George Lois's "Self-Induced" Design Epiphany

Lois realized in high school that every design and communications problem presented an opportunity to do something unusual, exciting, dramatic, and unique.
  • Transcript


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 Orbachs, 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.

Recorded April 5, 2010