About a month ago, I turned on the Public Radio International program Studio 360 and was pleased to hear the unmistakable Bronx accent of legendary adman George Lois, who was host Kurt Andersen's guest that morning. The talk inevitably turned to Lois's covers for Esquire in the sixties, the high point of his career and probably one of the high points in 20th century American graphic design, period. Why, wondered Andersen, didn't anybody do covers like these any more? "They're all infatuated with the idea that celebrity, pure celebrity, sells magazines," growled Lois.
Exactly one week later, I served as a judge for the annual competition of the Society of Publication Designers. Walking down table after table groaning under the weight of glossy magazines festooned with photographs of celebrities (or "celebrities") Jessica Simpson, Ashton Kutcher, Carrie Anne Moss and Justin Timberlake, it was hard to deny that Lois was right.
George Lois's covers for Esquire provided my first glimpses into the world of graphic design thinking. In the suburban Cleveland of my childhood and early adolescence, Lois's images -- Mohammed Ali pierced with arrows a la St. Sebastian, Richard Nixon in the makeup chair, Andy Warhol drowning in his own soup - didn't look like anything else in our house. I realize now they were like messages from another world, a world of irreverence and daring. Each was so brutally concise, so free of fat and sentiment. They weren't just pictures, they were ideas. Even before I knew he existed, I wanted to do what George Lois did. I wanted to come up with those ideas. I suspect I wasn't the only one.
But that was then. Today, you'd search in vain for a magazine that commissions covers like those. The best-designed mass circulation American magazines today - Details, GQ, Vanity Fair and, yes, Esquire - usually feature a really good photograph by a really good photographer of someone who has a new movie out, surrounded by handsome, often inventive typography. The worst magazines have a crummy picture of someone who has just been through some kind of scandal, surrounded by really awful typography.
What art directors used to call the "Esquire cover" - a simple, sometimes surreal, image that somehow conceptually summarizes the most provocative point of one of the stories within - never found many imitators outside of Esquire even at its peak. Certainly few editors, then or now, were willing to imitate Esquire's Harold Hayes, who gave Lois the freedom to devise covers from nothing more than a table of contents.
And it's important to remember that Esquire was famous then not only for its covers but as the place for great writing, a place where Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Gay Talese and John Sack helped invent the New Journalism. Indeed, it was Sack's profile of Lt. William Calley, accused of leading a massacre of women and children in a Vietnamese village, that inspired one of the magazine's most powerful covers. I doubt that Lois at his peak could do one tenth as much with a vapid puff piece on Cameron Diaz.
But today I also think that there is simply a general distaste for reckless visual ideas. In the sixties, the bracing clarity of the "big idea" school of design was fresh: Lois, like Bob Gill and Robert Brownjohn and their disciples, could rightly claim to have found a position beyond style. But eventually the cadences of the big idea, the visual pun, began to seem not just brazen, but crass, with all the subtlety of an elbow in the ribs.
You can only have your rib poked so many times, and it doesn't seem to put you in the mood to buy things. Today's magazine ideal magazine cover is enticing, not arresting, aiming not for shock, but for seduction. A George Lois Esquire on today's newsstand would be as out of place as an angry vegetarian at an all-you-can-eat steak dinner. And whatever function graphic design is supposed to serve these days, ruining your appetite doesn't seem to be one of them.