Legendary Magazine Designer George Lois’s Last Round
George Lois talks with the cadence and manner of a guy who’s spent years around boxing gyms and maybe the track. Though, most of his fights have been in editorial bullpens and most of his bets have been on creative long shots. And they’ve paid off. He’s a recognized legend in the design and ad worlds, and 38 of his iconic Esquire covers reside in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. He has, of course, little love for the standard magazine design by committee, which he calls a “group-fucking-grope” in his typical fashion, and his speech comes out in sputters and stops when he’s worked up, which is often. We had the chance to witness this firsthand, on this, the occasion of the umpteenth homage to his Muhammad Ali as Saint Sebastian cover (above; this time it was Ricky Gervais as Ali as Saint Sebastian on the cover of British Esquire) and at the end of a year where magazines appear to be on the ropes. It makes sense that some of his most well-known images are of boxers, because for all the accolades and decades of success, George Lois sounds every bit the old ringside corner man, vigorously pep talking his over-the-hill fighter (in this case, print) into pulling off one last astounding late-round K.O, as told to John Capone.
“Magazine design is almost an oxymoron with most magazines today. It goes for even a great magazine like Vanity Fair. If you get even one inch of white space to breath you’re lucky. Everybody’s just packing in the information. Most magazines you pick up — you choke to death. “They say, ‘People buy magazines to read, for information.’ Well, you buy a magazine not only for that but so you can have exciting visual experiences. They try to jam words and pictures on every square-inch of the page like they’re working on a Web site. “Look at Vogue. Oh my God. Vogue and Harper’s once were very well designed magazines. I mean they were exciting to look at. You could not give a shit about fashion and be excited by the whole look of the magazine. You look at Vogue now: it’s not even designed. What a difference. You pick up a Vogue back in the days of [Condé Nast’s Alexander] Lieberman and those guys, and you look at it now, and it’s a disgrace. “Very few magazines do you look through — and I’m not talking as a designer, I’m talking as a normal person — do you look through something and you open a spread and it takes your breath away a little bit. Vogue will do their normal full page photograph of fashion, but when they get into any kind of a story it’s like jam, jam, jam, jam. I’m just kind of suffocated when I look through them. “Even a great magazine like Esquire — excuse me, not Esquire, they suck today — a magazine like Vanity Fair, which every month I have to read, but I don’t read it for a visual experience. That visceral feeling — most people don’t even attempt to try. “I was at Grayden Carter’s office once, looking at his stuff on the wall, the designers had some spreads up there and they’re pretty nice looking, and I’m kibitzing, saying things like, ‘Gee, maybe you do that or do that,’ and they’re all excited saying, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, wow. That’s terrific.’ Then Grayden comes along, and we’re looking at the stuff on the wall and he starts telling them, ‘Put stuff in it. C’mon, what’re you doing?’
“It’s almost a non-visual attitude. It is kind of is a reproduction of Internet pages. Every corner is filled with something. “Forget the white space. I could easily tell people today, ‘You know what you gotta do with this magazine? Get some fucking white space into it.’ But that white space doesn’t make something an exciting picture. But to be able to design a spread and do it your way, and make it dramatic and effective. It could be jammed with photography or with the image, but it acts as a surprise. A punch in the mouth. But I just don’t see that happening. “At the same the same time, you can look through the SPD [The Society of Publications Designers] book and it’s pretty good. So maybe something good is going on, maybe there are some people who know how to do it. I can’t believe there aren’t some young George Loises out there somewhere. Go get ’em. And give them the freedom.
“But you got editors and publishers that are just saying ‘Fill the fucking page up with stuff.’ It’s as simple as that. I mean, I heard Graydon Carter saying, ‘People are paying five bucks; get some stuff in there.’
“I saw this happening as an effect of the Internet, by the fact that you’ve got information all over the place. And people think you’ve got to have as much information in the magazine as when you go to the Internet. It can’t happen. That’s not the name of the game anyway.
“It seems likes it’s a panic, but that’s been going on for a long time. Even when the economy was good. The excitement you get from a knock-out looking spread that isn’t jammed with information — you almost think it’s gone. It’s almost like people who do good work are quote-unquote ‘getting away with it.’ You know? ‘I fucked that editor. I fucked that publisher. I got a good spread in there.’ I’m serious. “When you turn the pages there’s gotta be some air, so you can breathe, so you can relax from the tension of just reading, reading, reading. But that’s not the whole thing. White space without a concept is empty. I’m not talking about empty, I’m talking about a designer having the liberty to design the way something should look. “The design was the idea. I don’t design, if you know what I mean. If you want Andy Warhol being devoured by his own fame in a can of Cambell’s soup, you just put the can there and you have him drowning in it. Case closed.
“You’re knocked down by the idea, and the fact that it’s got complete clarity visually. Don’t complicate it with busy work.
“That’s the way I do everything. If I was a doing a magazine, it’s not a question of if I’d be having more white space. It’s a question of every third or fourth spread I’d make a spread that would take your breath away — or piss you off. Or something.
“I know, you’re pressured by your editor. If not the editor, the publisher: ‘Look at all this wasted space here.’ Blah, blah, blah. ‘Your readers want information.’
“Well, oh shit. Go fuck yourself.
“[Esquire] thought they made their statement where there should be copy and type all over the cover where you can’t read a goddamn word. I don’t get it. What are you trying to say to me? What’s the point? Is that an idea? “Why do you put all those cover lines on? They say, ‘Well, if I don’t get somebody interested in this one, I’ll get somebody interested in that one.’ “The covers [of The New Yorker] are the only thing that looks different on the newsstand. David Remnick, three or four years ago asked me, ‘Gee, do you think I should be using photography on the covers now?’ I said, ‘What, are you out of your fucking mind?’
“Meanwhile you go to a newstand, there’s about 200 magazines that all look the same. They got pictures of somebody — some asshole — I’ll never understand how editors and publishers think — showing just a famous person with blurbs all over their face. I’ll never understand why they think that would be something people would want to buy. I don’t get it.
“When I did the Esquire covers the reason you picked up the magazine — you looked at it and said, ‘Holy shit. I’ve got to get inside this magazine.’ All I was trying to do was say to the world, ‘Hey this magazine is hot stuff.’ And to prove it, look at this statement about what the issue was about. All I was doing was package design for the magazine. “Harold Hayes [Esquire editor in the early 1960s] was an editor who understood what I was trying to do was make sure people were aware his magazine was hot shit. People’d say to him, ‘Harold if we run this cover there’s going to be big trouble.’
‘Yeah,’ he’d say. ‘Yeaaahh.’ Fuck the ad guys. And fuck the publisher. And fuck everybody around him. ‘Yeaaah. Let’s just do something we all love.’
“When I started with the Esquire covers I didn’t think it through. Harold told me what was in the issue. And I’d think this would make a great cover, or that would make a great cover. And it wasn’t even the most important story in the magazine. And I’d do it, and Harold would say, ‘Wow.’
“When I did that first cover, where I showed [boxer Floyd] Patterson who was a big favorite over [Sonny] Liston, I showed Patterson alone dead in the ring. The championship fight was two weeks from then. ‘Two weeks from now, Patterson is a dead man — a loser.’ I said. Harold says, ‘George, I never saw a cover like this in my life.’ “‘No shit.’ “He said, ‘You’re calling the fight.’ I said, ‘No shit.’ “‘Suppose you’re wrong?’ “‘Well, you got a 50-50 chance of you looking like a genius.’ “He said, ‘You’re crazy.’ And I said, ‘I’m not crazy. You’re crazy, because you’re gonna run it.’ “Even if I was wrong, which I knew I wasn’t, that cover, it’s the absolute epitome of a visual about boxing, and a metaphor for being a loser in life. If you’re a loser, no matter what you’re in, people treat you like you’re dead. So, it was a philosophical statement beyond the whole sports thing. But the point is, there was an editor who said, ‘Holy shit, this fucking crazy Lois might be right.’ “Arnold Gingrich, the publisher, said, ‘You can’t run that cover. You’re not gonna run that cover. No way.’ Harold said, ‘Then I’m quitting.’ And he had just a couple of months before become official editor. They had just fired Clay Felker; Felker and Harold had been the two guys left vying for that job. Harold showed the cover to Felker, because he was still in the office at that time, and said, ‘You like the cover?’ And Felker said, ‘No, but I hope you run it. I hope you do.’ “‘What do you mean?’ Harold said. “‘Well, if you run it, you’re gonna get fired and I’ll have your job.’ “And he ran it. And it changed the magazine forever. “The idea cover works. But even Annie Liebovitz says, ‘You know, I used to try and do idea covers. I did a couple for Rolling Stone. But ideas are a problem on a cover.’ “Excuse me? “She said, ‘Jann Wenner didn’t like them. Vanity Fair didn’t like them. They think they’re a problem. So I do what I’m told.’ She didn’t agree with them. You know, Annie Leibovitz — this great photographer — they tell her they don’t like ideas. It’s mind boggling. “You don’t like ideas? Why would you be creating a magazine if you don’t like ideas? Why do you exist if you don’t like ideas? “It’s a joke. A couple of years all the editors and publishers [at ASME] invited me to come down and kick their asses about covers. I go down. Standing ovation. ‘Wow! Wow! Wow! Wow!’ Nothing changed. It’s all bullshit.”