George Lois on the secrets behind a great cover

The legendary New York ad man reveals the assets required to make long-lasting work
Esquire covers, George Lois, 1960s
Esquire covers, George Lois, 1960s

Could we really have left George Lois' brilliant Esquire covers out of the Phaidon Archive of Graphic Design? Has a cover series so greatly shocked, startled and amused its readers since the legendary ad man's did in the 1960s? And, come to think of it, are any other magazines as fresh-looking today as they were when first conceived? We'd answer no to all of the above, but to confirm our thoughts we asked Lois himself to provide his opinion on what makes them just so great. Needless to say, the sharp-witted octogenarian didn't hold back, especially when we later asked for his thoughts on contemporary graphic design...

Your Esquire covers are considered as fresh now as they were when you first made them back in the '60s. Why do you think that is?

It's a strange thing. Whenever the covers are exhibited young people go absolutely crazy over them, even though they don't really know what they mean. They'll ask: Who's that on that cover dressed as santa? Who's that with the self-applied halo on his head? It's amazing. They have absolutely no idea who Sonny Liston was, or who Roy Cohn was and what he did, but even though they're not aware of the details they're still excited about the visual – they know something important is going on.

A big part of the freshness of any piece of graphic design is that original idea. Even if you don't know the work's particular details, if there's a real concept and it's presented with absolute clarity the piece of graphic design will remain fresh. Stuff like that really lives.

Esquire covers, George Lois, 1960s
Esquire covers, George Lois, 1960s

Can you pinpoint any other examples of great graphic design?

There was a lot of great work back when I was working at [advertising agency] Doyle Dane Bernbach. Bob Gage's work was always fantastic. He was the first modern art director as far as I'm concerned. Bill Taubin, another great art director who did those great Levy's rye bread posters, was at the same agency at the same time. And so too was Helmut Krone, who did a lot of that great Volkswagen work. In fact, when I was at DDB in 1959, the four of us sat in a line of connecting rooms. I've always said we were the four greatest art directors in the history of advertising. We were the ad equivalent of the legendary New York Yankees team of 1927. I was so proud to work there, really thrilled to be a part of it.

Esquire covers, George Lois, 1960s
Esquire covers, George Lois, 1960s

What do you think of contemporary graphic design?

I think a lot of it is terrible. I had the misfortune six months ago of giving a lecture to 800 people at this once-great advertising company. Their work was all over the walls and I was looking at it thinking it was all terrible. You understand why when you talk to them – a lot of them told me how lucky I was to work in an era that didn't have bad clients. Are you kidding me? There have always been pain-in-the-ass clients, and there have always been problems. Nothing's easy in this world. We didn't just do great advertising out of our asses. We came up with an idea and believed in it and fought for it and had the courage to not do anything we didn't consider to be great. 

People use a lot of excuses these days – they say to make a living you have to do things you don't want to do sometimes. You don't run into anybody now who has the passion and courage to say, "I will never do bad work." You'll never make great work unless you think that way. Great art directors have to have courage. They have to say no. They have to put up a fight to do great work. 

With a little courage, things can change...

Yeah! Actually, with a lot of courage. The major theme of my book Damn Good Advice is that you have to be courageous. I've dragged dozens of clients to success because I stood my ground. I talked, cajoled and yelled at them. I even fired a whole load of them. That was the only way I can now say with total conviction that I've never done something that I didn't think was right in my whole life!


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