The Making of a Martyr: How Muhammad Ali Changed Magazine Covers Forever
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When I reflect on a piece of art or advertising that has inspired my life as a creative, the April 1968 cover for Esquire magazine comes to mind, still bringing me to a standstill—"The Passion of Muhammad Ali."
I cannot remember specifically where I was when I saw the infamous cover for the first time. Likely sat with my college classmates in the early '90s, flicking through the pages of graphic design magazines for inspiration. But I remember the grip it had on me then, and still does now. The greatest fighter of all time presented as vulnerable.
Pierced and punctured by a fleet of arrows, his mouth open wide in agony and hands behind his back, Ali was on display for all of America at a time when many hated him most.
An imitation of Francesco Botticini's Saint Sebastian, the cover drew parallels between the persecution of the Christian saint by the Romans and Muhammad Ali's own exile following his conversion to Islam, support of the Civil Rights movement and refusal to serve in the Vietnam War. Activism that resulted in the loss of his heavyweight boxing title.
Art Director of Esquire, George Lois, knew of the significance and potential backlash that would come in comparing Ali to a martyr—but did it anyway.
Why? Because as graphic designer Tibor Kalman said ,"good designers make trouble."
Lois strategically offered little context on the cover, instead leaving it to the viewer to fill in the blanks and to dissect the symbolism. Those familiar with Botticini's work would understand the reference, and either support or hate it; and those that didn't understand the reference would just see the heavyweight boxer pierced by arrows, and either support it or hate it. He used the least amount of information to scream the loudest.
Designers have the ability to challenge convention and provoke emotions from a distance.
But in the recent age of minimalism, this skill has been pushed aside. From restaurant brands to beauty brands, there is a shift towards the commodified and blank, everything looks much like each other with a bland universally set aesthetic. But without empathy and understanding there is no connection.
This cover is quite minimalist in nature, but on this occasion less is more. Lois built a reputation by creating provocative visual statements with very little information. And I realize that has been an aid to me in my career. How does the work I do strike a chord? How do I make people think?
The martyred Ali image not only challenges the reader and provides an uncomfortable viewing experience but evokes empathy and so builds that connection. Good design provokes thought, pushing people beyond the expected.
If good designers make trouble, they provoke. They do not have to please everyone. What they create will not be universally liked, but it will stimulate and inspire. Designers should raise a little hell, make their mark and tell their story in their own inimitable way.