On his website, George Lois calls himself “America’s master communicator.” The blurb continues: “The legendary George Lois is the most creative, prolific advertising communicator of our time. Running his own ad agencies, he is renowned for dozens of marketing miracles that triggered innovative and populist changes in American (and world) culture.” And the extraordinary thing is, all this might be true.
The man is the work
It’s a truism, but an artist is always observable in his or her art. What else is there to draw from, in the end? But because designers deal with so many external factors that push and pull—client, product, image, copy, type, function, deadline, printing or technical process—this connection is less apparent and direct. Less direct, that is, until you meet George Lois. Lois the man is Lois the work. He’s central casting, a New York tough-guy adman. The photos on his website, Lois in his prime, are Mad Men-ready. He’s big, brash, loud, confident, fearless, fast, funny and charming, with an oversized ego and a street-rough accent. His work is just the same. And what Lois the adman sells best is himself.
His talk is all dialogue. There’s no “he said,” “she said,” only a slight shift of speed—fast one liners for him, slow for everyone else—to identify speakers. Tenses get mashed. Everything’s in the present with Lois: high school memories, ad pitches, great ideas, all are vivid and ready for instant recall, many no doubt aided by having been told over and over until they’re as slick as a jingle on a TV commercial. He demands attention. He’s used to a rapt audience; you’d better listen because he’s about to tell you something brilliant. He jumps from dinner last night, to high school, from the army to his first job and back to school, college, his agency and all with no warning. At 80, he’s still working flat-out, fielding constant requests for interviews or talks, and working on his tenth book—it’s advice to young designers—to be published by Phaidon next year.
Today Lois stands tall, still a good-looking and charming man; but his talk is all tough-guy. “I grew up in the Bronx. My parents were Greek immigrants and we lived in a racist, Irish neighborhood. I had about 200 fist fights, won all of them. My father hired a young black man for his florist store. People came down and said, ‘No black men live in this neightborhood,’ and my father told them to go to hell. It hurt his business for a while, but people loved him, so they came back. I watched my father be combative because there was morality and goodness there. I always had that.” He adds, “And I worked for my father, but as much as I revered him, all I wanted to be was an artist, a graphic designer.”
Impossible to control
The work Lois is best known for is his total of 92 issues of Esquire magazine in the 1960s. They are now in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection and the subject of a large glossy book by Assouline. Lois didn’t design the actual magazine, just the covers. That was an unusual arrangement even then, though the division can make sense: a cover is there to sell the magazine, to move it off newsstands, and not every designer knows how to do that. Lois, of course, is an adman and selling is what he does. He regarded the work as package design. But the fact is, in Esquire Lois found the perfect vehicle to use his voice both to sell ideas and express his own beliefs. Esquire’s then almost equally legendary editor, Harold Hayes (who died in 1989, aged 62), said, “We collaborated only to the extent that I took pains to be sure he knew what we would be doing inside the issue.” After that, he reckoned, Lois’s imagination could be trusted to do its work alone, which was just as well, since Hayes also described him as “impossible to control or regulate.”
Out of the box
Growing up in New York City, with a family who cared about education, Lois was able to take the route that had served artists of various stripes—from Murray Perahia and Charles Gwathmey to Isaac Mizrahi and Jonathan Lethem: the High School of Music and Art, the gifted-and-talented destination on the Upper West Side now known as LaGuardia. “We started at 8 a.m. and went to 4 p.m., which was about three hours longer than any other high school.” Their basic design courses were “all great stuff for a 14-year-old,” he says, and the teachers took an interest in him, although, 60-plus years later, he still can’t believe that “even people who are well-meaning sometimes don’t get anything edgy and unsual and innovative.”
Never lacking in confidence, Lois believed in his ideas even in high school. “I did a poster for Switzerland, cut holes out of yellow paper, turned them on an angle and pasted them in among a photograph of mountains. It was a knockout. A teacher said to me, ‘George, you can’t do that, it’s all out of proportion.’ But you look at it and go, ‘Wow, that’s smart. That’s sharp.’” It hardly matters that we don’t have the long-gone cheese poster in front of us as he talks; he sees it still and, well, it’s a knockout.
Music and Art was also where Lois had a self-taught epiphany: in one of the courses they had to do abstract design exercises on paper—a sort of “Klee, Malevich, Constructivist kind of thing,” Lois explains. “Mr. Paterson wanted us to cut up bits of colored paper and arrange them on a sheet of 18-by-24-inch Strathmore. That paper was so fine it made you want to lick it. You didn’t spend that kind of money back then. It was a quarter a sheet and a quarter was a day’s work. The assignment was going to be worth half of our marks for the term, all of it based on a rectangle. So everyone else gets to work cutting up these bits of paper, glueing and sticking, and I just sat there, for an hour and a half. Mr. Paterson—who was completely bald, first guy I ever saw who shaved himself—is furious, and his whole head is turning red. I was a great student and he knew it, but he was thinking ‘What the fuck is going on with this kid?’ He says, ‘Time’s up,’ and he starts to collect the sheets, and he comes up to me, and I say ‘Wait a minute,’ and I sign it George Lois at the bottom of the rectangle of clean white paper.
“What I was really saying to him was, ‘Anything you work on, there should be a dynamically unique solution to it.’ And I realized what I did. From then on, every job I ever got in my life, anything I did, had to be absolutely mind-boggling. By signing it, I was saying, This is a perfect rectangle; this is a solution you wouldn’t have thought of in a million years.” He was nervous, of course. “It was the last class of the day and I went from there to basketball practice and to my father’s store to make some deliveries and I was worrying all night. But the next day, when I got into school, two or three teachers came up to me and said, ‘George, what you did was brilliant.’ I’ve always backed up my aggressiveness, because I knew what I was doing and I could get away with it.”
From LaGuardia, Lois went to college at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where he met his future wife, Rosemary, on the first day of school, September 1949 (“best day of my life”). He didn’t last at Pratt, though the marriage has endured. “The high school was so good, and I thought Pratt sucked, but I stayed because of her,” Lois says. “In the second or third class of my second year a teacher said to me, ‘What are you doing here? You gotta get a job.'” Lois dropped out and at 19 was hired by a great art director, Reba Sochis, for her design firm, Beacon.
“I knew what I was doing,” says Lois. “I turned up on my first day with a sleeping bag. She said, ‘What’s that?’ and I said I might have to stay overnight sometimes and want to be laid out for an hour. I had a work ethic. My father worked his ass off all his life, 20 hours a day. He slept three and a half hours a night and that’s what I sleep, in two shifts. It must be genetic: my older sister, too. Reba was stupendous. Also what I liked about her she was a left-winger, like me.”
Six months after he started working for Sochis, Lois was drafted. “I had a rough time. I was in basic training the first week, in Augusta, Georgia, in the Jim Crow South. My eyeballs were falling out of my head: colored drinking fountains, you know, all that stuff you hear about. They were still hanging black guys down there, and roll call, you know, first day, at Camp Gordon, Georgia, you know, ‘Jones?’ ‘Right here!’ ‘Jackson?’ ‘Right here, right here!’ ‘Lois?’ ‘Yo.’ Sergeant-major comes up and says, ‘What’s with the yo, soldier? I said, ‘Roll call, sir.” And he says it again, “What’s with the yo, soldier?’ I said, ‘Some say “Right here,” and some say “Yo.” I say, “Yo!”‘ He says, ‘Oh, not another Jew-fag-nigger-lover.’ Okay. I told him to go fuck himself. Fourteen weeks company punishment. I went through the army that way. Living in the South, I had a lot of trouble with it. I can’t put up with that shit.
Lois stops to get the phone. He answers it “Yo!”, then keeps going. “I’ve always been fighting racism and stuff. I did 40 weeks company punishment in the army. I thought I was going to Korea. I get to Fort Sam, Houston, Texas, and wow, there was a basketball player, Al Becker, from NYU. ‘Georgie,’ he says, ‘what are you doing down here? We’ve got an incredible basketball team here!’ I go to the gym, get on the basketball team, then I tried out for the baseball team, which had four major-leaguers on it, and I made the team. Great team, 25-nothing record, beat all the college teams down south. The service teams didn’t want to play us. Unbelievably, a company commander puts a black guy on our team, it’s 1951—unheard of, so brave of him—he played one game and the kids on our team were nasty to him. I had a couple of fist fights over it. Second game we were at Louisiana State University and a couple of suits go down there and talk to our coach in the kid’s dressing room, he can’t play. I said to Al, we gotta tell the coach we won’t play. I knew I couldn’t do it. I would think about it all my life. I go to the coach and said, respectfully, I couldn’t play. he said ‘Okay, Lois, put on your civvies.’ Then I had papers cut to go to Korea. That stuff didn’t hurt me. That stuff steels you. And then I came back from that combat and nobody in civilian life is going to give me any shit. Nobody.”
When Lois was mustered out and got back to New York, Sochis wanted him to be a partner, but by then all he wanted to do was go to work for Bill Golden, the creative director of advertising—and chief architect of the CBS identity—at CBS TV, which at the time was a happening place. Sochis picked up the phone and called Lou Dorfsman at CBS Radio for him. “Dorfsman became a mentor to me. He said, ‘Your stuff is terrific, how old are you? Twenty-one? Terrific. Lois—Jewish?’ I said, ‘I’m not a fucking Jew, I’m a fucking Greek.’ We became brothers, you know. He could see this kid had something.”
Advertising was being born in the ’50s in New York; the city was the center of the advertising world. It was pure Mad Men. “I worked with great, great people—many iconic names,” says Lois. He left CBS to work with another ad legend, Herb Lubalin, at an agency named Sudler & Hennessey, where he became head of consumer advertising. “I loved that, loved him, and then I left and went to work at Doyle Dane Bernbach, which was the only true creative agency in the world.”
Lois had actually turned down a previous job offer at DDB. “Lou Dorfsman sent me. I was 25 and they offered me the job of head art director of the promotion department. I said, ‘Terrific, so long as I have some other accounts to work on, so I can do promotion for everybody plus advertising of my own.’ Bob Gage, the DDB art director, who was a terrific man, said, ‘George, when you’re head of the promotion department you just do promotion.’ I said, ‘Well, okay, when you have a job to do advertising let me know.’ And he said,’You’re walking out of Doyle Dane Bernbach at 25 years old when the whole world wants to work here?’ and I said, ‘Mr. Gage, I want to do advertising.’ I went back three years later and they hired me on the spot.”
This was it: the throbbing heart of New York advertising. “I go on there the Friday before and they show me my room, etcetera, and do the paperwork,” says Lois. “So over the weekend I bought some paint, and I went in and painted the room a bright white—which knocked everybody on their ass—and put in some furniture: a Mies van der Rohe Brno chair. Also, when I’d gone in on Friday there was already a requisition for me to work on for Monday, so I took it home and thought about it all weekend. Then I went into work on Monday at six o’clock in the morning and did nine or ten layouts for a campaign for Kerid earwax—it was something you put in your ears to clean them out. Bernbach [founding partner Bill Bernbach, yet another ad legend] came in around 9:30 to welcome me and said, ‘Wow, my guys really cleaned up your room for you. Hey, where did they get that chair? And all that furniture?’ So I told him, and he said ‘Okay—what the hell is this?’ looking at my floor, which was covered in layouts. I started to explain the product, and he says, ‘George, I know what the product is, I got the account.’ And one of them is a pretty famous ad now—it’s a gigantic ear, and I’ve got all this stuff sticking in it—a Q-tip, a pencil, a hairgrip, the kind of stuff that people use to clean their ears—and I’ve got the headline, the body copy, the package design with an ear and a kid and he’s looking at ya, and Bernbach says, ‘These are brilliant. Who’s your copywriter?’ I said I did them over the weekend, I don’t need any copywriter. Bernbach said, ‘I’ll be your copywriter.’ We never followed through with it, though I could have, and I’m glad. I knew it would be a problem and I’d be like teacher’s pet if I did. He knew I didn’t need any copywriter or any help. In fact, I worked much better without one. Working with a copywriter is slow and laborious, because I gotta listen to their ideas, which I don’t want to do.”
Don’t take any shit
Bill Bernbach was Don Draper before Draper was Draper. As a young copy chief at the William Weintraub agency (where Paul Rand, another of Lois’s heroes, was a young art director), he understood that he would not only write copy, he would do his own thinking, too. Up until then, the advertising hierarchy was rigid. “It’s unbelievable that back then art directors sat in their rooms and waited for some stiff to come down and give them a piece of paper to lay it out, a, b, c or d,” says Lois. “The clients and marketing directors conceived a marketing strategy, a copywriter wrote copy for it one way or another and then it went to an art director for a layout. The art director was in no way, shape or form involved in the conceiving of it. And even if the guy was smart he would look at the headline and couldn’t do anything with it. In those days art directors sat around with their thumbs up their ass. If they wanted to something creative they went home and painted on the weekends.”
Bernbach, by contrast, would take an art director and a writer, lock them in a room and not let them out until they came up with great stuff. “In Bob Gage he had a great art director, he had a young writer called Phyllis Robinson, who was terrific, and that really made them,” says Lois.
On the other hand, Paul Rand, Bernbach’s former colleague at Weintraub, was “a concept guy, a creative guy,” who did his own advertising and blazed the way for a lot of people, including Lois. “It wasn’t so much the work,” says Lois. “My work looks nothing like his. It was his attitude, the way he worked. He wrote his own stuff, got his own ideas, did all his mockups. He was a tough, good-looking young guy from Brooklyn. When I was 14 he was 27 and did this book, Thoughts on Design. He was God to me. Not only did he do great work and not take any shit, but he made me realize you can be your own man and do your own work your own way and make a living. I didn’t want to be a florist. I never told my father that.”
A new breed
“I was a different breed when I got to the agency, and Bernbach knew it,” says Lois. “After a couple of months he called me into his office one day and said, ‘George, what do you think of our work?’ That’s why I’m here, I say. No, he says, what you really think of our work? There are some great ads, I say. You say it as if you have some criticism? Not really, I say. What do you mean, not really? I said, Well, okay, you got some great El Al ads, but there’s no unifying thing—when you think of El Al [he snaps his fingers four or five times], you should think of four or five words. ‘That’s so old-fashioned,’ says Bill. ‘You mean a slogan.’ I said, I guess you can call it that. ‘I’m surprised at you,’ says Bill. I said, “Bill, having sex is old-fashioned too, but we all do it. It’s the right way to work.”
“We talked about that then, and we talked about it ten years later when we met for lunch,” says Lois. “I did two incredible things to change the culture of the agency,” he continues, with his characteristic absence of false modesty. “First, they had a department of pastel renderers you gave a rough drawing to, which they would render to show the client. After two weeks I said, ‘Are you shitting me? Why would you have those guys screw up a great idea, something that’s fresh and exciting, by doing those terrible drawings?’ I did quick sketches and said that’s all you need. I refused to do it their way. Of course, when the other art directors saw this they all wanted to do it my way, so from then on our roughs were shown to clients. Also, back then art directors were not allowed to meet clients, though copywriters were. I changed all that after a client who made matzos turned down one of our ads. I was so indignant I made a separate appointment to go to their offices and sold it to the client myself. I even threatened to jump out the window if the owner didn’t go for the ads. When the report of that meeting got back to the agency, from then on every art director insisted on being there when a job was presented.”
In 1960, Lois left DDB after two years—”Everybody in the business thought I was crazy”—and started Papert, Koenig, Lois with Fred Papert and Julian Koenig. “Bill Bernbach was shocked when I said I was leaving. He told me, ‘George, you can’t do this, there can’t be more than one creative agency.’ It was an astounding statement from the guy who’d started the first great creative agency.” Within a month of starting that second creative agency, “we were successful and hot and had articles up in Time magazine about the work.” From then on Lois’s companies had his name on them.
Finding a great client
“I’ve had a lot of great clients, and when you do what I do the problem is finding great clients,” says Lois. “A great client is someone who says, ‘I love it, Lois, it’s great, you’re a genius, run it.’ That’s a great client. I’m serious. I’m not kidding.”
A great client can even be a horrible person. “Harding Lawrence, who was at Braniff Airlines, he was a complete asshole. He named his son States Rights, in the Jim Crow South. He didn’t do any racist stuff to me, but I think only because he knew where I was. But he was a great client. I show him a campaign and he goes, ‘Yeeaah, yeah, but I have to have it tested.’ I said, ‘Are you crazy? A great idea can’t be tested. Only mediocre ideas pass tests.’ But he said, ‘Yeah, yeah, I got to test it.’ He does three weeks of research. Calls me. ‘You gotta come down to Dallas to listen to the guy who’s come in with the research,’ he says, and I say, ‘Fuck you, I’m not going to come there and take it on the chin, but I have to go and do it in front of the board. And the research guy comes up and says to me what I told Lawrence might happen. ‘George, if they look at this campaign, people who fly Braniff will say they’ll never do it again, because it’s so unusual.’ So I said, ‘Harding, sit the fuck down. Do the campaign. Because it’s a great campaign.’ Great client.”
Who was the best? “I could name seven or eight great clients, but Harold Hayes was unbelievable,” says Lois.
Lois started his agency in the Seagram Building, designed by Mies van der Rohe in 1958 in collaboration with Philip Johnson. Not only was it the world’s most expensive skyscraper at the time, but it was a structure whose look was determined by its construction. The Four Seasons restaurant on the ground floor became Lois’s canteen (he designed their logo), and from his office above he worked on the Esquire covers. It was 1962, and he was 31.
“The good relationship with Harold at Esquire was extraordinary,” says Lois simply. Hayes was a Southerner, a liberal, an ex-Marine captain who played the trombone, and Lois was… Lois. “He’s every bit as good as he thinks he is,” Hayes once said. He and Lois would discuss a story, usually on the phone. “And then,” said Hayes, “a full-size color print would be sent over by messenger. All the type would be in place, the logo, the cover line, which George had written, and the cover date. It was superb.”
When Hayes first saw the cover Lois mocked up for a story about Lyndon Johnson’s vice president, with Hubert Humphrey portrayed as a ventriloquist’s dummy sitting on LBJ’s lap, he said to Lois, ‘George, the piece came in and it’s pretty damn favorable.’ Lois thought this meant Hayes would kill the cover, but instead he said, ‘We’re going to run that fucking cover, but do me a favor, add “But in fairness to our vice president, see page 106.”‘ I said, ‘Great.’ He cared more about the cover than the article.” The Sonny Liston black Santa cover (see above) reportedly cost the magazine more than $750,000 in lost advertising, but both Hayes and Lois kept their jobs. “Hayes gave me greater latitude than anyone before or since thought possible from a mass periodical,” says Lois. “He used to call the covers pictorial Zola.”
Lois used Franklin Gothic for the typeface on most of the Esquire covers. It’s a bold, robust face and Lois usually used it small, but since there was only one line of copy (unlike magazine covers today, which are usually covered in lines), it was okay to run it small; with so much space around the line, it was easy to read. Used this way, the quiet bold type has an air of authority, even truth-telling. Today it’s used to be cool; back then it was newly rediscovered and must have seemed very hard-hitting.
But it’s the images that really carry the message; these were high-concept covers. For the issue that featured John Sack’s account of an infantry company’s journey from basic training to Vietnam, Lois lifted a cry of pain from a young GI: “Oh my God—we hit a little girl,” and set it starkly in white on black. He used a different typeface here, a Bodoni, because for this one the words were the image, and the type had to look like speech, not as if it came out of the magazine itself. Lois asked Hayes if he thought they would piss off America with this cover. Hayes told him, “If they don’t like what’s on the cover, they can always buy Vogue, sweetheart.
Many editors subsequently told Lois they could never run such covers, but Lois says he’s yet to hear a reason why. “You look at a newsstand nowadays and all the magazines look the same,” he says. The Esquire covers are particularly revered by other designers and editors, who could never manipulate a cover subject the way Lois was able to (nowadays it’s celebrities who tell the magazines they might grace their covers—try getting Damien Hirst to pose in a can!). And the luxury of the one cover line would never get blessed by the business end of magazine publishing, where the powers have researched how the public read covers, so it’s all a science. These factors help give Lois’ covers a look that’s still clever and modern; ironically, by comparison Lois’s concept advertising looks dated. Advertising now is all image: image and logo. Often there is no idea. It just is.
Putting it in Superfocus
Lois has just finished work for some eyeglasses that let the wearer adjust the focus; what he calls “magic shit.” Some guy saw Lois at a show and asked him if he’d do their advertising. “He told me, ‘We’ve been advertising these for years,’ and I said ‘Where?’ And he said, ‘Full-page ads in the New York Times.’ I said, ‘I read the Times every day and I never saw them.’ He said, ‘We’re not doing that well,’ and I said, ‘Well, gee, that’s a genius product, of course you’re not doing well, I mean—Trufocals?’ Then he showed me an ad, which was full of claims—which were all true, but you don’t believe it. I told them I would get famous people to wear them, from Joel Grey to Richard Meier. And it’s dark, and you hear a voiceover saying, ‘Whenever I hear those iconic words, “O, say can you see…”’ I think, ‘Not that well. Bifocals, trifocals, progressives—and now I see the world in Superfocus!'”
The clients didn’t blink. “I told them they had to spend half a million dollars to change everything. The ads ran a week, and the guy calls up and says, ‘We have enough orders for the next three months, we had to pull out.’ They couldn’t keep up with the orders. I said, ‘I told you guys before we started, can you guys keep up with the fucking orders?’ So we started again. Two weeks later, they said ‘I think we can handle it now.’ I said, ‘It’s called branding!'”
Harold Hayes once said that George Lois’s visual excellence sprang from two sources: his belief that a picture is dependent on some accompanying statement in order to project an idea; and his intuitive grasp of the idea to be rendered. The boy who signed his name to a blank sheet of paper turned out not to need much teaching after all.—LUCY SISMAN