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Book review: George Lois on His Creation of the Big Idea

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I can only imagine what it’s like living at the eye of a creative storm. New York in the late 1950s and ’60s was to advertising what London and Liverpool were to fashion and music.

It was the start of the creative revolution in communications. The explosion of goods available and the wherewithal to consume them meant the kind of earnest tombstone advertising that touted products with breathless hyperbole was ripe for assault from a new generation of advertising people—the creatives. These copywriters and art directors were influenced by trends in design such as Bauhaus modernism and infused with ideas from émigré intellectuals like le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Agencies such as Doyle Dane Bernbach rose like colossi bestride the avenues of Manhattan, famously joining writing and art craft people into teams, resulting in more conceptual advertisements rather than self-contained headlines with illustrations, such as you might find in a newspaper story.

One of the rising stars of the era was George Lois. Lois was trained at art school and then worked for a time with DDB before hanging his own shingle on Madison Avenue. But he’s probably more famous for design covers for Esquire magazine that were visually striking, witty and often provocative. They encapsulated the idea of a lead story in a way that celebrity-obsessed magazine editors fail to achieve these days. It was not enough for Lois to commission a picture-perfect portrait of Andy Warhol; instead, the artist is shown sinking into the quicksand of an open can of Campbell’s soup. Vietnam draft dodger Muhammad Ali is shown in his boxing trunks, as if lashed to a post and stuck with the bolts of an unseen archer, referring to the painting of St Sebastian by renaissance painter Francesco Botticini. In Lois’ eyes, the then-vilified Ali was a martyr.

In George Lois on his Creation of The Big Idea, Lois showcases his work through his long career and explains the inspirations and references that informed his ideas. Much of the communications seem dated now, though some, like the Esquire covers, are as pointed today as ever. It’s an easy book to flip through. Like a magazine, the ‘articles’ are short and episodic—or encapsulated, like the copy for an ad. Contrasting with the post-modern style of advertising that is common today, where ads reference other ads or follow a trend in style or tone, Lois’ work is more iconoclastic, though I wonder if the reasons provided are a case of post-rationalisation.

The book is a little tedious in parts because Lois is an endless self-promoter. His rat-a-tat New York Greek voice comes through in every paragraph and at times it can be mawkishly sentimental, the work of a man looking back fondly.

For all that, this is a handsome book and worth including if the history of contemporary culture is your thing.