Food for thought‘[...] do not think that good design can make a poor product good, whether the product be a machine, a building, a promotional brochure or a business man. But [...] good design can materially help make a good product reach its full potential. In short, [...] good design is good business.’
Thomas J. Watson Jr., IBM CEO

George Lois Or The Story Of The Mad Man Who Cried ‘Mine’

April 23, 2012, 7:26 PM

‘A lie told often enough becomes the truth.‘ — attributed to V. I. Lenin

Phaidon have recently published the latest book by advertising legend, George Lois, entitled Damn Good Advice (for people with talent!). It is yet another inspirational book, very similar to those written by Paul Arden. The 120 pieces of advice are sustained by examples, usually from the author’s extensive career. Among juicy stories from the 1960s Mad Men era (so popular these days), he mentions his hero, Paul Rand, and his mentors, two teachers that recognised his talent and his first Creative Director, a lady, Reba Sochis. By the time you finish the book, you feel ready to take on the world, to go out and do your best work.

George Lois about Paul Rand (click for larger size)

There’s just one problem.

Many of George Lois’s stories are not true.  If you try to find out more about his work, you’ll soon learn that he has been taking credit not only for projects in which the work has been done through team effort, but even for projects in which he hasn’t been involved at all. In his book, he never mentions Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB) where he was employed, the Papert Koenig Lois agency where he was a partner, together with Fred Papert and Julian Koenig, nor Lois, Holland, Callaway.

The June 19, 2009 episode of This American Life, the radio show hosted by Ira Glass, features interviews with Julian Koenig, Fred Papert, George Lois’s ex-partners, and also with Carl Fischer (the photographer who shot most of the Esquire covers). They talk about projects they’ve done and to which extent George Lois was involved, if at all (links at the end of the post). After listening, it becomes very clear that George Lois is such a convincing story teller that he’s fallen victim to his own talent.

‘In my instance, the greatest predator of my work was my one-time partner George Lois, who is a most heralded and talented art director/designer, and his talent is only exceeded by his omnivorous ego. So where it once would’ve been accepted that the word would be “we” did it, regardless of who originated the work, the word “we” evaporated from George’s vocabulary and it became “my.”‘ — Julian Koenig

In 2005, George Lois published his book $elebrities, in which he basically replaces Julian Koenig in his own story about how he met Ernie Kovacs just hours before the latter’s death. Mr Koenig tried to fight back by running a witty ad in the New York Times. They never ran it, but AdWeek did, even if at the back of the magazine, to no response. Since I couldn’t find the original, I’ve taken the liberty to reimagine it, based on the ad for Coldene (coughing syrup), also Mr Koenig’s idea, but ‘stolen’ by George Lois. I’d be very happy if any of you would repost this.

George Lois is an advertising legend and he’s been writing books periodically, appeared in the Art & Copy film and other interviews, so he’s had a lot of exposure along the years. Still, due to the current craze around the Mad Men TV series, many publications and websites have recently run even more stories about him, naming him ‘the original Mad Man’ or ‘the original Don Draper’. Lois has often rejected this comparison, talking about the shallow depiction of the 1960s advertising world in the series, but it is ironic to find out how much he actually resembles Don Draper, whose whole adult life is based on a huge lie (I won’t spoil it for you, watch the show). It is such a shame that because of his exposure, George Lois gets to repeat his lies over and over again. Later corrections, if any, written in small print at the back of magazines or blog posts cannot repair the harm done.

I’m no idealist, but the end very rarely justifies the (appalling) means. Two of the best human traits are honesty and modesty. Unfortunately, many take the easier path to success, ignoring these two. But that won’t change the fact that they’re not worthy of being our models, our heroes.

 

‘Advertising is built on puffery, and, at heart, deception, and I don’t think anybody can go proudly into the next world with a career built on deception, even though no matter how well they do it.’ — Julian Koenig

FURTHER READING & LINKS
— listen to Ira Glass’s show with the above-mentioned interviews (or read the transcript);
— the Julian Koenig Wikipedia page — learn how he named Earth Day;
— the George Lois Wikipedia page, including the
Controversy section;
— another blog post about the same subject, including some video interviews of both George Lois and Mr Koenig (direct YouTube link).

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My taste is why my work disappoints me

October 19, 2011, 7:37 AM

A thought-provoking piece, something that should probably be read as a mantra each morning, titled “Your taste is why your work disappoints you”:

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners. I wish someone had told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase; they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have that special think that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know that it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you finish one story. It’s only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take a while. It’s normal to take a while. You just gotta fight your way through.
— Ira Glass

In short, there is no easy way out. You have to sweat over everything you do if you want it to be any good. Of course, you need talent just to have a real chance of getting somewhere in what you’re doing, but that will only get you as far as ‘decent’ — you need perseverance to make it to the ‘good’ section. And, with a bit of luck, you might even see a glimpse of ‘great’.

It felt like a small epiphany reading this — too often I’ve found myself unhappy with my work. I’ve always thought that a good way of learning is to watch others how they do it. And it was, for me at least. I would often surprise my college friends by being able to work in their style after watching them do just one or two drawings. But watching is not enough. It can break the ice for you, but if you want to make it to the shore, you’re on your own, with no one to help you. You have to go through it alone, fighting your own damned self. Beacons (mentors, colleagues, other sources of inspiration) might guide you awhile now and then, but most of the time, you’re in the dark, swimming for your very soul. You do get better with age if you keep going, but your best chance is to barely make it to the shore when you die. Any other way is just Sirens fucking with your mind. If you ever think “It’s easy, I know how to do this”, they’ve probably got you.

You do get better with age if you keep going, but your best chance is to barely make it to the shore when you die. Any other way is just Sirens fucking with your mind.

The quote is a transcript from a video interview with Glass, the “On Taste…” part. You can watch it here on Youtube. Via Untitled Mag, Kottke.

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