Visualizing 1968

Behind the scenes with influential graphic artists from 50 years ago
Story by

Who better to represent 1968 visually than a graphic designer from the landmark year?

The job of creating the main image for the 1968 special section was a daunting one. The Washington Post design team came to the conclusion that no single photograph could represent a year so full of explosive change. Instead, the team commissioned 81-year-old graphic artist Lance Wyman, who designed the iconic logo for the 1968 Summer Olympics (and, incidentally, the signs for the Washington Metro) to create an image.

The team also asked graphic designers Milton Glaser and George Lois to talk about their work from the era. Marc Fisher’s overview of pop culture helps capture the distinctive look of 1968 pop culture with photographs, movie and concert posters, and album and magazine covers. The following conversations help explain how that look came to be.

A runner carries the Olympic torch during Opening Ceremonies for the Olympic Games in Mexico City, Oct. 12, 1968. (AP)

Lance Wyman

Lance Wyman’s design for the 1968 Mexico City Summer Olympics incorporated hypnotic geometric lines and colors, pre-Columbian artifacts and modern typography to create a quintessential op art logo. His graphic design for the 1968 Mexico City Olympics identity is widely considered a pinnacle of environmental and branding design, and his pictographs, a universal, visual language, set the standard for signage at international events.

One of Wyman’s longest-lasting designs is the mapping system, system diagram and neighborhood maps for the Washington Metro. The project, created with partner Bill Cannan, spanned from 1971 until the Metrorail system opened in 1976, and the design was then updated in 2011.

Wyman has spent the last five decades helping to define the field of environmental graphics. He teaches design at Parsons School of Design at the New School, where he has been a visiting lecturer since 1973.

Q: For the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, how did you come up with the concept, and what was involved in the process or the inspiration? Did you hit on it right away, or did it evolve a lot through versioning and feedback?

Wyman: I initially went to Mexico with Peter Murdoch at the end of November 1966. Peter and I were planning to start an office in New York. When the opportunity to participate in a competition to design the Olympic graphics [came along], we went to Mexico for a two-week work period to design something that was accepted or go home. One of our initial approaches was to study potential combinations of 1968 and the Olympic official five-ring symbol. I discovered that the geometry of the five rings could be integrated with the number 68. I spent much of the first week working on the project at the Museum of Anthropology and fell in love with the geometric images from the very early Mexican cultures and the Mexican folk art that was still very much alive at that time. We knew the geometry of my five rings/68 design looked Mexican. When we developed it to include the name Mexico, the MEXICO68 logo was born.

As soon as we were able to make refined black and white copies of the MEXICO68 logo, the other departments wanted copies. We were hired and had until October 12, 1968, to work on getting the design program together.

The 1968 Olympics in Mexico was an experience that has touched all of my work for the past 50 years, and I am still utilizing those powerful lessons on how to design and make it a helpful part of the way we live. I think the collective image keeps forms alive that have always been a part of Mexico’s culture.

1968 Mexico Olympics logos (Courtesy of Lance Wyman)
Lance Wyman's logos for the 1968 Olympics incorporated the symbol of interconnected rings and Mexican folk art. (Courtesy of Lance Wyman)

Q: How has the way you worked in 1968 compare with how you work today, and what ways would having computer tools such as Photoshop and Illustrator have made it any easier or better?

Wyman: I work the same way now as I did then. My early career was in New York when the Mad Men were creating powerful communication concepts. I wasn’t interested in advertising, but searching for a strong meaningful idea as the first step when creating a design solution comes from that period.

Photoshop and Illustrator might have made it easier back in 1968, but it would not have made it better than the physical hands-on experience of working with my talented graphics team. I miss those days of filling up walls with developmental sketches, working with colored markers, working with drafting tools, cutting shapes into Amberlith and Kodalith sheets for reproduction. Now I design everything on the computer, and I love it, but I wonder if I would be as sensitive to conceiving and refining form if I started my career working solely on the computer.

Washington Metro map (Courtesy of Lance Wyman)
National Zoo logo (Courtesy of Lance Wyman)
The Washington Metrorail map and a National Zoo logo of an eagle feeding its chick were created by Lance Wyman. (Courtesy of Lance Wyman)

Q: For D.C. readers familiar with the Metro maps and National Zoo signage, what was your design process and how closely did the final work match your original vision? Were there any particular challenges working with the federal government?

Wyman: I developed the first map system for the Washington Metro (line diagram and neighborhood maps) with Bill Cannan back in the early 1970s. We were mandated to design a colored line diagram similar to the London Underground. I kept the colored lines very bold with the intention of designing an icon for each of the stations, similar to what I had done for the Mexico City Metro. We researched over 80 stations and determined images for most of the stations, but the icon system was never implemented. In 2011 I was asked to revise the line diagram to include the new Silver Line [planned to connect to] Dulles Airport. The original map had become a familiar symbol of Washington, and making the necessary changes was harder than I thought; changes were not welcome. It was like designing camouflage. I made the major changes but kept the basic look the same. I did try to have the new line be a cherry blossom color (silver is gray when printed) but to no avail. Overall the experience was very positive, and I think the map has continued to work well.

I also worked with Bill Cannan in the mid ’70s to develop the National Zoo identity and wayfinding system. Here we did use icons, one for each of the major exhibit areas. It was a wonderful experience spending time with the animals and imaging them with head silhouette icons. I remember the hippo being the most difficult to capture, and then it became my favorite when I finally figured out how to do it.

(Courtesy of Milton Glaser)
Milton Glaser designed the illustration of Aretha Franklin for Eye magazine and posters for performances by Stevie Wonder and the Lovin' Spoonful at Lincoln Center Philharmonic Hall. (Courtesy of Milton Glaser)

Milton Glaser

Milton Glaser, 88, is known for designing the I (heart) NY logo and the psychedelic Bob Dylan poster, and for co-founding Pushpin Studios in 1954, and New York Magazine in 1968. In 1983, Glaser and Walter Bernard’s company WBMG redesigned three major newspapers, including The Washington Post. Glaser was the first graphic designer to receive the National Medal of the Arts in 2009. His work has been featured in one-man shows at the Museum of Modern Art and the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris. He opened Milton Glaser Inc. in 1974 and continues to work as a design consultant.

Q: The posters “Aretha,” “Stevie Wonder” and “The Lovin’ Spoonful at Lincoln Center Philharmonic Hall” from 1968 have such different styles. How do you brainstorm ideas and then settle on one style?

Milton Glaser: I always try to avoid stylistic identification as a character of the way I worked. On the contrary, what interested me was to have my response to a problem be determined by the nature of the problem itself. My way to work was always to begin without premeditation and let the process determine the solution. In my best work, I never knew where I was going until after I had started.

Q: How many revisions did you go through to get the right and/or approved cover for the 1968 classic Tom Wolfe’s “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.” What was the thinking behind the artwork?

Glaser: My recollection, which cannot be trusted, is that the cover was accepted without changing the original sketch. It generally deals with the psychedelic world in a generic sense without very much departure from those themes. To be truthful, my interest in that kind of work came from the Arts & Crafts movement and Art Nouveau.

Q: In 1968, you founded New York Magazine, along with Clay Felker. What was it like in the beginning of this start-up publication? What risks did you take? How do those risks compare to what magazine art directors of today are doing?

Glaser: Obviously, the greatest risk in beginning a publication is discovering an audience that likes what you do. We had the precedent of the Herald Tribune’s version of a Sunday supplement that had begun as an insert and consequently, no understanding of exactly what that audience liked in the publication. We were influenced by its attitude and in the first group of issues that was clearly felt. It took a year to develop our own voice and the same amount of time to attract a loyal audience. The risk of that event defined the magazine. Today, magazine art directors are experiencing much the same thing by discovering what people like to read and look at.

(Courtesy of Milton Glaser)
Glaser's works include a poster for the Ambler Music Festival, an advertisement for the Valentine typewriter sold by Olivetti, and a poster for an exhibition on dadaism and surrealism. (Courtesy of Milton Glaser)

Q: When you look at posters, do you see much progress made over the last 50 years? Or how much would you say we are still dealing with many of the same issues?

For graphic artists, the issue is to make things clear, or at least, understandable. In that sense, we have not made any progress at all.

Q: How has the way you worked in 1968 compare with how you work today, and what ways would having computer tools such as Photoshop and Illustrator have made it any easier or better?

Glaser: I’ve never touched a computer, but I frequently have someone at my side using one to increase my speed and productivity. This has not necessarily made it easier, but it has made it faster.

Q: Do you mind when you see others re-create or try to pay homage to your work?

Glaser: I love it when I see someone appropriately use an idea that I’ve discovered and feel sad when that idea misunderstands its original intention.

(Courtesy of George Lois)
George Lois's preliminary sketch and final design for a 1968 Esquire magazine cover featuring Roy Cohn. (Courtesy of George Lois)

George Lois

George Lois worked with Esquire editor Harold Hayes in the 1960s and ’70s to create 92 covers for Esquire magazine, including the iconic covers featuring Muhammad Ali impaled with arrows and Andy Warhol drowning in a can of Campbell’s tomato soup. He is credited with the “I Want My MTV” and first Tommy Hilfiger ad campaigns. His work includes such clients as American Airlines, Xerox and Jiffy Lube.  

Additionally he created winning ad campaigns for four U.S. senators: Jacob Javits (R-N.Y.); Warren Magnuson (D-Wash.); Minority Leader Hugh Scott (R-Pa.); Robert Kennedy (D-N.Y.). Lois created Bob Dylan’s music video Jokerman, which won the MTV Best Music Video of the Year Award in 1983. In 2008, the Museum of Modern Art installed 38 of his Esquire covers in its permanent collection, celebrated by a year-long exhibit: George Lois: The Esquire Covers @ MoMA.

Q: How did you come up with the concept, and do you recall whether Roy Cohn — a celebrated and much-feared former prosecutor who later worked with Donald Trump for more than a decade — had any reaction at the time?

George Lois: Editor Harold Hayes shook me up when he planned to publish a long excerpt of an upcoming book by Cohn. But I’m sure he figured I’d nail him. To illustrate a self-serving piece where he rationalized his evil skulduggery as the demagogue senator Joe McCarthy’s favorite gopher during the ’50s, I asked him to pose as the angel he thought he was.

I made no bones about the photo. I told him he would be shown wearing a halo that was visibly pinned on, a self-applied halo. He posed for the shot and snarled as he was leaving the studio, “I guess you’re gonna pick the ugliest one.” “You bet,” I said. “I hate your guts.”

When the issue hit the newsstand, Harold Hayes and I were perplexed when he didn’t come back at us with his usual diatribe.

For once in his life, he was speechless.

But, 35 years later, in the 2003 television miniseries of Tony Kushner’s award-winning play “Angels in America,” for a scene that takes place in Roy Cohn’s office, director Mike Nichols had my cover re-created, replacing Cohn with the actor Al Pacino, framed and hanging on the wall behind his desk. You can’t make this stuff up, but it would seem that Roy Cohn thought my cover did him justice.

Upon first seeing this image of Cohn on the February 1968 cover, Senator Robert Kennedy wisely told me, “George, that’s the closest Roy Cohn will ever get to heaven.”

(Courtesy of George Lois)
Lois's Esquire magazine cover design poses Muhammad Ali in the style of a Francesco Botticini painting of Saint Sebastian. (Courtesy of George Lois)

Q: What was the collaboration with the photographer like on the Ali shoot?

Lois: In 1967, Ali was in the prime of his fighting years but wasn’t allowed in the ring. He was widely condemned as a draft dodger and even a traitor. When Cassius Clay had become a Muslim, he had also become a martyr. In 1968, while he was waiting for his appeal to reach the U.S. Supreme Court, I decided to pose him as the martyr Saint Sebastian, in a similar pose of the painting by Francesco Botticini that hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I called Ali and explained my concept, and he flew posthaste to pose. At the studio, I showed him a postcard of the painting to illustrate the stance. He studied it with enormous concentration. Suddenly, he blurted out, “Hey, George, this cat’s a Christian!”

I blurted back, “Holy Moses, you’re right, Champ!”

I explained to Ali that Saint Sebastian was a Roman soldier who survived execution by arrows after converting to Christianity. He was then clubbed to death, and has gone down in history as the definitive martyr. But [Ali] was reluctant. So I begged him to speak with his religious leader for advice. And he got on the phone with Elijah Muhammad.

Ali explained the painting in detail and spoke about the propriety of using a Christian source for the portrayal of his martyrdom. He finally put me, a nonpracticing Greek Orthodox on the phone. After a lengthy theological discussion, Elijah gave me his okay. I exhaled, and we shot the portrait of a deified man against the authorities.

Q: What was Ali like to work with on this?

Lois: Dressed in pristine white trunks, white socks and his “pretty white shoes,” his feet planted strongly, head reeling back in agony, and six prepared arrows with blood seemingly dripping from the wounds, the shoot was going well, until Ali, 15 feet from me, said, “Hey, George.”

“What?” I answered.

Once again, “Hey, George.”

I started to scold him, “Muhammad, concentrate and do your job. What’s the problem?” Having gained my attention, Ali took his right hand from behind his back, and, stunningly, pointed to each of the arrows, indicating his tormentors: “Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, General Westmoreland, Hubert Humphrey, Dean Rusk, Clark Clifford.”

Visiting him at his home 20 years later, health failing, Ali pointed to an eight-foot blowup of the Esquire cover in his mini-museum next to his home, pointed at the blowup of the cover, and repeated, systematically, the six same names, in the exact same order.

Q: When did you realize the image had potential to become so iconic?

Lois: When the great editor Harold Hayes first saw my finished cover, he took a deep breath, and, choking up, whispered, “Iconic.”

When Hayes was interviewed by the media, he said, “Giving George Lois free rein to create Esquire covers was like giving a hand grenade to an anarchist.” But his favorite quote was calling the covers, “Pictorial Zolas.” Pretty cool, I’ve always thought.

(Courtesy of George Lois)
The design of a 1968 Esquire magazine cover began with a photo of presidential candidate Richard Nixon resting on the campaign trail. (Courtesy of George Lois)

Q: This is a composite, correct? How did you get the base photo to work with, and what were the challenges in putting it together?

Lois: When Harold Hayes told me they were planning on doing a story on the possible comeback of Richard Nixon, I decided to do a parody of him preparing for his next TV debate.

My idea depended on my locating an actual photograph of Nixon seemingly napping. Retouching his eyes closed wouldn’t work. So I researched photographers who had flown with him in 1964 who might have shot him while he was resting or sleeping while campaigning … and — bingo! — I found one.

Then we cast makeup people doing a job on him, including the one wielding the lipstick. It was a big hit on the newsstands, but shortly after it appeared, editor Harold Hayes got a phone call from Nixon’s press secretary, Ron Ziegler. He was miffed. In fact, he was incensed.

You know why? The lipstick. He said it was an attack on Nixon’s masculinity. Those birds in Tricky Dick’s corner didn’t laugh too easily. He called Hayes a “lousy liberal” and hung up.

(Courtesy of George Lois)
An Esquire magazine cover commemorates President John F. Kennedy, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. by envisioning them together in Arlington Cemetery. (Courtesy of George Lois)

Q: How did you come up with the concept for the JFK/RFK/MLK cover, and what were the challenges in executing the idea?

Lois: For Esquire’s 35th-anniversary issue, I felt that I had to attack the soul of America. The ’60s had been a decade of titanic crusades, as protests and marches advanced the fight for civil rights and women’s liberation, even as the Vietnam War and its atrocities escalated. The war had laid a curse on America, like the curse that William Faulkner said slavery had previously laid on our nation.

The insanity culminated in the horrific year of 1968, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were both assassinated in a span of nine weeks. So I decided to actually depict an apotheosis of our assassinated leaders, the three most mourned Americans since FDR, hauntingly watching over Arlington National Cemetery.

First, I had to locate a photo of JFK, MLK and RFK, with the exact same lighting and solemn expression. An almost impossible feat. But I lucked out. Then we cast three men in the size and weight of each and took a photograph of them, reverently standing in Arlington Cemetery, as per my sketch. Then I had a print made replacing their faces, ultra-carefully retouching the group.

So, in a hagiographic fantasy, we pay homage to an idealized, saintlike John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Dr. King, in a dreamlike epitaph on the murder of American goodness, and a prayer for the resurrection of American ideals.

Robert F. Kennedy by Roy Lichtenstein, 1968. (Color separation on acetate, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Time Magazine. Copyright estate of Roy Lichtenstein)
Gun in America by Roy Lichtenstein, 1968. (Color separation on acetate, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Time Magazine. Copyright estate of Roy Lichtenstein)
Time magazine’s editors commissioned Roy Lichtenstein to create this cover portrait of Sen. Robert Kennedy for its May 24, 1968, edition as he was challenging President Lyndon B. Johnson for the Democratic nomination. On June 5, 1968, just a few weeks after publication of the issue, Kennedy was assassinated while campaigning in Los Angeles. Time commissioned another cover from Lichtenstein to highlight the issue of gun control, according to James Barber, historian at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. (Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery; Gift of Time Magazine. Copyright estate of Roy Lichtenstein)

Roy Lichtenstein

Q: Why did Time magazine select Roy Lichtenstein to create the images for the covers?

James Barber, historian, Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery: In the mid-1960s, Time began expanding their pool of portrait artists, and this necessarily pushed the traditional parameters of portraiture to include pop artists. This was Time’s nod to pop culture, which was finding favor with baby boomers throughout the country. Time commissioned such artists as Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Berks and Gerald Scarfe to do one-of-a-kind covers, unlike any Time had ever published before. These avant-garde covers oftentimes boosted sales.

Time magazine’s editors commissioned Roy Lichtenstein to create this cover portrait of Senator Robert Kennedy for its May 24, 1968, edition. It was issued in the midst of a turbulent presidential primary season when Kennedy was challenging President Lyndon Johnson for the Democratic Party’s nomination. Lichtenstein’s pop art style and bright colors create a sense of energy as it captures Kennedy’s image in the midst of a campaign speech. Kennedy responded in a telegram: “I thought your cover picture was really marvelous, but I don’t have red spots all over my face.”

On June 5, 1968, just a few weeks after publication of the issue, Kennedy was assassinated while campaigning in Los Angeles. Time commissioned another cover from Lichtenstein to highlight the issue of gun control. A gun pointed at the viewer, though drawn in the same cartoonlike style as the Kennedy portrait, seemed haunting.

“One Year: 1968, an American Odyssey” will be on exhibition from June 29 through May 19, 2019 at the National Portrait Gallery. On view will be 30 portraits to highlight the story of 1968. It was also the year that the Portrait Gallery first opened its doors. Martin Luther King Jr., Robert F. Kennedy, Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon will share the walls with portraits of cultural figures such as Peggy Fleming, Arthur Ashe, Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. Artists who will be represented include Roy Lichtenstein, Irving Penn, George Tames, David Levine, Robert Vickrey and Louis Glanzman. 

Credits: Story by Washington Post Staff. Designed by Victoria Adams Fogg, Brian Gross and Suzette Moyer.