I’ve been listening to George Lois for almost an hour, pouring out one remarkable anecdote after another from the 1960s trenches of Madison Avenue. His work was provocative and urgent – like when he posed Lieutenant William Calley (about to be convicted of the Vietnam My Lai massacre) with a group of Vietnamese children, for an Esquire magazine cover.
Lois hates the TV show that purports to recreate his era and industry, denouncing it in his gravel-voiced, Polish-inflected growl. Yet, when he ends his presentation to the Registered Graphic Designers of Ontario with the photos at right, it brings quick applause from the audience and a final retort from Lois: “Besides, I was better fucking looking than Jon Hamm.”
It’s all good fun. We’re a crowd of Ontario designers, relishing a day where we can talk non-stop about branding, typography and other visual obsessions. For 45 minutes we listen to Christian Schwartz, a laid back type designer who produced The Guardian’s new look in 2005, and now runs the Commercial Type foundry. He’s all about hairlines, Egyptians, shape, counters and weight. His slab serif Stag (designed three years ago for, again, Esquire) is on display right across Front Street from where we sit, in a giant sign for CBC’s “The National.” He swears a little, “because it got a lot of laughs for Lois,” he cracks.
The afternoon keynote features the hilarious and flaming Chip Kidd of New York. He’s a book designer who’s created everything from the original Jurassic Park book cover to a gorgeous, translucent dust cover design for Haruki Murakami’s latest novel IQ84. Kidd is impossibly talented – he’s also working on a Batman graphic novel, teasing us with draft pencil sketch pages from the upcoming book.
Kidd begins his romping talk with an anecdote about his new mantra. It came to him in a lineup at Kentucky Fried Chicken. Ahead of him, a lone male customer ordered three large buckets of chicken, and the sales clerk asked, “For here or to go?”
The customer answered, “Do I look like I could eat 63 pieces of chicken all by myself?”
After a slight pause, the clerk barked back, “BITCH, I DON’T KNOW YOUR LIFE!!!”
The final presentation of the day – my first time in attendance at RGD Ontario’s “Design Thinkers” annual conference – was by two 70-something veterans of graphic identity (i.e. logo) design, Ivan Chermayeff and Tom Geismar, and their new partner, Sagi Haviv. Their designs are ubiquitous – Mobil, Harper Collins, Pan Am, Chase Bank – and they tend towards simple, often abstract, clever and direct.
They give a whirlwind tour of corporate logo design, ending with a particularly difficult re-branding for Conservation International (before and after). They’re very distinguished – nary a swear word from either of the masters – and they transport the audience to a world that existed before most of us were born – suburban vistas with Mobil gas stations, all designed around the round motif of the red “o” in Mobil. Charmingly, they refer to typefaces as “alphabets”, just like George Lois . More recently, Ivan Chermayeff designed a possible logo for Occupy Wall Street, in his clean, typographic style.
I go home exhausted – my visual appetite over-fed after a full day at the conference – but anxious to apply the inspiration and dedication these professionals all bring to their craft, even if I don’t work in the rarefied world of New York advertising.