George Lois: A Creative Review

The Trailblazing Art Director On Making Advertising History

Having saved MTV with a renegade commercial, predicted the victor of the 1962 world heavyweight title fight on the cover of Esquire and masterminded a winning ad campaign for Robert Kennedy, maverick art director George Lois is a legend in the industry. Cult creative blog and journal It’s Nice That visited Lois in his New York home, and quizzed him on the secrets of his success for their forthcoming sixth issue. “A lot of what we do is created for ourselves, we’re just lucky that our readers have the same interests,” says founder and editorial director Will Hudson. In anticipation of the magazine’s release, NOWNESS excerpts a few of Lois’s priceless reminiscences below.

On clarity of vision
“In my first year at the High School of Music and Art [New York] we had a poster class in which we had to do a poster for a country. I think I had Switzerland, so I got a photograph of the Alps—two, three, four beautiful mountains, one after the other, an aerial view. I put big type on the bottom that said‚ ‘Switzerland,’ and then I separated two of the mountains with a gigantic hunk of Swiss cheese. I had this design sense, a sense more to do with design than art, from the time I was very young. I understood that to do a poster you have to include an element of surprise. My teacher didn't get it. She said‚ ‘George, the Swiss cheese is so out of proportion to the mountains.’ I think I said something like, 'No shit!’”

On changing the course of pop culture
“[MTV] were a year in production and they didn’t have a cable operator, meaning they were on television for a year and nobody was watching. I told them we had to go on television and make rock fans pick up the phone and call the cable operators. They thought I was crazy. [Promoter] Bill Graham gave me Mick Jagger’s phone number in London, and then told me not to tell Mick who had given it to him. I called him in the morning, and just started talking. Every 30 seconds I'd have to check if he was still there. He finally said: “Well, I'm gonna be in New York next Monday, where would you like to film me?” He told me not to worry, that he'd be there at 9am. At five minutes to ten he walks in, with Pat Benatar and Pete Townshend! It was one of those times in life when you think maybe there is a god. We ran a commercial a week later, in San Francisco, and suddenly there were thousands of phone calls from rock fans asking for MTV. We landed every important market in America. Time Magazine ran a cover saying: ‘America wants its MTV.’ What they don't know is that if this hadn't happened, MTV was a month or two away from closing down.”

On printing the future
“After I did that first [Esquire] cover, when I called the fight [Lois predicted Sonny Liston would win], everybody went crazy. Everyone thought [Floyd] Patterson was going to kill Liston, and then the fight happened and of course Liston destroyed Patterson. I saved their asses. Circulation went all the way up to two million, and it was suddenly this gigantic hit.”

On the power of art
“Art is the most important thing in my life. I go to MoMA every Sunday, religiously. There's an epiphany in every room. There's probably 20 epiphanies in every room. Understanding the history of art, understanding the history of culture and movies—old black and white movies—and ballet and sports and all these things in the world is so incredibly important. It allows us to truly understand the culture, the zeitgeist of the time. Not only does it allow us to understand it, to report on it, but it allows us to be ahead of it. To literally be ahead.”

It’s Nice That’s full interview with George Lois will be released in issue six, out Thursday July 14

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