When Covers Were Covers

Image genius George Lois now seems quaint -- kind of like magazines

There's one problem with spending a morning with George Lois, the still-snarling lion in winter of advertising and magazine design: I can't print much of it. Lois swears like a sailor with shelves full of dictionaries and anatomy textbooks.

We are here to talk about the sorry state of magazine covers, long ago colonized more or less completely by celebrities and countless come-hither cover lines. Lois just gave a lacerating speech on this topic to a crowd of magazine executives. (It was received with a frisson of masochistic glee.) Right now he's staring at half a newsstand's worth of current magazines. "What could be duller than that cover?" he muses. "Boring. Dull. Mindless. Unambitious. There's no attempt to do anything exciting." A glance at another: "Boy, they retouched the [expletive] out of that [expletive] picture!"

In the 1950s, Lois, now 74, was a boy wonder of the ad world at watershed agencies like Doyle Dane Bernbach. During the 1960s and early '70s, while running his own ad agency, he created iconic Esquire covers still beloved by magazine geeks: heavyweight champ Sonny Liston as Santa Claus; Andy Warhol drowning in a can of Campbell's (CPB ) soup; Muhammad Ali as St. Sebastian. "Big idea" covers, as he puts it -- a singular image, minimal type, a visual pun. You don't see these anymore. (One exception: new launch Radar, for which Lois consults.)

LOIS IS EXACTLY the kind of grumpy old man I aspire to be: accomplished, unapologetic, full of great stories. So it is with regret that I point out that the core of his critique -- that the infuriating sameness of magazine covers is one reason why so many "sit unsold at the newsstands," as he said in his speech -- is dead wrong. And it misapprehends myriad commercial and cultural pressures today that were absent in his heyday.

Every medium has a golden age, where creative mojo and commerce happily overlap: TV news in the '50s, Esquire and other "new journalism" havens in the '60s, American cinema in the '70s. These were eras of unconsolidated ownership, when the terrain was new enough that commercial rewards still flowed to the offbeat. Then a few blockbusters -- The Exorcist, say, or Star Wars -- changed the calculus for potential profits. Then the big players bought up the little guys, as Hearst Magazines did with Esquire and MGM's owner did with United Artists.

Welcome to the world today, a world of big media companies where the bottom line looms larger and larger. And welcome to the current cultural moment. Celebrity has eaten almost everything, and new media choices zoom toward you every day. The fusty magazine format seems quaint. Lois insists, not unreasonably, that no one even attempts ambitious covers anymore. Others cite reasons why. The big idea cover "is not something a mature, successful magazine can do every month," says David Granger, Esquire's editor-in-chief since 1997. "You won't sell any magazines." (During Granger's tenure, a gradual shift to more standard cover approaches led to increased single-copy sales.) It's a drag when commercial pressures squash aesthetics. But it was ever thus. The spine-tingling statements happen mostly at the margins, save for a few atypical periods.

Lois helped create such a period, though, and he recalls it so vividly that it induces nostalgia for a time you never saw. The printable parts of his syntax are all "rat finks" and "mugs" and "dames." His memories are peopled with Kennedys and heavyweight champs and Andy Warhol. After work you entered the bar, with its scents of cigarettes and scotch, while huge postwar sedans glided silently past the window. This time is long gone. Today the street hums with wireless signals, and everyone communes with Treos and Sidekicks. But while Lois is talking, you can only nod and think it must have been great to have been there.

By Jon Fine

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