Mirko Ilić: Fist to Face

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An excerpt adapted from Print’s new monograph on the iconoclastic Yugoslavian-born designer, out

this month

“New Nationalistic Masks,” 1982

After the 300th issue of Start—an automobile magazine that turned to running centerfolds of naked women—most of the editorial team was replaced by people who had been thrown out of Polet (the weekly newspaper of the Socialist Youth of Croatia), including Mirko Ilić. But when Start changed its priorities and began focusing more on the worlds of glamour, fashion, and pop culture, Ilić quickly grew tired.

“I thought that the new direction would be cool because we had all worked together at Polet,” said Ilić. “But they were really pushing a new format that included more photography, and they soon decided to completely change the whole thing.”

At the same time, the publishing house Vjesnik was talking of starting a weekly newsmagazine. According to Mario Bošnjak, the editor of Danas, the magazine “was painstakingly born; entire symposiums were held to discuss what it would be and how we could do it. As much as Vjesnik wanted a political magazine, the circumstances made it difficult, and it took some time before Danas was successful. But Vjesnik was quite healthy, so it could fund the magazine until it found its footing. In the mid-1980s Danas became a symbol of the modern, contemporary magazine for all of Yugoslavia.”

The new monograph, with essays by Milton Glaser and Steven Heller

Ilić and Studio SLS (English translation: “Slow, Bad, Expensive”) started working with Danas in the summer of 1982, often collaborating with the photographer Luka Mjeda and the magazine’s design department, which was led by the art director Danijel Popović. Ilić and his team designed about 150 covers and illustrations over the next three years. They usually created some kind of photo-illustration, leaving space for headlines to be added by the news editors. “It was a good exercise for the brain,” Ilić said. “I had to come up with 20 different cover ideas for topics such as inflation.”

Bošnjak says, “As a newsmagazine, Danas with its graphics never reached the quality of its articles. Ilić was investing great efforts in cover pages, but because of the schedule, there was never enough time for more ambitious ideas. Deciding what the cover should be was always put off to the last minute, and usually the choice was determined by what could be done the quickest.”

Ilić says that his decision to use photographs was entirely intentional: “I never thought that illustration was the only way to express an idea. When I got the job, I immediately decided that I would not illustrate the cover of Danas, and that there would never be a picture of a politician on it.”

“There were attempts to influence us and claims that politicians must be on the cover,” Mjeda says. “But we never used a single politician. Even if the editors felt strongly that a politician should be on the cover, we still did not do it. Though sometimes it was done by the graphic department.”

Creatively, Ilić was a great choice for the ambitious newsmagazine, but in the context of the time, his work often rankled the political establishment. As Ilić himself said, he “was a slap in the face of society”—not just his work, but his entire image. He was among the first to understand and advocate the importance design had in influencing the politics and marketing of ideas. “The covers really encouraged people to read the articles,” Mjeda said. “Of course, the success of Danas did not depend on them entirely, but they certainly contributed. This idea was confirmed when we spoke to people at Time magazine. What we did with our modest budgets and tight schedules definitely caught their attention. Their comment was: Your front covers are a lot more aggressive and bolder than what we do in America, but that might be what it takes to emphasize a problem so that more attention is dedicated to it.”

Above: Danas covers from Ilić’s tenure

The journalist and editor Inoslav Bešker says: “We realized while working at the youth newspaper that something might be expressed by an illustration that could not be expressed any other way. We transferred this idea into Danas, and it was not by chance that Ilić created those powerful covers (for which the editor in chief was almost skinned alive). One good illustration can more clearly express a story’s essence than the seven pages of accompanying text. Ilić never questioned the quality of his work; he was only concerned that what he created helped push the article to a higher level. Of course, this is a debate that has existed since the beginning of time between author and illustrator: Who is really communicating the idea more clearly, the writer or the artist?”

“We were kicked out of Danas twice,” Mjeda said. “The first time we stopped working because the entire editorial board was under attack. This coincided with my trip to America, where I spent four months. During that time, Ilić did not even want to come near Danas. Then things quieted down, the editorial board was kept, and they asked for Mirko to keep on working. When I returned, we started work and picked up right where we left off. Our covers were still sharp and critical. Things were back to normal for a while, and then a great turmoil occurred. One editor left, and his replacement arrived. We did two or three covers that the new editor wanted to change. Mirko got into an argument and said, ‘You will not change my covers,’ and it was a goodbye forever. It was already late 1985, and we simply closed that chapter in our heads. One of the last things we did before we went to America was to collect hundreds of Danas covers and give them to the Zagrebački Salon.

In May 1986, my wife called me and said, ‘Congratulations on the award.’ We were already so far away from Danas both physically and emotionally that I wondered, What award? ‘For Danas,’ she told me. Being in a distant country and getting told that we had received an independent award for something we had worked so hard on (and, not incidentally, been fired for) was wonderful.”

This article is from the October 2012 issue of Print. Purchase the issue, or download a PDF version, at MyDesignShop.com.