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“Most people wouldn’t recognize good design if they tripped over it.” – George Lois

While it’s far too early in the game to make defeatist statements like “the magazines is dead” the golden age of publishing design feels long gone. A glance at the newsstand (a real newsstand, not the fancy international bookseller) can be an altogether painful experience. Most mass market magazines have all but given up on the idea of breaking new ground and even when they do it’s usually hidden between the nooks and crannies rather than on the front page.

It’s telling that when we look back at pioneering art director George Lois’ work for Esquire it seems incredibly fresh and poignant almost 40 years later.  The covers hold a special reverence given their sharp take on everything from politics to film and fashion. These were the kinds of covers that hit you with a visual punch – a woman shaving, a man applying lipstick, a college freshman facing down a giant swine -all images designed to grab your eye and catch your attention.

Lois took his Madison Avenue advertising ethos and applied it to journalism. The images weren’t always immediately understandable but they made you want to know more. Rarely does a cover today ask for anything other than that you recognize either the celebrity or the model and are willing to sift through the essay length headline text.

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Taking a look at Lois’ send up of a fashion magazine cover – glamour existing only within a croped out square, real life’s plainnness outside it the full extent of his ingenueity is felt. The image inside the square is beautiful but it’s ultimately boring without it’s commonplace surroundings and controlled chaos. The soda bottle in the foreground and cigarettes in the ashtray are what make the image memorable. The unexpected touches give it depth that the admittedly “perfect” image of a well manicured woman just doesn’t have otherwise. Magazines are really missing these kinds of extra touches – we get the perfect pictures but there is nothing in them that draws us deeper.

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