Welcome to the Sharp Knife* series.  This will be a set of randomly recurring posts highlighting lesser-known people with interesting achievements and/or ideas.

Although sometimes, as with this post, there will be no practical benefit beyond sensory stimulation, at other times the featured concepts will provide tangible rewards for anyone smart enough to understand their value.

*For non-native English speakers: the term Sharp Knife refers to the colloquialism Not the Sharpest Knife in the Drawer, a humorous way of saying that someone is dull, slow, or dim.  This series will collect an opposite set, i.e. people and concepts indispensable to one's intellectual and stylistic arsenal.

As a follow up to the Mad Men post, I recently came across an article on the Design Observer site on the topic of advertising in the early 60s.

The focus of the article is on legendary designer George Lois, and I'd recommend checking it out if you're interested in getting some context for the TV series (or are into 60s graphic design).

Both the article as well as Lois' own site have links to his more notable campaigns and covers, so you can judge for yourself whether his reputation and inclusion in this series is justified.

The article's writer, Adam Levy, also makes a thought-provoking comparison between the style of magazines from that era versus the celebrity-obsessed rags that plaster modern supermarket checkout stands.

His conclusion that modern magazine design is purely sales-driven is a rather depressing statement, so let's hope that at least some modern designers are being given the artistic freedom that Lois enjoyed while creating his mini-masterpieces.

Either way, if you come to the conclusion that Lois was a genius, you'll need to check out the design pioneer who influenced him the most: Helmut Krone.

Born in Queens of German parents, Krone is often recognized as the father of modern advertising and branding. The impact of his revolutionary thinking looms large both implicitly and explicitly throughout Mad Men series.

He was a master at turning weaknesses into strengths in the context of minimalist layouts.  1959's Think Small for Volkswagen is considered by many to be the greatest advertising campaign of all time (but see this Adrants article for some dispute over his authorship).  1963's We Try Harder for Avis was so powerful and timeless that its slogan is still in use today.

So the next time some company shamelessly tries to sell you a product by appealing to your emotions or hormones, just say no.  Dismiss those condescending tactics by remembering the sophisticated legacy of Krone and Lois.  Those two giants are proof that you don't need to treat people like cavemen in order to sell products.

Posted on Saturday, April 26, 2008
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Comments on this post

# re: Sharp Knives: George Lois & Helmut Krone

According to NPR piece, Lois has been taking credit for other's work such as the "Think Small" campaign you reference.

From http://www.adrants.com/2009/06/george-lois-did-not-solely-create-vw.php:

On a recent episode of This American Life, Sarah Koenig, tells the story of her father, famed copywriter Julian Koenig, who wrote "Timex takes a licking and keeps on ticking" and copy for the VW Think Small ads. It seems his partner, famed ad man George Lois has been taking exclusive credit for work the two did together while at DDB.

Seemingly the consummate gentleman, Koenig never took issue with this until his daughter, producer of This American Life, began to probe deeper asking him about the origin of the ads and his work with Lois. It's yet another story of greed, ego and pompousness run amock in the advertising business.
Left by Joe Hendrickson on Jun 24, 2009 10:26 PM

# re: Sharp Knives: George Lois & Helmut Krone

I'm glad Sarah Koenig is setting the record straight for his dad.
It's amazing George Lois gets away with all these lies and now as an old man believes the lies he created...
But, I guess that's the essence of Advertising,
where ego is KING!
Left by Jams just on Sep 22, 2014 10:12 AM

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