ever heard?
George Lois: One of the great books in advertising, “The Confessions of an Ad Man,” you know, by David Ogilvy. Every word in there is the wrong, absolutely wrong. Every wrong. And when I was working at Doyle Dane Bernbach in 1959, I got conned by his copy chief into coming to see Ogilvy and I, you know, I said, “Well, you’re talking to the wrong guy,” and they begged me to come and I went and Ogilvy is trying to hire me as their head art director, you know. I think at one point I said I’d be the head art director if I could become the creative chief. He was the creative chief, you know. If I was the creative chief, I could do great advertising here. You know, but, and I told him, “Mr. Ogilvy, I don’t know why you’re trying to hire me, because I don’t understand one word, I don’t believe, I don’t agree with one word in your book.” I mean, he had, you know, he had the rules of this and your logo’s got to be here, and he’s got, I mean, he’s got rules. There are no rules in advertising, it’s impossible, you know? I mean, the only rule in advertising is there are no rules, you know?
Question: What’s the best design advice you’ve ever heard?
George Lois: The best? What I’m saying to you now.
Question: What do you think of magazine covers today?
George Lois: Look at the news stand, you know? I mean, it’s a cacophony of famous people or people who want to be famous with blurbs all around it, and it’s supposed to be, you know, that’s supposed to be creativity in journalism. My God, it’s unbelievable. It’s shocking. I mean, how can 200 magazines, you know, do the same cover, you know? That’s always there. And advertising, go home and watch advertising. You watch commercials on TV and I don’t, really, I’m not kidding, I don’t really understand what the hell, I mean, half of them, I don’t understand what they’re talking about, you know. And most people don’t understand, even if they see something that they kind of enjoy, they don’t remember the name of the product. So, I mean, think, I don’t see, I mean, these people who keep talking about we’re on the advent of coming up with the creative revolution, I don’t see it, you know. I don’t. At the same time, I know there’s got to be talent out there, I’m not sure who’s telling them what to do.
You have to have an understanding that everything, go back to what I said before, everything you do, you have to have a […]. If you come up with an idea, a big idea, if you show it to somebody, your wife, or friend, or a client, they should go, “Holy shit.” Your head shouldn’t go back and forth, you know? It should be such, it should be such a surprising idea, the only chance you have to do anything that’s memorable, is it has to be a shock when you first see it, you know? And what people do is they, they just show the, the work is so unambitious, you know? I mean, television commercials are little films, you know, something’s going on and you don’t quite know what’s going on and you say, “Well, what is it about?” And then you’re looking for the, who the client is, and then when you see it, you say, “I don’t get it,” you know.
So, I find it’s a wasteland of creativity, unfortunately. And I can’t believe there isn’t talent out there, because I, you know, people, I have fans who confess, you know, a love of my work, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, there’s got to be something they got to learn from it. What they got to be learning from it is that when you do something, it should be a knockout idea, you know? And in most cases, certainly, certainly in, which I only did for 10 years for Esquire and, you know, and then in the Museum of Modern Art.
But you have to, you know, when you, every cover is, when it was on the newsstand, some people went, I mean, the culture went ape shit on some of them. They looked at it and went, “Whoa!” You know, go to a newsstand today, there’s not a memorable, forget about something being culturally… being a culture buster, there’s nothing there that you can possibly remember. There’s an ad today about, a Hearst ad today, but with three magazines, they talk about they’re getting awards, et cetera, et cetera, and you look at the covers and, I don’t know, they’re nothing, you know, they’re all the same cover, you know.
Question: Do designers have less creative freedom today than in the 60’s?
George Lois: Oh, no, that’s the big problem. You know, I mean, I’m talking about people, about young designers not being ambitious enough, etc., etc. One of the problems is that, you know, certainly in magazine design there’s a lot of terrific talent doing editorial. I mean, when you get the, Society of Publication Designers sends me their awards every year, a book, you know, and you look through it and there’s a lot of terrific spreads in it and a lot of exciting stuff going on. You know there’s talent there, and then they show the best covers of the year and they’re nothing, you know?
Question: What was so unique about your celebrated Esquire covers?
George Lois: Everything. It was the editor, you know, when Harold Hayes came to me, he had just basically taken over the ownership of the magazine, even though he had been responsible for the last five or six, seven issues. And he had been reading in 1960, in 1962, about my ad agency and the reason that it struck him is because it was an art director, it was the first ad agency, Papert, Koenig & Lois, where there was an art director in the masthead. And the stories were all about my advertising, there were, you know, every month there was a big story in the New York Times, at least, about campaigns I had done. So he was looking at an avid art director’s exciting work and something made him call me on how to get advice on how to do covers. I had never done a cover in my life. And when he called me, and when I saw him, I thought he was trying to get advertising for my ad agency and I was being nice to talk to him, because I had been reading the magazine, I knew it was a terrific magazine. And he basically said, “I need advice, how do you,” and I said, “Well, how do you do them now? How do you do your covers now?” He said, “Well, you know, four or five of us editors sit down with three or four people in the design department we have a long discussion about, and we try to come up with the, what topic in the issue coming up should be the subject of a cover.” I said, “Yeah?” And then he said, “And then we all go away, we come back two or three days later, we each of us have one or ideas on what the cover should be, and maybe there’s five or six of them, that we don’t quite know, so we pick them up and we cop them up,” and I said, “Oh, my God, group fucking grope.” And he said, “Huh?” And I said, “Group grope.” I said, “Is that the way you work with Mailer and Talese and, you know, he said, “No, of course not.” I said, “Well, obviously you don’t have anybody there who knows how to, somebody young comes to you and says, ‘Hey, Harold why don’t we do this?’ So, go out,” now, basically I was saying, “Get a freelancer.” So he said, “Who? How do you,” I said, “Well, you know, get somebody who understands the culture, who’s kind of ahead of the culture, who’s literate, who understands, who loves politics, who likes, loves the opera and theater music, and then, you know, and he can tell a dirty joke and he’s… somebody who understands the culture.” And I gave him a couple of names that might, with people who might be able to do it. And he said, he was southern, he was a southern liberal, kind of an oxymoron, and he said, “Hey, pal, can you do me just one favor? I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about, can you do me one cover.” And I said, “Oh, I’ll do you one cover.” And I said, “When’s the next issue due, when’s the next cover due?” And he said, “Next Tuesday, but let me give you time.” I said, “I’ll do it for next Tuesday. What’s in the issue?” And he said, “I don’t have it here.” I said, “Describe it, tell me, you know, a sentence for each story.” So he told me this, this, this, this, this. And one of the things he mentioned was a spread with a photo and a short piece on Floyd Patterson, who was the champion of the world, and Sonny Liston, who was the challenger and Floyd was in the upcoming fight, was a big favorite, big 5-to-1 favorite, too fast for Liston, et cetera, et cetera, and I said, “Well, so the issue is going to come out, you know, the issue will come out a week before, the fight.” I said, “Okay,” and I went away and I did a cover, I got a guy who looked like Patterson, you know, 6 foot, not too muscley and I showed him, and I called the fight. I basically said everybody is wrong about it, he’s not going to win the fight, he’s going to get destroyed by Liston and I show Patterson laying flat, you know, in the middle of the ring, left for dead. You know, nobody, nobody in the arena, his handlers are gone, the press is gone, 20,000 people are gone. It was a metaphor for, metaphor not only for sports, for boxing, you know, you lose you’re, you’re dead, but a metaphor for any walk of life, you know, when you’re a loser, they leave you for dead.
Anyway… when he called me up and he said, “Oh, my God, I never saw a cover like this in my life,” and I said, “Yeah, that’s right.” He said, “But you’re calling the fight.” “No shit.” “You’re crazy, suppose you’re wrong?” I said, “50/50 chance I’m right, you know? And if I’m right, you’re a genius, and if I’m wrong, you know, hey, you played the game.” But I said, “I’m right,” you know, I really told him, “I am absolutely right.” And anyway, I found out many years later, it ran because he said he would quit if the publisher turned it down. In fact, when the issue came out, the publisher, Arnold Gingrich, wrote an editorial saying, “You see that cover? See our cover? We have nothing to do with it.” Absolutely true.
Anyway, when the cover came out, when the issue came out, the, it was the laughingstock of the sports world and they totally, don’t be ridiculous, you know. Five or six days later, Liston destroyed him, and they were geniuses then, the biggest news stand sales in the history. And found out later there were guys, editors I met only a couple years ago that said when that, when the cover came out, they thought it was the end of Esquire. Because they didn’t, almost didn’t expect a paycheck anyway, they were so deeply in the red, the magazine was. I found out later that they were really in trouble, financially, and what happened from the time I started doing the covers for almost ten years is the circulation went from 500,000 to 2 million and, you know, with cover after cover, you know, some incredibly controversial, but you know, anti-war, the only mass magazine in America that dared speak out against the Vietnam war, in fact, we were the leading, we were the leading people in the media in America against the Vietnam war. And in the support of Muhammad Ali, who was a hated fighter at the time of… after he became a Muslim and refused to fight in that terrible war, you know.
And that only all happened because of Hayes, because people say, “Boy, it took some balls to do those covers, Lois,” I said, “It didn’t take balls to do the covers, it took him balls to run it, you know?” In fact, you know, I’d call him up and I’d say, I was sending a cover to him and I always chose my own, a topic, from what he showed me. Sometimes he talked about what was coming up in the magazine and I knew the topic that he was basically excited about, I had to do, because it was that important. But in many times, I picked, you know, like that cover I did, I told you about, for the first issue, was just a spread that they put in at the last minute, you know. But I’d call him up and I’d say, “Cover’s about to get to you, Harold,” and I said, “This one’s going to really get us in trouble.” And he’d say, “Yeah.” And when I meant trouble, I meant he would lose, not only would he get bombed by senators and congressmen and God knows who, and write, and people writing in, you know, death threats sometimes… losing advertising clients. Because Esquire had many clients down south, they did a lot of, you know, men’s wear and a lot of the mills were down south. And there was the time of the Jim Crow South. I mean, it was a time of real racism going on in America, there’s always racism in America, but that was when it was rabid and rampant.
Question: Has the digital age made design better or worse?
George Lois: No, it’s changed it, oh, for worse, because somehow, you know, growing up with the Internet and growing up with stuff on the screen and filling it, filling the page with information, look at, look at most magazines today. Look at even the great magazines today, you know, like a Vanity Fair, it’s just jammed with, and New Yorker, it’s just jammed with information and copy, et cetera, it’s almost like it’s an extension of the TV, of what people are used to. When you talk about “white space,” which used to be a big thing in school, in graphic art school, you know, when you talked how to, should have white space, but they knew what they were talking about. They were talking about gee, sometimes when there’s an idea that you, that you need the expanse, you need to, you know, the great pioneers in advertising, in editorial design in the ’20s and ’30s was a guy by the name of Dr. Oger and Alexi Brodovich for Vogue magazine and, you know, the Irving Penns and the Avedons, and all graphic designers learn somehow from that kind of experience of a spread that had some kind of vitality to it. And when you look at the Internet, there’s a load of information, but there’s no design vitality and there’s no attempt for design vitality. I mean, even most people’s Web sites, where you have a chance to do something, to express something, you know.
Question: What do you think of Apple’s new iPad?
It’s not so much, you know, I’m not down on the iPad or whatever they do. But I’m for the magazine, I’m for the visceral excitement of a magazine. I mean, to this day, you know, when I get magazines, and they don’t have to even be a great magazine, you know, you turn the page and, you know, when you lay it on your knees, it’s like a lap dance, you know? I mean, it’s a visceral thing, you know? And I can’t see, you know, if I was a really young, a young man today, to say what would you be doing… I’d create a magazine. You know, I’d create a magazine and have people say, “Holy shit, did you see that cover?” Then open it, “Wow, did you see that there? Nothing like it. It’s a revolution in journalism.” You know? A graphic designer, you know, who understands ideas and understands that ideas are what makes the world go round, could change the world with a magazine. If one talent could do it right now, and everybody would stop saying it’s the death of magazines.
Question: So why don’t you?
George Lois: Oh, I’m trying, I’m trying. No, it’s funny because people said, well, you know, were you ever sorry you weren’t a movie director or this or that and I say, yeah, when I’ve able to be, to work on being a graphic designer and being in advertising, etc., was I, I’d done hundreds, thousands of commercials, you know, the music video–best music video ever done to this day, [Bob Dylan’s] “Jokerman.” Kurt Loder still says it’s the best music video ever. You know, I’ve done, you know, sales films that would knock you down they were so exciting. You know, I designed logos, I designed packages, you know, I designed an ad agency, I designed space, you know? You know, I mean, every part of, you know, I could be a Renaissance man, in a sense, doing all of those things… including the concept for New York magazine, actually the first design for it, the first logo for New York magazine, I did as a supplement for the Harold Tribune in 1962 or 1963. And in fact, Harold Hays was at my office one day, I think it was ’63, might have been ’62, and he saw me working on a magazine and he said, “What are you doing?” I said, “Well, I’m doing the, I do the advertising for the New York Herald Tribune,” and he knew that because I was doing a very exciting campaign: “Who Says The Newspaper Has To Be Dull?” In fact, I was producing a commercial for the Tribune. Every night, I would get the front page and write a script and a shooting script in a cab and produce a commercial every night that would go on every night, you know.
In any case, and it was a big success, and I said, “Well, I’m selling the hell out of the newspaper, daily paper, I can’t, Sunday paper can’t do anything with it, because you can’t compete with the Times… So I’m doing a supplement, I’m trying to get them to understand that they can do a supplement called “New York” and if you did it right, you do it beautifully designed, you get terrific writing, et cetera, et cetera, and it could be a combination of,” I said, “Of the New Yorker and Q Magazine, you know, telling you about specific things to do, and if you did that, you know, you could sell another 200, 300,000, 400,000 copies just because of that terrific supplement.” And Harold’s looking at it, and this was only, I’ve only been, I was only doing covers for him for half a year or so, and he said, “George, if you, if I left Esquire right now and you left your agency, we should do this magazine and we should do magazines because it’s a city magazine,” he said, “And we could do a city magazine, or seven or eight magazines currently,” and I remember for a second saying, “Holy shit, that’s a real big idea, that’s big think.” But of course, he didn’t do it because I had an ad agency and he was doing, but when you say why didn’t, why didn’t I do it now? I say, well… it’s not that I’m old and tired… I supposedly retired in the year 2000, my wife says I’m not retired, I’m just tired. But I’m not, because I work all the time, I work with my son, Luke, and we do stuff all the time, we’re doing advertising, you know, we’re working on a script and shooting script for a TV special, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
But, you know, you never can tell, I might do a magazine.
Question: What would you need to get back into magazines?
George Lois: I would have to work with an editor who basically treated me the way Harold did and treated me as a big talent. He should treat me at least as good as he treated Gay Talese, and that’s what he did with me. He said, “You know, I deal with the Taleses and the Mailers and the Loises, and they do their thing. That doesn’t mean he didn’t edit those guys, you know, which he absolutely did, you know? Because even a great writer needs editing. But he didn’t edit, he didn’t edit or change one thing on anything I ever did. I mean, when I did something, he was like, “Holy shit, wow!” You know? “I love it,” you know, or “Wow, am I going to be in trouble?” You know? And of course he loved the whole concept of being in trouble because being in trouble meant… he knew that a magazine had to be dynamic and had to have ideas and he also understood something that noone who works there understands today. And that is you don’t write… you don’t create a magazine for your readers. You don’t do a pick up, you don’t take a poll, you know, like the politicians do and find out what they’re thinking and what they want. What do you mean what they want? What the hell, what do you mean what they want? They’re supposed to be above and beyond, you know, the culture. You’re supposed to be leading the culture, you’re supposed to be ahead of the culture, you’re supposed to be telling people what the hell you think is exciting and dynamic and thought provoking and do it, and do it your way. And that’s the way you create a great magazine. And then if you do it that way, with all that kind of passion and talent, you’ll get an audience. You know, we got our audience, and basically, at Esquire in the ‘60s, the audience basically, I’m not, I never found out what the real numbers were, but I think a tremendous, a half of the circulation—I’m making it up—was college, was college students. You know, I run into people all the time, to this day, who, you know, who were in their 20’s when I was doing covers in the ‘60s. And now they’re 60, 60 years old, and they, boy, they know every cover, they can tell you how covers change their lives! They can tell you, people tell me where they were when they saw the Ali cover as St. Sebastian. They can tell, they tell me where they were when they saw the cover! That’s the kind of, Harold called them pictorial Zolas, you know. What’s funny is I said pictorial Zolas to somebody a couple of months ago when they said, “What’s a pictorial Zola?” Duh. You know, when I explained “J’accuse” they still didn’t get it.
But in any case, and I call myself a cultural provocateur, and I call myself a cultural provocateur in my advertising, too. Because when you create advertising, it’s not just to sell a product or a person or an idea. It should go beyond that. It should touch, sometimes very dynamically on the culture and there’s no way, you can’t do great advertising unless you understand that you shouldn’t just be selling the product, you should be talking about, and encompassing the culture or where the culture should be headed. I talked to that about, I tell students that, the young people that, young people in advertising that, and they don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about. They don’t get it until I show them examples, you know.
Question: What’s the most satisfying part of creating a great design?
George Lois: So when you say what excites me most in advertising here was when I took something and made it, made it a giant part of the culture. And that was the most thrilling, you know? Of the things I worked on and I’ve done a couple of dozen like that. The Esquire covers, when I was most excited about was, you know, was the anti-war stuff, you know? Stuff that woke up America, helped wake up America. And woke up people to the greatness of Mohammad Ali. Because when I did that cover of Mohammad Ali at St. Sebastian, he was, he was, I mean, if there was a poll on it, 80% of the country, white and black, were against him. And that cover, in and of itself, helped change America’s attitude about the war, and directly, directly helped change Martin Luther King from saying, all of a sudden, you know, all his, all the black leaders, that he would keep out of talking against the Vietnam War because he didn’t want to piss off Johnson—because Johnson was a, you know, a real pioneer in helping forge civil rights laws. But the second he came out against, defending Muhammad Ali and against the war, he was in deep shit with Johnson.
So, I mean, I’m proud of a lot of things I’ve done that helped change the culture. You know, I mean, that’s the stuff that you really remember.
Question: If you were a young designer starting out, what would you do today?
George Lois: I say that I would do a magazine, you know, but I probably would start an ad agency and show everybody how it’s done, you know? There was an article that I just read the other day, what’s funny is you read 30 magazines, you can’t remember where you read it, you know? In the old days if you read something in Esquire, what Esquire, one of my covers, you remembered where you saw it, but that’s beside the point. But there was an article about the head of the third largest agency in the world, Publicis, I guess, you know, Maurice Levy, and the questions with answers, it goes on and on and all he talks about is technology. I mean, he said not one fucking word talking about his ad agency that mentions creativity. It’s like, it’s like it’s got nothing to do, the product’s got nothing to do with what they do, you know, what they’re about. It’s shocking, you know?
That’s the way it used to be with all the ad agencies, I remember, there were agencies like Ogilvy and Mather… and after David Ogilvy died and they talked about him and the reason they sold themselves on the fact that they were a scientific agency in the sense that they did this great research and I told everybody, you know, advertising isn’t a science, it’s an art! I mean, science, and to this day, most people who judge advertising in the world, certainly in America, they’ve all got their marketing schools and communication schools and when they, and they’ve been taught that advertising and marketing is a science, because how do you teach it’s an art? You know, I mean, what would these schools say for advertising and marketing is an art? How do you teach that, you know?
So, to this day, the way you show clients, most clients something and you send in something really edgy and they’ll look at it and they’ll say, “Very interesting,” and they’ll hand it to somebody who’s sitting next to them and they’re a senior VP and say, “Very interesting, research it and find out if I like it.” People don’t talk about the creativity of something. It’s astounding, in all walks of life. Starting with head of one of these giant ad agencies, you know. But I was talking about Ogilvy and Mather, and I remember, a woman was the head of the agency and she went on and on and on and on and on about the way they research, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera and it’s about time, blah, blah, blah, and not one mention of creativity. And people like Bill Bernbach, when he did Doyle, Dane, Bernbach or people like me with Papert, Koenig, Lois, and you know, Mary Wells with Wells, Rich, Greene, that’s all we talked about was creativity. What the fuck else is there to talk about? That’s the name of the game, it’s the product, you know? It’s when you talk to a guy … at Ford, he talks about the car. About the product, you know?