A Designer Who Gets "Ideas" Could Change the World With a Magazine

Magazines are supposed to be leading the culture by "telling people what the hell you think is exciting and dynamic and thought provoking."
  • Transcript


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.

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.

  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. 

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.

Recorded April 5, 2010