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Three lessons from… George Lois

A portrait of George Lois in 1964 and a second taken over 50 years later in 2016.

“To read George Lois on advertising, is to read Leonardo Da Vinci on art, Julius Cesear on warfare and Clifford Irving on fraud.”
- American critic Gene Shalit.

George Lois (b. 1931) was a pioneer of the 1960s Creative Revolution in American Advertising. From making Tommy Hillfiger an instant hit with a single ad, to changing the fortunes of a failing MTV with his “I Want My MTV” campaign, to designing some the 20th century´s most iconic magazine covers, Lois is a master communicator. Here are three lessons we can all learn from the creative genius.

1) –“Truly great graphic and verbal communication reflects, adapts and helps to change the culture”-

Take Lois´ Esquire cover “The Passion of Muhammad Ali”, which pictured the Boxer pierced by arrows, standing as a martyr in the fashion of St Sebastian, for refusing to fight in the Vietnamese war. Ali´s decision led him to be sentenced to jail and stripped of his heavyweight boxing title. Together with the controversy of his deeply unpopular conversion to Islam four years earlier, this scenario created a highly charged cultural affair. Lois knew this, adapted this and reflected this in the cover. As the art director says, great advertising “should encapsulate the culture.”

2) –Learning your art history is essential for creative work-

A knowledge of “the world around you and especially the 7000 years of art is essential to doing creative work,” Lois fervently states. After all, “The Passion of Muhammad Ali” would never have existed if it wasn´t for Lois´ knowledge of Francesco Botticini´s Saint Sebastian, ca. 1460.

3) –“There is no such thing as a cautious creative.”-

“We´re gonna get into big trouble with this cover,” Lois would regularly say to Esquire´s editor, Harold Hayes. An example? Lois´s first Esquire cover. This pictured the heavyweight champion, Floyd Patterson, an 8-1 favourite for his upcoming title fight against Sonny Liston, lying dead in the ring of an empty arena. The prediction initially became a laughing stock in the sports world and the cover only ran because Hayes threatened to quit if it didn´t. Less than a week later Liston destroyed Patterson and the cover became legendary.

Bonus quotes from George Lois

1) “The more innovative your idea, the more courageous you must be to sell it.”
2) “In the act of creativity, being careful guarantees sameness and mediocrity.”
3) “Throughout your whole career, no one ever can make you run bad work. A client can kill, kill and kill what you think is right for him, but he can´t make you run bad work.”

If you´re interested in learning more about George Lois, here are some great resources:

If you do it right, it, and you, will live forever: George Lois at TEDxThessaloniki:

Big Think Interview With George Lois:

George Lois speaking at CreativeMornings on his experience in advertising:


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