The Cutting Humor of Art Director Michael Gross

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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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