Not to Sedate! To Awaken, to Disturb, to Provoke!

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Monday night, The City College of New York presented its Presidential Award to indefatigable wunder-elder, art director, designer and “big idea” ad man George Lois, who is gifting the majority of his massive archive to CCNY. (A portion of his archives are also at the RlT Vignelli Center for Design Studies.)

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“Our job is to provoke …”

Designated “The George Lois Big Idea Archive,” the collection comprises films, TV and radio commercials, print ads, posters, scripts, correspondence, photos, memorabilia and numerous other items from a remarkable career spanning more than 65 years. The archive will be open to the public and will be available for educational and research purposes. A Bronx native, Lois said he entrusted his archives to what he described as a “hometown university.”

At his table were some of the greats he mentions in his stirring acceptance speech (the text of which is printed below, and an excerpt of which was also captured on video here) including Joe Namath, Senator Bill Bradley and former congressman and 2004 presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich (who I had spent time with over 35 years ago, supported deeply and talked to briefly using some of the same words that Lois said in his talk—including that he was right about his unfailing championship of diplomacy and peace).

Lois was one of five recipients of the Presidential Award, including actor and director Malcolm-Jamal Warner. He received standing ovations from the 300 or so guests, and earned well-deserved praise for helping to make advertising into a Modern(ist) creative profession rather than a white-shoe exclusive club.


Logo and campaign designed by Lois for CCNY.

Acceptance speech presented by George Lois at the CCNY Presidential Award Dinner:Growing up in a loving, Greek family in the Bronx, it was understood that the only son of Haralambos and Vasilike Lois would finish high school and take over his father’s flower shop. But my drawings at P.S. 7 caught the eye of my 8th grade art teacher, Mrs. Engle, who handed me a black string portfolio filled with my drawings which she had saved, and sent me to the High School of Music & Art (a brilliant specialized school founded in 1936 by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia). After my first day at Music & Art, I knew that I would never be a florist.

At Music & Art, I was inspired by the Bauhaus movement, which had ignited a Modernist approach in the design world that illuminated new possibilities in two-dimensional graphics. That revolutionary period developed into the “Golden Age of Modernism and American Graphic Design”: Paul Rand, Bill Golden, Lou Dorfsman and Herb Lubalin became known as the “New York School of Design,” and I was inducted by them as the enfant terribile of the movement.

But with that strong design background, I have never regarded myself as a “designer.” I am a “Graphic Communicator”—because I create Big Ideas, not “Designs.” (Surely, great graphic design is not merely the aesthetic arrangement of lines and shapes—great graphic design is the transformation of a Big Idea into an unforgettable image!) By the late 1950s, advertising had always been an industry run by WASPs, mostly racist, anti-Semitic and decidedly anti-ethnic—until the street-smart sons of immigrants broke into the ranks. That was me.

My concern has always been with creating images that catch people’s eyes, penetrate their minds, warm their hearts and cause them to act—and, additionally, I have always understood that truly great graphic and verbal communication reflects and adapts to the culture, anticipates the culture, criticizes changes in the culture, and helps to change the culture.

If we aspire to succeed, as a graphic communicator or an educator at CCNY, our mission in life is not to sedate, but to awaken, to disturb, to communicate, to command, to instigate and even to provoke. We must all aspire to instill a heroic ethos into the souls of the students we teach, and fight against the blatant attempt by those in government to dumb-down the curriculums of higher learning in America, and refuse to strengthen and invest in our troubled public universities.

In this digital age, we are drowning in information while starving for wisdom. Join those of us who talk truth to power … that are hard on big business moguls, fat cats, “the authorities,” courts, politicians, racism, anti-semitism, police brutality, naysayers of global warming and higher education, Wall Street greed, government that benefits the wealthy at the expense of the poor and powerless, needless and endless wars, and anyone corrupted by money and power. Most importantly to all in this room, we must fight for the soul of public education in New York and throughout our nation.

And, together, we must join forces against a “build a wall, ban Muslims, deport immigrants, Climate Control is a Chinese Conspiracy, punish a woman’s right to choose,” [and reject a] truly racist candidate for the presidency of the United States.

The true purpose of the education of CCNY students is to inspire them to unleash their creative potential in whatever field they identify as their bliss, because creativity can solve almost any problem—the creative act, the defeat of habit by originality, overcomes everything. Fittingly, my mandate for all, teachers, alumni and students, is “Feel the Power of a Life of Discovery!”

Thank you Dr. Coico, for this great honor, and thank you for all your warmth and support. And may I thank my all-American Chairpersons: My son Luke, Senator Bill Bradley, food impresario Phil Suarez, the iconic champion of woman’s rights, Billie Jean King … and a warm welcome to Dennis Kucinich, who was right about every unheeded word in the 2004 presidential primary … and thank you, Joe Namath, for all you’ve done to help New York stay No. 1.

Lastly, I want to say how happy I am to have finally decided on entrusting my archives to a hometown university, this university, The City College of New York. CCNY has always been an inspirational melting pot of Big Idea thinking in all intellectual and creative-driven professions, graduating many of the most distinguished people in the world, including 10 Nobel Laureates, derived from one of the most democratic student bodies in America. CCNY is still the greatest opportunity in America for striving students of modest means—indeed, the poor man’s (and woman’s) Harvard.

My high school, The High School of Music & Art, which in my mind was the greatest institution of learning since Alexander sat at the feet of Aristotle, is in plain view sitting on the edge of your glorious urban campus, and my archives, headed for CCNY, make me feel like I’ve truly come home.

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About Steven HellerSteven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →