Updated at 11:25 a.m. ET on November 22, 2022.
As a freelance art director for Esquire in the 1960s, George Lois assailed Muhammad Ali with arrows, drowned Andy Warhol in a can of soup, and prepped Richard Nixon’s profile for a close-up. He stunned minds to attention, making magazine covers that spoke so urgently, they muted an entire newsstand’s worth of bold headlines. Through Lois’s work, history was reified.
I wasn’t alive in the ’60s, but I can tell you that many of the era’s visual markers that arise in my mind were made by Lois. (And I’m surely not alone in this—the Museum of Modern Art secured several of his works for its permanent collection.) He was a fierce and uncompromising visual visionary, a provocateur whose wordless commentary refracted America through dozens of roughly 8-by-10-inch canvases. He possessed an uncanny ability to channel collective sentiment in a time of deep political divide, but more than that, he transmitted messages that America didn’t realize it was ready to embrace. Until he died this past weekend at age 91, George Lois was the greatest living magazine art director. He will be remembered as a pioneering graphic artist of the 20th century.
Before Esquire, Lois made his bones as an ad man developing campaigns for Xerox and Robert F. Kennedy’s senatorial campaign. He was Bronx-born—brash, passionate, and willing to throw down the gauntlet to defend his ideas. Rumored to be the inspiration for Mad Men’s Don Draper, Lois rejected the comparison altogether (which is fair, because Draper didn’t have nearly as tight a grip on the counterculture as Lois did). Through advertising, Lois honed his stylish and daring sensibilities, which would carry him through a decade in magazines and then on to MTV, where he rescued a flailing brand and turned it into a zeitgeist-defining entity.
In 2019, when Peter Mendelsund and I began redesigning The Atlantic, no designer had more influence on us. Lois’s work left us no choice but to contend with it, occupying, as it does, a dominant space in the cultural imagination. We studied his covers, seeking to bring a similar sensibility to The Atlantic, which is to say we tried to copy him often. A common thread in Lois’s most searing designs is the relationship of typography to image. He frequently relied on a striking central visual component to anchor the cover while the rest of the elements remained deferential. This required bravery—as well as immense trust in the public—and removed the onus from the language. He reduced the cover’s typography to Lilliputian scale in order to harness the image’s massive power.
In 1968, Lois subjected Ali to the fate of Saint Sebastian, using arrows to martyr the iconoclastic athlete. In the cover’s bottom right-hand corner sits a small headline of five words. This magazine cover, among the most famous in American history, manages to confront race, religion, and the Vietnam War in a single conceptual image that is as brutal as it is brilliant.
Over dozens of Esquire issues, he didn’t just create iconic images; he deployed existing icons in order to subvert, reframe, and recontextualize them. Take his 1964 cover of Kennedy, with a hand photographed in the foreground of the frame, wiping away an imagined tear. This meta visual move adds friction to a static image; it forces us to confront and process tragedy in a new way. It turns the magazine, newsstand price 60 cents, into something that transcends its form—into something more like art.
From Jiffy Lube ads to the campaign for “I Want My MTV” to the boxer Sonny Liston donning a Santa hat on the cover of Esquire, contemporary American culture looks and feels the way it does in part because of Lois’s genius. If you’ve ever been struck by a piece of design in our pages, you might now recognize the traces of his influence. Even if you don’t, I can tell you that it’s there (our December 2019 and November 2021 covers are both valiant attempts at homage). History has no choice but to remember George Lois; he was an integral part of the machine of remembering.
This article has been updated to reflect that George Lois was a freelance art director for Esquire, not a member of the full-time staff. This article also originally misstated which campaign Lois designed materials for; it was Robert F. Kennedy's, not John F. Kennedy's.