All hyperbole aside, George Lois will go down in the record books as one of the greatest art directors of all time, having built an astonishingly enduring career on editorial and advertising concepts—or “big ideas,” as he famously called them—that were accessible, witty, and always immediate. “His legacy is that he inspired generations of designers and art directors, he showed everyone what a magazine cover could aspire to be, and he changed our industry in the process,” says John Korpics, design director of In Style. “Not bad.”

It was Lois, a straight-talking, cocky kid from the Bronx, N.Y., who proved that this thing called a Xerox machine was so easy to use, a chimp could work it (people of a certain age still remember the ’60s-era commercial). In 1979, he coined the name Lean Cuisine for Stouffer’s, a clever rhyming moniker that made dieting appear stylish, just as his 1967 Braniff ads—featuring odd-couple flight mates like Andy Warhol and boxing champ Sonny Liston deep in conversation—made flying the airline seem like an intellectually stimulating experience. 

Unlike most advertising, which is ephemeral by nature, Lois’ work often had a lasting effect on his clients’ bottom line. His 1982 “I Want My MTV” campaign helped turn a foundering new cable network into a pop-culture behemoth. USA Today might not be the 5-million-plus-selling newspaper it is today if not for Lois’ willfully wacky 1982 campaign (declaring that the paper was proudly neither fish nor fowl, it featured a drawing of a creature that was part chicken and part fish). 

“I invented work that I’d call seemingly outrageous,” explains Lois, whose agency Papert, Koenig, Lois was perhaps the first to feature an art director’s name on the marquee. “You’d look at something and say, ‘Oh, my God, that’s outrageous.’ And then you realize, it’s NOT outrageous. The outrage grabs you, and then you realize how correct it is, how right it is.” 

In editorial circles, Lois is best known for his iconic 1960s Esquire covers—including the photo illustration of Andy Warhol drowning in a can of Campbell’s Soup for a story on the demise of the avant-garde and Muhammad Ali as St. Sebastian to dramatize the champ’s criminal prosecution for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War. Notes Michael Bierut, a partner at design firm Pentagram, “I became a graphic designer because of Lois’ Esquire covers,” says. Notes Korpics, who served as design director of Esquire before leaving for In Style early last year: “At some point in every art director’s career, we have all tried to do a George Lois cover, and we have all failed.”

But Lois and then editor Harold Hayes sometimes struggled over Lois’ choices. Hayes let him go forward with a cover that effectively called a boxing match that had yet to take place. (Lois’ prediction was correct: Against the odds, Sonny Liston destroyed Floyd Patterson.) But he did say no when Lois proposed juxtaposing a photo of the 100th soldier killed in Vietnam with this copy: “I’m the 100th GI killed in Vietnam. Merry Christmas.” Lois remembers telling Hayes, “‘You’re not gonna run that? I mean, that’s a stupid war. That thing’s gonna explode.’ And he convinced me—or he was scared to death because everybody was talking about the war’s gonna be over by Christmas.”

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George Lois was born in 1931. His pop was a florist, and young George logged many an hour at the shop, thus gaining a firsthand appreciation for the value—no, the necessity—of hard work. (Lois says that in the 1950s, when he was at pioneering agency Doyle, Dane, Bernbach, he’d arrive in the office at 5:30 a.m. and stay till 7 or 8 p.m., a practice that caused some consternation among his 9-to-5-minded colleagues.  One fellow art director explained he couldn’t be at work any earlier or later because he lived two and a half hours away. To which Lois replied, “You SHMUCK! I live five minutes away because I want to be HERE!”)

At the same time, George’s imagination was blossoming, and he spent a lot of time drawing. His work caught the eye of one of his teachers, who recommended him for the prestigious High School of Music and Art. The prevailing philosophy there was Bauhaus, which George both respected and challenged.  When an instructor passed out sheets of blank 18 x 24 paper and told the class to do a design based on rectangles, George sat motionless until the end of the period. When the teacher came to collect the work, George—who now admits he might have had “a shit-eating grin” on his face—signed the corner of the paper.  

Graduation was followed by military service (he fought in the Korean War) and a year or so at Pratt, which he left to proceed directly to a career that included stints at CBS, Lennen & Newell, Sudler & Hennessy, and, notably, Doyle, Dane, Bernbach, where he perfected his ability to home in on the essence of a product’s appeal and translate it into an eye-popping ad—an ad based on a big idea. That ability eventually became a mind-set, even after he left DDB to start Papert, Koenig, Lois, the first of four agencies bearing his name.  

Lois is now 74, but he is as tart as ever. “I think advertising is awful today,” he says. “People don’t even know what they’re trying to accomplish.” He adds, “They don’t understand that you can change the culture with an ad campaign. You can change a magazine with the look of the cover.” And he is just as disappointed by what he sees on newsstands. This past October, Lois delivered an excoriating speech at the American Magazine Conference in which he derided contemporary magazine covers, with their fixation on celebrities, as “sycophantic.” 

His critique of magazines and magazine covers today is wrong, wrong, wrong,” protested Businessweek’s Jon Fine in a column he wrote afterward. “At the heart of Lois’ lament is a grievance, a cry over where culture is going: all celebrities; all shiny surfaces; all quick hits of entertainment lite. It’s hard to disagree with him culturally, but being right culturally has nothing to do with being right commercially.” 

But George Lois is not about to accept that the day of the big idea is over. He’s still at it—working with his son Luke at their shop, Good Karma Creative, consulting for a magazine (a gig he had just landed before this interview, so he wouldn’t reveal the name), and putting the finishing touches on his seventh book, Ali Rap: Muhammad Ali, the First Heavyweight Champion of Rap, due from Taschen in May. He’s planning a splashy Manhattan publishing party that will include a tribute to the champ by today’s hottest rappers. Told that such an event would probably get a lot of press, Lois responded with characteristic brio: “It’s gonna get press up the gazoo!”

("If You Got It, Flaunt It," profile of iconic art director George Lois, published in PDN, 2005)