“For magazine people, he changed everything”: Tributes to advertising’s most audacious mind, George Lois
As the creative world reflects on the death of a giant, we look back at his career, from years of gutsy Esquire covers to I Want My MTV.
- Liz Gorny
- 21 November 2022
Art director George Lois was known for his colossal impact on many different areas of culture – shaking up publications and TV channels, even widely popularising Xerox – but he was advertising’s bright light. As BusinessWeek once said: “Every industry has its stars, and in the world of advertising, George Lois is a Supernova, the original Mr. Big Idea.” He died on Friday, 18 November, at age 91, in his home in Manhattan.
Figures across the creative industry have been sharing tributes to the legendary graphic communicator while reflecting on some of his most indomitable works.
It is impossible to look back at George Lois’ career without revelling in his years churning out counterculture concepts for Esquire, condemning the Vietnam war and tackling racism in America. George contributed dozens, among them the April 1968 Esquire cover of Muhammad Ali posing as the martyr St. Sebastian. Associated Press called it “one of the most iconic images of the decade, tying together the incendiary issues of the Vietnam War, race and religion. The image is so powerful that some people of a certain age remember where they were when they saw it for the first time.”
Other covers include a depiction of a drowning Andy Warhol disappearing into a can of Cambell’s soup and boxer Sonny Liston as Santa Claus. Photographer Shane Taylor recently shared the moment on Twitter: “His Sonny Liston cover – when Liston was the most hated man in America. This took a huge amount of chutzpah on both their parts and lost a fortune in advertising.”
Other creatives have reflected on his impact; former editor-in-chief of Life magazine, Bill Shapiro, wrote on 20 November: “Legendary art director George Lois died yesterday. For magazine people, he changed everything.”
In 1982, George Lois revived MTV with the genius I Want My MTV campaign, encouraging viewers to call up their cable providers and demand that they show MTV, at the behest of stars like Peter Townshend and Pat Benatar. George’s impact in American markets extends to helping popularise Xerox, VH1 and even Gourmet Frozen Foods, with his name Lean Cuisine. Throughout his career, he pushed to constantly bring what he termed “The Big Idea” to projects – a concept that communicates the unique selling point of a product, masterfully. He is also known to be one of the inspirations for Mad Men’s Don Draper, despite hating the show himself.
In 2011, It’s Nice That interviewed the art director, where George explained his journey with creativity started at a young age. “When I was very, very young – five, six, seven, eight years old – my mother and father would force me to go to sleep at 10pm. [...] I would sleep for maybe two hours, and then I would get up at 12am or 12.30am and I would spend two hours drawing in secret – I wouldn’t let my parents find out I was doing it. I would just draw and draw in the middle of the night, listening out with one ear in case somebody got up or something. [...] I still did it until about five or six years ago.”
In response to George’s death, Brian Collins writes: “He brought style and brainy muscularity to advertising and culture-shaping design to all. That he defined himself, first, as designer, made me enter advertising. That he worked until the end let me see what made him a legend.”
Jeremy Liebman, who shot George for It’s Nice That Issue #6 in 2011, recently reflected on the experience on Instagram. “He was everything I expected – brash, intense, playful, opinionated – and a few things I didn’t – kind, collaborative, accommodating. [...] It’s the first and only time I’ve ever been physically shoved around by an 80 year old, and I’ll cherish it forever.”
“The great George Lois has left us,” creative consultancy Stan/Lee shares. “A huge talent, big personality and an astonishing body of work. Heaven won’t know what’s hit it when George breaks down those pearly gates.”
Portrait by Jeremy Liebman for It’s Nice That Issue #6
About the Author
Liz (she/they) joined It’s Nice That as news writer in December 2021. After graduating in Film from The University of Bristol, she worked freelance, writing for independent publications such as Little White Lies, INDIE magazine and design studio Evermade.