George Lois
Design Guru
06:09

Creating Designs to Change Culture

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The most thrilling thing as a designer is making something that becomes a cultural phenomenon and impacts people.

George Lois

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."
Transcript
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?

Recorded April 5, 2010
 

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