George Lois Rips Today’s Magazines A New One

In a interview with Blackbook (here) George Lois doesn’t pull any punches on the state of magazine design today. I was at the SPD awards ceremony when he received a lifetime achievement award of sorts and remember getting so charged up after listening to him talk and watching a video Fred Woodward shot. Of course once back to reality, in an office filled with editors who wanted to cram information in every nook and cranny of the magazine that energy soon drained out. I can’t wait for magazines to stop trying to become websites and go back to being magazines again. George agrees:

“Magazine design is almost an oxymoron with most magazines today. It goes for even a great magazine like Vanity Fair. If you get even one inch of white space to breath you’re lucky. Everybody’s just packing in the information. Most magazines you pick up — you choke to death.”

“They say, ‘People buy magazines to read, for information.’ Well, you buy a magazine not only for that but so you can have exciting visual experiences. They try to jam words and pictures on every square-inch of the page like they’re working on a Web site.”

“Look at Vogue. Oh my God. Vogue and Harper’s once were very well designed magazines. I mean they were exciting to look at. You could not give a shit about fashion and be excited by the whole look of the magazine. You look at Vogue now: it’s not even designed. What a difference. You pick up a Vogue back in the days of [Condé Nast’s Alexander] Lieberman and those guys, and you look at it now, and it’s a disgrace.”

“Very few magazines do you look through — and I’m not talking as a designer, I’m talking as a normal person — do you look through something and you open a spread and it takes your breath away a little bit…

“I know, you’re pressured by your editor. If not the editor, the publisher: ‘Look at all this wasted space here.’ Blah, blah, blah. ‘Your readers want information.’

“Well, oh shit. Go fuck yourself.

“Meanwhile you go to a newstand, there’s about 200 magazines that all look the same. They got pictures of somebody — some asshole — I’ll never understand how editors and publishers think — showing just a famous person with blurbs all over their face. I’ll never understand why they think that would be something people would want to buy. I don’t get it.

“It’s a joke. A couple of years all the editors and publishers [at ASME] invited me to come down and kick their asses about covers. I go down. Standing ovation. ‘Wow! Wow! Wow! Wow!’ Nothing changed. It’s all bullshit.”

There Are 42 Comments On This Article.

  1. Michael Jackson

    I couldn’t agree more with him. its all about filling every space with ads and information. It doesn’t just stop at magazines either.

  2. I love George’s work and thoroughly enjoyed last year’s MOMA exhibit of his Esquire covers. His concepts were always groundbreaking and never diluted by extraneous cover lines. Clearly, less was more…

    • @Todd Korol,

      Funny, I thought it had to do with the INTERNET.

      Notice George only talks about design – he does not equate it with the magazine industry decline. While you could argue that it is implied, you could also argue that NO AMOUNT OF BRILLIANT DESIGN will save the publications that have to compete with things like George’s interview online, this blog that could not be a print publication, and this silly comment. There just isn’t enough time in the day, plain and simple.

      His personality is infectious, but he can’t talk about the business side of things as they exist today, he is simply not qualified. If he had to compete with the internet, he would be in the same position as everyone else.

  3. I met him about 25 years ago and he was more or less preaching the same sermon. Mister Lois, stop telling us what to do. Show us! You got money. You got attitude. Time to invest some time in a magazine, make it great, and show us how good, smart design sells magazines. Until you do so, it’s just blah blah blah.

    • Donnar Party

      @mitch, so you disagree? You like how US Vogue is designed? If he published a well designed mag, he could be correct, but since he doesn’t, its all “blah blah blah”?

      • @Donnar Party,

        Perhaps my comment is easy to misinterpret: I do not necessarily disagree with George’s comments, I simply feel that the best way to affect the industry is by doing, not talking. As M.T. noted in a later post, Fabien Baron showed the industry how one could successfully integrate strong design in a large readership publication. His work at HB and W had a strong effect on other magazines. We should also note, however, that visually strong magazine have not always done well financially.

        My comment, therefore, is to prod Lois, and others, to show how a large circulation publication can be successful and have good design.

  4. YES YES YES! Magazines deserve the fate they are creating for themselves, total irrelevance. The stewards of these once meaningful enterprises have screwed the pooch. But then all you have to do is look around, and they unfortunately are a direct representation of the world we live in. Everything is crammed with more stuff and information, screaming for our attention, until all the voices of reason and relevance have been drowned out by the din.

    • @Mike Peters,

      Completely disagree. The more information we have, the more that the cream rises to the top.

      The best will always stand out, and now it will stand out even more.

      Also, magazines don’t deserve anything. Magazines are made of people – do they deserve to all be fired?

      • @Cletus,

        Information is a wonderful thing, but there are many ways to get it. How it’s organized is the key, and it seems to me that information is just vomited on the page more often than not. Magazines are not web pages, they are objects, things to behold. Most magazines yell and scream and bludgeon us with too much, there’s no place to reflect on what you’ve read, too many little boxes fighting for our attention. If I want to be subjected to a screaming medium, then I turn on the TV. If I want endless information, then I log on to the web.

        I feel for everyone who works in the print media, the world is changing and the people who run it haven’t figured out if they should zig or zag. The problem is, the people who buy magazines, and the fact that it is a market driven industry. Make money or go away. Good clean design does not win the day. The populace has the attention span of a flea, and they spend their money on screaming headlines and little boxes, so the magazines go where the money is. In a simpler day, magazines had relevance to it’s readers. Maybe that day has just gone away and there is no way to recapture the magic.

        Yes, magazines are people, and it’s a shame that people loose their livelihood when a magazine goes under. It’s also a shame the way many magazines have treated their employees over the years, not to mention their contract employees and temps, but that’s another subject for another day.

        The best will find a way to make sense to their audience, and when there are only a few magazines left on the newsstand they will indeed stand out. Despite all that I’ve said, I do realize that I am not the target demographic and no one cares what I think.

  5. Actually many websites actually feature better design than most magazines.

    Somehow I started receiving National Geographic Adventure, and it’s painful to look at, as are most for profit (?) magazines. Just massive visual confusion.

    Oh if this could only change, but then isn’t this a “more is better” society?

      • @Darrell Eager,
        Right. And I’m not celebrating.

        I have no doubt at all that the designers working at the magazines would happily do things differently in an ideal world.

  6. Richard Prince

    Obviously, George is a self-centered egotist who believes he is a genius and everybody else is an idiot. I agree 100% with Mitch who says “prove it” but I would add “asshole” The guys are just big self-aggrandizing pricks who summarily cast everything in present as BAD and the past as an ideal. Magazine come in all shapes, sizes, degrees of design and with different purposes. George talks about them as if they were all of one type or kind. That’s lazy thinking and small-minded finger pointing.

  7. Thankyou so much, finally a voice to be heard in the industry. Listen up you magazines! This here is the truth!

  8. Great stuff, though he comes across more as cynical than fired-up. Think I would still consider Neville Brody to be a higher level:

    To be fair, there are well designed good looking enjoyable publications. It is unfortunate that many newsstands don’t push them. There is instead a preference towards anything with the celebrity of the week on it … or the “what pic of Brad and/or Angelina have we not run this year” mentality. Sad.

  9. I’m reminded of this talk by Jacek Unko in which he describes how his redesigns of various European newspapers, including a radical shift in the importance of visuals, resulted in between 29 and 100% jumps in circulation. It wasn’t design alone that did the trick, but design played a large role.

  10. No one at these magazines George talks about has ‘balls’ anymore- just Joan or Johnny Punchclock not needing to rock the boat. castrated by high rents, bar tabs and the latest apple product.

  11. I like George, I think he is right!

    @mitch how long do you have to show people how to do it? I don’t think it is necessary when you have decades of examples on how to do it. It’s like the Nike slogan – “Just Do It”

    Yes there can be growth and improvements, better ways learned, but often eye’s become blinded. intellegence over used, kinda like the thinking outside the bax cartoon is appropos, and the biggest pitfall of all is greed. Which is fed to the people who have to produce the content. Fit more in we make more money. BS. I think you turn people off.

    Personnally I think it’s like a Roman orgy out there and nobody knows whos doing who. Chaotic like the covers and the inside has more ads than content. Vomit

  12. To tar all magazines with this brush is disingenuous, unless perhaps George Lois has never actually visited Europe. Or maybe he’s just speaking to the US magazine industry. I found it hard to tell.
    Consumer magazines here in the UK are definitely suffering a similar info overload and the web-design effect is clear to see – CAR magazine being a perfect example of a publication whose photography used to stand out but is now cluttered with peripheral garbage.
    There are plenty of mags available here that are putting design first, and treating great images with the reverence they deserve;
    Try tracking down a copy of:

    Fantastic Man
    Man About Town
    The Ride Journal
    Self Service

    • @Neil, Thank you Neil. Great looking, great reading and purposeful magazines in this list. Esp. Monocle which is probably the most editorially based of the list.

  13. Richard Prince

    Magazines are failing because… they don’t have enough white space?

    There is a old adage for this kind of mindless myopia: “Not being able to see the forrest though the trees.”

    I pine for the old days when there were no pictures in magazines and newspapers, ONLY black inky text. Photos like George Lois’ have cheapened and sensationalized periodical publications and destroyed their intellect. I remember the Nation, New Republic and the New York Review of Books. They didn’t cheapen themselves with sleazy photos. Maybe an occasional hand drawn illustration was added or a cartoon but none of these false illusions foisted upon us by photographs.

    George Lois’ self-serving proselytizing is soooo obvious, it is hard to take him seriously.

    Is that good enough reasoning for you Luddites out there?

  14. I think content is king but to Mr. Lois’ point, if you don’t deliver the content in a compelling fashion you will lose the audience – I don’t care what media you are using.

    Magazines have been damaged in part because the internet has been more compelling. Does ANYONE really think that filling pages of a magazine with MORE information will help them compete? I don’t think so.

  15. Hallelujah! I couldn’t have said it better. He is spot on about the disgraceful state of the magazine industry.

  16. I may be off base, but I don’t really care.

    As long as the magazines see a need for my photography and they are willing and capable of paying, then they can design in any way they choose.

    What I personally feel about magazines is irrelevant.

    I’m just sayin’

  17. Great! US design is in the gutter. Look at architecture – hotel chains, strip malls, box stores etc. Cars. Horrible! I picked up Harper’s Bazaar last week and couldn’t believe how bad the design looked. Vogue’s looked cheap for years. Rolling Stone used to look great. Now it’s terrible. George Lois told it as it is.

  18. Ok, a rash statement. Not all US design is in the gutter. There’s some great stuff out there. It’s just that so much of what’s high profile and visible every day is depressingly bad.

  19. Underlying all the bad design is the reliance on celebrity. Nothing matters more than pushing a brand name personality.