Young Herb Lubalin (left)

In November of 1964, Fact magazine, published by the controversial editor Ralph Ginzburg, ran a scathing criticism of Coca-Cola company. The cover of the issue neatly summarizes the basic thesis of the piece:

Fact magazine, issue 6. The Coca-Cola cover is a scathing attack on the corporation. That same year, Coca-Cola was a client of Lubalin’s, who hired him to design the packaging for Sprite.

 

No news to the health-conscious reader today (apart from that last point), but this was 1964, when Coke was practically synonymous with America. The “Things Go Better with Coca-Cola” jingle was in full-swing, with artists like Marvin Gaye and Roy Orbison doing their own riffs on it for radio spots. Jean-Luc Godard films would soon use Coke as a not-so-subtle symbol of American imperialism. Little attention was being paid to how detrimental Coke products are to our health. And yet here was an article in Fact—the lesser-known stepchild to the cult Ginzburg productions Avant Garde and Erosthat looked the issue squarely in the face. On all of these magazines, Ginzburg worked with Herb Lubalin, his partner-in-crime of a creative director, who had a similarly irreverent sensibility (at least when it came to design) and, for these three titles, complete creative control.

The emphatic, black and white, purely typographic cover design was part of a unified system for Fact magazine that was put into place by Lubalin. And the Coca-Cola rant in particular, speculates Alexander Tochilovsky, curator of the Herb Lubalin Study Center of Design and Typography, would have relied on the expert hand of Lubalin, who fit it precisely to the page in the age of typesetting—slimming up the spacing here, and shortening a word there. “There’s only so many permutations you can do in order to get [this statement] to fit this well,” Tochilovsky tells me as he pulls out the cover in Lubalin Center archives. “There’s no hyphenation. They would have had to spend a good bit of time figuring out how the words were going to be on the page.”

Curiously, the same year of the issue’s release, Lubalin also took on Coca-Cola as a client to design the identity for Sprite. In a matter of months, the legendary designer had both designed a cheerful identity system that spanned all of the Sprite packaging and worked hand-in-hand with Ginzburg to design a take-down of the same company. He would have done both of these projects on his own volition, as the new founder of his own design studio, Herb Lubalin, Inc. The question is, why?

Sprite packaging by Herb Lubalin

 

Like most American graphic designers in the ’40s and ’50s, for Lubalin advertising was an “almost unavoidable first step to a graphic design career,” as Adrian Shaughnessy put it in his book, Lubalin. But by the ’60s he had worked on Eros, the progressive erotic magazine that landed Ginzburg in prison, and had secured partnership at one of the big advertising agencies of the Man Men era, Sudler & Hennessey (by then, Sudler, Hennessey& Lubalin). By the time he started his own studio he was moving away from the ad world and toward a career in graphic design that was about communicating ideas, not just about selling products. This is the business he would be in until he died in 1981.

But in 1964, Lubalin is still more or less between these two places. Few know that he designed the Sprite branding this year, because the (slyly boastful) designer never talked about it.

So, what does this duality tell us about the American designer? And what does it say about the choice that many designers face: that between work that pays the bills, and work they believe in?

Sprite packaging in Graphics New York magazine

“The hard part about this is that it doesn’t feel like his at all”

Tochilovsky has had an example of Lubalin’s Sprite branding in his possession for ages, but he was skeptical that it was really a Lubalin design until 2011, when he saw the above clipping from Graphics New York (today, GDUSA). Lubalin, known for his influential type design, lush lettering, and provocative ’60s advertisement campaigns, was known to be quiet and reserved in person. But on paper he was “kind of boastful” about his work, Tochilovsky says, often including a shorthand biography in magazines he was featured in. The bios appeared as sort of a timeline: “1940: lettering exhibitions for the New York World’s Fair” (no mention that he was fired from that job) and “1955: appointed creative director and Vice President of the agency and the director of the company’s consumer ad arm Sudler, Hennessey & Lubalin.” Had he been proud of the work he did for Sprite, we would have known about it.

In 1964, Lubalin had just left Sudler, Hennessey & Lubalin to start his own studio, so it’s likely that Coke was a new client he’d landed on his own. It’s also likely that he worked closely with the internal design team at Coca-Cola to design the systemic rebrand, which included cans, bottles, cups, and six pack holders. The logo is rendered in a style of typography popular in the ’50s, with a sunburst dotting the ‘i’ and a parenthetical “(It’s natural)” rendered in an equally retro script below. A curlycue ‘s’ pattern lines the bottom.

Sprite packaging by Herb Lubalin

 

“The hard part about this is that it doesn’t feel like [Lubalin Inc.’s] stuff at all,” says Tochilovsky. “Compared to everything that they were doing by ’64, most of this feels very retro and incongruous. There was no way that they would put out anything like that kind of lettering.”

The style of lettering used in the Sprite logo was traditional for the postwar era, but the forward-thinking Lubalin was already well beyond that. “The lettering that the studio did was always much more sophisticated, and the reference points were very different. By the late ’50s, they were interested in either finding new ways of thinking about lettering that hadn’t been explored before, or going back much, much older, to 19th century type.”

“There are moments where you can tell that Lubalin was suggesting to Ginzburg, almost on an editorial level”

Tochilovsky can only speculate on how and why Lubalin would have taken the Sprite branding job since he never wrote or talked about it publicly, and neither did Coke. But the origin story for Lubalin working with Ginzburg is well-told design lore. In the early 1960s, Ginzburg approached Lubalin, then a well-known advertising typographer and art director, to design Eros, a progressive and controversial magazine dedicated to eroticism. Lubalin agreed, as long as he was given “complete design integrity” over the magazine. 

After Ginzburg was indicted for Eros, on charges of violating a federal statute that regulated obscene advertising, and sentenced to five years in prison, he conceived of the idea for Fact. The new magazine was political, with muckraking journalism in the vein of Upton Sinclair, and the same design terms were given to Lubalin as art director. Fact had its own trouble with the law: Barry Goldwater sued Ginzburg for defamation after he published an issue on the “Mind of Barry Goldwater” that featured various psychiatrists speculating that the senator was unfit for presidential office. The case went all the way to Supreme Court, and resulted in the Goldwater Rule (which has been recently invoked in response to questions of the mental fitness of our current President). From 1968 to 1971, Ginzburg and Lubalin combined Eros’ eroticism and Fact’s radical politics to publish Avant Garde, for which Lubalin produced one of the most popular typefaces of the era. 

Avant Garde

One of the reasons the partnership between Lubalin and Ginzburg worked was that Lubalin knew how to communicate Ginzburg’s radical ideas in a way that would resonate. “Lubalin was able to say some of the things Ginzburg wanted to say better than he could himself,” says Tochilovsky. He was able to temper that ferocity and a little bit of that bluntness… Ginzburg needed a designer who really knew how to communicate, talk to people, how to frame the language, how to create the interest and not hit them over the head.” For Fact magazine, that meant letting the design take a back seat to the inflammatory articles it published. The slightly modified “f” and the colon of the logo set the cover stories up with style. The text-only covers were bold and striking, yet still had an air of authority. 

Herb Lubalin

“I think it reinvigorated something in him, about, ‘Oh this is what design feels like’”

By the time Ginzburg approached Lubalin to work with him on editorial design, Lubalin was a well-respected creative director, “immersed in the great American advertising project of the 1950s and 1960s,” as Shaughnessy writes. In the ’60s and ’70s, he would work for the likes of the U.S. Postal Service, CBS, PBS, and Mercedes Benz. But at the time he was also feeling conflicted about the advertising industry, and held a moralistic disdain for his trade that came out in various interviews.

Some of Lubalin’s frustration with the advertising industry had to do with feeling restricted by client briefs and focus groups (which he railed against). But toward the mid-1960s, says Tochilovsky, Lubalin was also considering how his chosen trade contributed to the rampant consumerism of the era. In 1966, he and feminist Marya Mannes even took the advertisers behind Ajax’s sexist “White Knight” commercials to task on stage at the Visual Communications Conference. 

“The outward manifestation of Lubalin’s break with advertising could be seen in his clothes and personal grooming habits,” writes Shaughnessy. “While working in advertising, he was clean-shaven and wore a white shirt with a slim tie. But by the time he had made his exit from the world of ‘Mad Men,’ he had grown a beard, taken to wearing open-necked shirts, acquired a pair of aviator glasses and allowed his hair to assume a 1960s waywardness that, if it didn’t make him look like a hippy, at least gave him the appearance of a bohemian artist, or perhaps a professor at a progressive university.”

Lubalin’s involvement in both the Coca-Cola branding project and Fact’s accusatory article toward the massive corporation interestingly encapsulates this tension between Lubalin’s long-time profession and his changing ideals. Lubalin had left the executive suite in the glossy advertising agency to start his own design studio, but he hadn’t left advertising altogether. He still needed to support himself and his staff. At the same time, he was leaning into doing the work he loved, and leading the way toward a new era of American graphic design that existed outside of corporate advertising. His relationship with Ginzburg opened up that world for him, and after that there was no going back.

“The appeal with working with Ginzburg was that it was much more hands on,” says Tochilovsky. “He had just redesigned the Saturday Evening Post [when Ginzburg approached him] and got a taste for designing a magazine front to back. I think it reinvigorated something in him, about, ‘Oh this is what design feels like,’ and I think that’s probably why he gave that condition to Ginzburg that he would have total creative control.

“That’s what he wanted, and that’s probably what he needed at that time. The nuts and bolts of it, the editorial design, the layout was all his. His fingerprints are on the whole thing.”