George Lois Can Still Kick Your Ass

One of many iconic Esquire covers Lois art directed in the 1960s and 1970s.

When George Lois wants something, he usually gets it. Whether it’s Maypo, Matzo, or MTV, the advertising and design legend has won many more battles than he’s lost. And at 81 years old, Lois still approaches life like it’s something to be fought over and enjoyed and laughed about later. He has lived a rich life, one of fame (and infamy!), “Big Ideas,” and accolades. And like Frank Sinatra, Paul Newman, and Ernest Hemingway, Lois has always been the coolest guy in the room. He transcends his industry and stands out even among the other stars in it.

In the late 1950s, when Lois started out, he was young, handsome, charismatic, and brash, employing his Bronx-born swagger to charm, bully, and ultimately reinvent Madison Avenue. He was certainly the first creative director to threaten to jump out a window if his client didn’t approve an ad campaign. Amazingly, it worked, as did many of his other unorthodox approaches. If you look around today at the many brands that still bear his fingerprints, it’s not hype to say that George Lois almost single-handedly revolutionized the ad and design industries.

You’ve heard the name George Lois around here a lot lately. Partly, that’s because he has a new book out, called Damn Good Advice (For People with Talent) (Phaidon), but also because he’s going to be speaking live tomorrow as our featured DesignCast presenter.

We’re pretty excited about that. And if you know anything about Lois, you might be too. Even if you aren’t familiar with the man, you know his work. From the still-revolutionary Esquire covers of the 1960s to the understatedly sexy Pirelli Tires calendars of the 1970s to the groundbreaking MTV ads of the 1980s, Lois’s influence is virtually everywhere you look.

Even more so if you consider the rumor that he’s the basis for Mad Men‘s Don Draper, though he discourages the comparison. As Lois wrote in Playboy (a riff he adapted for his new book):

[Mad Men] is nothing more than a soap opera set in a glamorous office where stylish fools hump their appreciative, coiffured secretaries, suck up martinis and smoke themselves to death as they produce dumb, lifeless advertising – oblivious to the inspiring civil rights movement, the burgeoning women’s lib movement, the evil Vietnam war and other seismic events of the turbulent, roller-coaster 1960s that altered America forever. The heroic movers and shakers of the Creative Revolution…bear no resemblance to the cast of characters on Mad Men. The more I think and write about Mad Men, the more I take the show as a personal insult. So fuck you, Mad Men, you phony gray-flannel-suit, male-chauvinist, no-talent, WASP, white-shirted, racist, anti-Semitic Republican SOBs!

Besides, when I was in my 30s I was much better looking than Don Draper.

From the dashing picture at left, it’s hard to argue that last point. It’s also impossible to argue with the man’s bona fides.

Lois is the only person in the world who has been elected into the Art Directors Hall of Fame and the One Club Creative Hall of Fame, has received lifetime-achievement awards from the American Institute of Graphic Arts and the Society of Publication Designers, and has been a subject of the Master Series at the School of Visual Arts

He is truly a unique, creative mind. As he told the AIGA in a recent interview:

”I’m the crossover guy,“ says Lois of his career, which has borrowed as much from graphic design as it has from guerilla advertising tactics. Lois laughs when he remembers his advertising colleagues’ reaction when seeing him cut his type apart at his desk with all the earnest intensity of a Bauhas student. ”’Geez,’ they’d say, ‘He’s a real dee-signer.’ I took that kind of design sensibility and put it together with a kind of kick-ass sensibility and made my own kind of advertising.“ The most memorable manifestation of this hybrid talent undoubtedly came in the form of the covers he created for Esquire in the ’60s and early ’70s. Blessed with the partnership of editor Harold Hayes, who allowed the art director creative control, Lois gave this particularly vibrant and turbulent era a memorable face: Muhammad Ali as the Christian martyr St. Sebastian; Svetlana Stalin with a drawn-on mustache; mean-assed boxer Sonny Liston as the first-ever African American Santa Claus. And an all-black cover punctuated only by reversed-out type reading ”Oh my God—we hit a little girl,“ Lois’s stark commentary on a war that was anything but black and white.

So here’s some Damn Good Advice: Do yourself a favor and tune in to hear the man speak tomorrow. He’ll be giving tips and “kick-ass lessons” from the book, including:

  • “Always go for the Big Idea”
  • “Never work for Bad People”
  • “Don’t be a Crybaby”

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