• Steven Heller

Magazine Pages, Lionni-Style

To promote well-designed advertisements for Fortune magazine, in the late 1950s its art director Leo Lionni (1910–1999) devised a formidably large booklet in a slipcase to demonstrate “Fortune‘s high standards of graphic excellence” in terms of its four-color letterpress printing. The abstract forms below are either single or double pages from this book, titled Designs for the Printed Page, and they must be seen as an anomaly in the advertising/publication world. Rather than feature hard-sell copy and reproductions of successful advertisements, the book showcases abstract designs and reveals aesthetics not normally employed in advertisement design. Lionni was very clear that his goal was to show advertisers a different—yet proven—direction. He wrote:

Design is form. Sometimes it is decorative form, and has no other function that to give pleasure to the eye. Often it is expressive form, related to conceptual content, to meaning. It is always abstract; but like a gesture or a atone of voice it has the power to command and hold attention , to create symbols, to clarify ideas . . . For the advertiser, design performs in many useful ways. It is called upon to catch the eye, to implement copy, to set the stage for illustrations, to establish identity, or simply to get the most out of the physical limitations of the magazine page. It is an intuitive language, difficult to speak, yet easily understood. Few fail to recognize a strong composition, an intriguing arrangement, an arresting color invention . . .

Lionni offered 47 pages’ worth of distinct designs and fascinating juxtapositions of harmonious and contrasting forms (some of which are reproduced here). He added:

One purpose of this book is to remind advertisers that design is a seemingly inexhaustible source of visual excitement. Its pages will take you from the explosive vitality of free shapes to the compelling stillness of bilateral symmetry, from the daringly generous use of white space to the complex involutions of multicolored shapes, from the meticulousness of precise geometry to the charm of the free-flowing human gesture. . . . the pages of this book have not been designed as mere eye-catchers for just any block of advertising copy. They are intended to indicate, instead, the immense variety and pliability of the language of design, and the power of the printed page to evoke a multitude of moods with ever unexpected means.

Lionni believed that these formal precepts could be applied to virtually any advertisement. But this is not a “how-to,” it is a “Hey, what’s this?” When was the last time a promotion piece to sell advertising asked aesthetic and formal questions? I wonder whether clients today would understand it. I doubt that any publication today would invest in such an abstract idea.

(Speaking of Fortune, see yesterday’s Nightly Daily Heller for news on the Society of Illustrators’ exhibit of cover artist Antonio Petruccelli)


For a comprehensive overview of advertising-design strategies, see Alex W. White’s Advertising Design and Typography.

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