For this book, Steve Brouwers (Creative Director at SBS) interviewed 44 makers – painters, photographers, graphic designers, conceptual artists, furniture designers, video artists, advertisers – from all over the world. He asked them about their childhood, their creative process, their inspirations and their most memorable achievements. These are (a part of) the questions he asked George Lois:
What is creativity to you?
What does a day in the life of George Lois look like?
I don’t think there has been a day in my life since I became a designer, where I didn’t have something to work on, or to find a solution or a big idea. What inspires me is when I get ‘the big idea’. That’s when I go crazy and start developing this big idea, working day and night. I don’t do it anymore, but I used to go to bed at midnight, sleep for an hour and a half and then get up for about three hours. I did my best work in those three hours.
I’m so lucky because my wife, who is a painter, understands what I’m about and has never complained for one second because I was working all the time. She loves to sit down with me to hear about what I’m doing. Something she has a good idea. She is a better writer than most people I’ve tried to write with.
Do you have a special place where you like to work?
My ideal work environment might be like the offices of the ad agencies I used to work at. The offices were beautiful and impeccable. If I had an ad agency today, it would look the same way. Everyone would have their own fucking room, an actual room. Not an open space. I don’t believe in people working together. I believe in one person working by himself or two people working together. I work by myself, so I don’t need a writer.
The biggest problem with young people today is that they have been taught to work in groups. It’s ridiculous. Five terrific people together are a problem, they will argue.
When I go and talk to ad agencies and I bring up the stupidity of working in groups to young people, they get up and cheer. So the head of the agency has just found out that his people hate working in groups. It’s just not the way to work if you’re talented. It’s in my book, Damn Good Advice. I have written a bunch of books, but for this one I really sat down and made sure that I wrote a book that every young talented person could read and study, so that they would absolutely fucking listen to me. Sometimes people say to me: “Listen Mr Lois, when I stand up for myself and argue, I might lose my job.” I tell them: “Okay, lose your fucking job. You want to be great? Suffer a little bit.”
Are there things that prevent you from being creative?
If I can’t get an idea in a couple of hours, something is wrong with what I’ve been told. I’m getting the wrong input. I’m serious. When I did the Esquire covers when I was a young man people asked me: “How do you know what to do?” I told them that I would have lunch with the editor, and he would tell me what the next issue was going to be about. He would just give me 4 or 5 things to work with. Maybe fifteen minutes later, while we were having lunch, I would have an idea. But I didn’t tell him about it, I don’t tell people about my ideas. And if I didn’t have an idea like that, it would mean he had a lousy magazine. If I didn’t like anything he came up with, I would just go ahead and do something I thought he should be talking about, and I would give that to him.
Where do you get your inspiration? What inspires you?
Everything. What I tell young people is: you have to build a DNA of creativity in your body - you have to be a sports fan, you have to love the movies, you have to love art, you have to go to the museum twelve times a year, you have to go to the theatre. You have to understand the culture.
I give classes, and one day I asked the students: “How many of you have been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, our biggest museum in New York? Anybody?” Not one. “How about the museum of Modern Art?” Maybe 12 out of 600 people. The teachers were all lined up in the first row. I said: “Shame on you, motherfuckers! How can you teach design without teaching the history of art? You have to study the history of art! Why? Because it means everything. It’s what you’re all about. It’s what you believe in.”
How did your childhood influence your creativity?
Actually, my talent started when I was four years old, and I began drawing. I started getting up in the middle of the night to draw when I was five years old. I would get up in the middle of the night, spend two or three hours drawing – everybody in the house knew it – drawing, drawing, drawing, drawing. It all starts with drawing. That’s why I draw all the ideas I get. I have to draw them. I have them in my head, so I could just tell the photographer what I want, but I have to put the idea down to be able to put all the details into it.
Is there a person you looked up to?
Paul Rand. When he was 24, 25 years old and I was about 14, he did some exciting work for the Times. Everything was fresh and thoughtful. I believed in him. I was thrilled that he was 24, a young guy, he didn’t take any shit and he did great work and got away with it – and he was Jewish. Back then, advertising was anti-Semitic, racist, anti-ethnic. I think I’m the first important person in the history of advertising in America who was ethnic.
In one of your books you say that asking ‘what if?’ is a really good base for breathtaking ideas.
Yeah, I think I even made a point of that when I decided to try to get Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter out of jail. He was so innocent, it wasn’t right. He was in jail for almost 20 years for supposedly killing three white people. It was an absolute frame. I got Ali to be the head of my committee. We got on the phone and we got 150 famous people to join, just to get people writing letters and such. One of the ‘what ifs’ I came up with was: “What if I could get Bob Dylan to write a song about it?” And he did: Hurricane. Every idea starts with: “What if I could do that?” A ‘what if’ has to be something you know could be done, if you’ve got the balls to go for it.
It is kind of my ‘what if’ to call up George Lois and ask him to do an interview.
Yeah? What the fuck. What the hell, sure!
How important is humor in your work?
Oh my God, my stuff is funny. My stuff is witty. I mean, Andy Warhol drowning in can of soup, it’s better than funny, it’s a riot. I called up Andy Warhol – he was always a fan of what I did – and I said: “Andy, I’ve decided to put you on the cover of Esquire.” “Oh,” said Andy to his people at the Factory, “George Lois says he’s putting me on the cover of Esquire magazine.” “But wait a minute, George, what’s the idea?”, he said. “Well, I’m going to have you drowning in a giant can of tomato soup.” Warhol said: “I love it, but won’t they have to build a gigantic can?” I said: “No, asshole. It’s photomontage.”
What do you think about failure?
If you’re talented and you know you’re talented, you can’t learn anything from a failure. Supposedly, the whole world agrees that, starting from the day you were born, when you make a mistake, you’ll learn from it. If you experience a failure, the minute you start questioning yourself, you’re never going to join the Pantheon of the Greats. Everybody who starts off as a designer or whatever it is you do, should be thinking that they’re the best there is. Massimo Vignelli (editor’s note: a modernist designer) used to say to me: “George, if you do it right, the idea will live forever.” Very thoughtful. The last time I saw him, I told him: “You got one thing wrong. It should be: ‘If you do it right, it and you will live forever.’ Your work and you.” That’s what it’s all about. That’s your very essence saying: “When I’m dead, they’re going to fucking think this son of a bitch was the best there ever was.” That’s the only way to think. You have to be courageous. I’ve always said, you could be creative or you could be cautious, but there’s no such thing as a cautious creative. You’ve got to go all the way. But that doesn’t mean you’ve got to go stupid all the way.