The Cutting Humor of Art Director Michael Gross

Designer kids these days. They’ll never experience the toxic aroma of rubber-cement fumes. Or feel the intense drama of an X-Acto knife slicing into their thumb or plunging head-first into their knee. But Michael Gross remembers. In fact, Gross and his National Lampoon co-conspirators immortalized such experiences in a parody of the graphic design industry that was published in Print magazine.

Gross, who currently makes his home in San Diego, developed his conceptual design abilities at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute and used them to produce NatLamp‘s infamous “…Kill this dog” cover and “If Ted Kennedy drove a VW” ad. Print ran a feature on the magazine in 1974, written by Rose DeNeve, in which editor Henry Beard told of how the poorly designed, fledgling magazine finally achieved recognition when “we saw that what we really needed was a slick art director who knew magazines.” And that was Michael Gross. Print also turned over an additional eight pages—and the cover!—to Henry, Michael, and his fellow art director and Pratt alum David Caestle, and let them loose. Below are the results, along with my second interview with Michael. My first, part of a feature on graphic design and comics, is here.

As someone who designed a 13-page parody of Print and five other design magazines for Print 18 years ago, only to watch half of them disappear over time (R.I.P Emigre, Graphis, and Step-by-Step), I know the hazards of revisiting such era-dependent humor. But for those of you who are nostalgic for the days of photostats, T-squares, and, uh, Patty Hearst as Tania: enjoy! And click to enlarge.

How did you conceptualize the cover?

It was my idea. It seemed at the time the most universal experience all designers have known, one time or another. Print gave us their layout boards and set the type for the logo, etc. They were having great fun with this. Giving us free reign with their magazine cover was a brave move.

What was the process of putting together the interior pages?

It couldn’t be done without a writer, so we went to Henry Beard and asked if he had the time to do this with David Kaestle and me. Henry is such a genius that all we had to do was give him a few design mags and call-for-entries forms and have two brainstorming sessions. And bingo, he nailed an industry. There was never a conflict with the art director, Andy Kner. No editing from them.

Any negative reaction from readers?

None. But I have been told that some of the “big” design players were not pleased at the way we treated ‘em in the SLA redesign page. It seems it was a bit too “Emperor’s clothes” for them. I guess they took Helvetica even more seriously than we poked at it.

What’s your perspective now on the genital humor, such as the Pubic Hairline type, the men’s- and women’s-room graphics, and SLA designer names like “Jerkmayeff…” and “Lubjob, Peckerlick…”?

There was always a slightly juvenile and bawdy tone to much of National Lampoon, so it flowed naturally. Besides, there’s no joke like a cheap joke. I drew the international symbols and the typefaces, and David designed almost all the typography jokes.

How were you viewed by the design community back then?

We were a joke to the rest of the design world—no pun intended. The ad guys took themselves very seriously. I never received a medal from the Art Directors Club. It’s like show business: comedy rarely wins Academy Awards.

You’re one of the special guests at San Diego’s Comic Fest next month; what will you be doing?

No idea yet. Time to start planning, I guess.

What else is going on with you?

I’m currently unhire-able as a designer. Seems ideas are not needed these days. It’s all about style over substance. And as you might guess, I’m hard to pin down or categorize when it comes to style. But that’s okay. I’m mostly retired, I consult on scripts—making movies is way more fun than print is these days—and I lecture and paint. And photography is my newest love.

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Purchase back issues of Print at MyDesignShop.com.

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21 COMMENTS

  1. Thirty-eight years later, I’m still laughing at the International Symbols and SLA logo designs. Passed them along the other day to a twenty-something friend who lives in Switzerland and who’s been having “issues” with their idiosyncratic traffic signs. STILL think that the proposed symbols for men’s and women’s restrooms should be the actual ones used. Little kids can just compare to their anatomy if they’re confused, and the signs work for pre- and post-op transsexuals, too. (It would cause problems for cross-dressers, though.) Many thanks for years of laughter!

  2. x-acto blade injuries are like a rite of passage for graphic designers. creative types gather round the leftover goodies from client meetings, sharing their “whoops” moment along with the company lure of intern x-acto victims. 

  3. in all the years I was in this business I never met or talked to my distant mentor, George Lois…he phoned me today (in response to a call I made to his office) and we chatted for 5 minutes..the call meant more to me than a call from the President…he is going strong, still happily married after 65 years and I was able to let him know how much he influenced me since I was 16 years old…wow..and (blush) he said he always admired my Lampoon work…I can die happy now.

  4. If it’s any comfort, Michael: Steve Heller’s “Of Hoaxes, Spoofs, and Parodies” item from back on August 13th only generated four comments. And his story about you from September 2010 only got three. Whereas this one is now 15… and counting.
     
     
    In related news I noticed that, although this piece currently isn’t included in Imprint‘s “Most Discussed” section, the third story from the top has only eight comments… funny, huh?
     
     

  5. I saw this parody when I was a graphic design student, and it left a big impression on me. I’d already been a fan of the magazine, not only for the humor but for the design. That goes for the National Lampoon, too.
    Michael Gross is one of my design heroes. Thanks for posting this.

  6. Peter Kleinman wrote this noie to me about the above article: “Please elaborate on details of the computers and software packages you used to produce this legendary stuff. Im sure you could not have done this without Phohotshop, InDesign. Adobe Illustrator, Fontographer, various rendering packages, word processing software…. And of course lots of web research, digital stock photography, etc.  The writers left that part out of the article. it’s almost like they are inferring that this was done through some manual process.   how absurd!  Nobody could ever do that! ”

  7. a note: while currating at OMA (Oceanside Museum of Art) I subed to PRINT and gave my issues to the museum after reading em. A Diretcor said to me, they don’t have much to say these days. do they?..I repiled, no it’s just that there isnt much to talk about “these days”.

  8. A long overdue treatment – thanks for this Michael ! Mr. Gross’ work is like a thread weaving itself throughout my formative years in high school and college. His work is always smart, incitefull and very funny ! I can’t wait to see your future pieces on him !

  9. I still have this issue, somewhere. The cover is one of my all-time favorites. The kids these days just don’t get it. You had to be there.

    Thanks for bringing this back into the light.

  10. Dear Michael, you and your Lampoon assisted me mightily in that most valient effort commonly understood as extended adolescence. Thank you for adding intelligence to the heaping helping of of humor that was the Lampoon. I, for one, am in your debt, a charge I’ll likely never repay.
     

  11. I feel like one of those comedians that laughs at his own jokes…I’m reading this for the first time in decades and laughing..Thank you Michael…and here’s to David Kaestle, my brother and partner in crime. (RIP).
    ps: take the time readers to enlarge the images and read the fine type…much still holds true today.