Michael Bierut | Essays

The Forgotten Design Legacy of the National Lampoon

In a bookstore over the holidays I happened to come across a new edition of something had thought I would never see again: the legendary National Lampoon 1964 High School Yearbook. Originally published in 1971, the publication has at its heart what purports to be the yearbook of the fictional C. Estes Kefauver Memorial High School in tragically woebegone Dacron, Ohio. What struck me anew was the astonishing level of graphic detail that the Lampoon design staff brought to the task: every aspect of the yearbook (as well as other documents such as a basketball program, literary magazine and history textbook) is rendered with awful, pitch-perfect fidelity, from each badly-spaced typeface to every amateurish illustration. I would suggest that the Lampoon's designers, Michael Gross and David Kaestle, anticipated our profession's obsession with vernacular graphic languages by almost fifteen years.

Tony Hendra's book Going Too Far documents the rise and fall of postwar American humor, with a special emphasis on his years as an editor at the Lampoon. Perceptively, he sees the hiring of art director Michael Gross in October 1970 as a turning point in the magazine's fortunes. Originally, the founders of the Lampoon had sought to project an anti-establishment image and hired a "hippie" firm called Cloud Studios to evoke the look and feel of the underground press. This was a mistake: the writers were creating sophisticated, deadpan parodies, while the artists at Cloud Studios were making the magazine look self consciously "funny;" as Hendra says, this was "the print equivalent of a comedian laughing while delivering a joke."

Enter Michael Gross, no graphic radical but a Pratt Institute-educated art director with experience at, among other magazines, Cosmopolitan. The publisher wanted a professional-looking magazine, which Gross was ready to provide. But the editors were worried he would play it too straight.

Gross had to explain to them that this was exactly what the content needed. As he told Hendra years later, "I flipped through the magazine and there was an article about postage stamps [a piece called 'America as a Second-Rate Power,' a new issue of stamps commemorating modern American failures], and there were all silly underground comic drawings. I said, 'What you‚ve done here is no different that what Mad magazine would do. You're doing a parody of postage stamps. They would have Jack Davis do funny drawings of postage stamps. You've got an underground cartoonist doing funny drawings of postage stamps. What you need is postage stamps that look like postage stamps. The level of satire you written here isn't being graphically translated."

Thereafter, Gross and his partner David Kaestle crafted each monthly issue of the Lampoon with a degree of care that would put a master forger to shame. As Hendra observes, "Any graphic form, and indeed any print form, had to look like the original on which it was based, whether it was a postage stamp or a Michelangelo or a menu. Only thus could the satirical intent come through with crystal clarity." In effect, Gross and Kaestle more resembled movie production designers than traditional art directors, creating convincing backgrounds before which the action could unfold. Unlike the knowing graphic quotations that we would come to associate in years to come with designers like Paula Scher and Tibor Kalman (or, to cite a someone who has probably never even heard of the magazine, Jonathan Barnbrook, particularly in his work with Damien Hirst), there is no trace of irony in the work, just an obsessive determination to get every detail exactly right.

Gross and Kaestle do not show up in graphic design history books today, but there was a moment when they were riding high. Asked to create a special humor issue for Print Magazine in the late seventies, they proved to be incisive commentators on their own profession. I remember in particular an article purporting to explore replacements for the 7-headed cobra emblem of the radical Symbionese Liberation Army, kidnappers of heiress Patty Hearst. The entries they created on behalf of Ivan Chermayeff, Rudolph de Harak, and Herb Lubalin all reduced the identity, through various elaborate pretexts, to the same Helvetica Medium solution.

The yearbook parody was a special project based on a ten-page piece by the late Doug Kenney, who would in turn use it as the seed for his screenplay for the 1978 movie "Animal House." The new "39th Reunion" edition, unfortunately, does not do the original justice, surrounding a facsimile of the 1971 softcover with a pointless hardcover and carelessly designed front and back matter. But the precision of Kaestle and Gross's work still shines through, and deserves to be rediscovered.

Posted in: Graphic Design, History, Media

Comments [16]

> anticipated our profession's obsession with vernacular graphic languages by almost fifteen years.

Not to mention the obsession for Cooper Black and its lovely, voluptuous Italic. That cover is sublime, and I think we can add to the old adage: "Anyone who would letterspace lower case or upper case Cooper Black would steal sheep."

You know what I really, *really* wanna see? A reissued "National Lampoon's Sunday Newspaper," which worked out the doings of Dacronites to an unbelievable degree of continuity and depth...right down to the classified ads.

Really, a work of puerile genius.
Adam Greenfield

all reduced the identity, through various elaborate pretexts, to the same Helvetica Medium solution.

{{snort of laughter}}

The beauty of really well done satire is that you begin to question everything around it. For instance in The Onion (Son of National Lampoon), as with Saturday Night Live of old, all advertisements look ridiculously absurd. The well executed satire reflects back on reality to make it look suspiciously like satire. I love that.
marian bantjes

Marian, what you say is absolutely true. I remember seeing that Print magazine humor issue when I was in my second year of design school in the mid-Seventies. I thought until then that Helvetica Medium was beyond reproach. Seeing Gross and Kaestle make fun of it truly shocked me, and made me question its unthinking use, which was rampant in corporate identity those days. Every Helvetica Medium logotype looked a little silly to me after that. A serious critique would have been easier to dismiss.
Michael Bierut

I remember back in my college days, back in the early 90's, in the design department, there was a drawer filled with old copies of Communication Arts and Print. This being the 90's no one cared about magazines from the late 60's, and 70's. And among the magazines was a copy of the Print magazine humor/National Lampoon issue. Pure manna.
The redesign of the S.L.A. logo was sheer brilliance.
I was amazed at the lameness of the faculty and student body. Needless to say, I have a few choice issues of Print magazine and C.A. from the late 60's and 70's.
Hey Michael Gross made the Ghostbuster's no Ghosts logo, you can't fuck with those credentials.
Steve Reeder

Many years ago when I was an insufferable punk, I was fortunate enough to work for The Grand Master of Parody, Mr. David Kaestle. I once asked Kaestle what the secret was to creating such accurate parodies. He told me to think of the target being spoofed and simply "get in their head." In other words, to art direct a parody of a high school yearbook, you had to *think* like a high school yearbook art director. (And like the high school audience it was aimed at). As painful as it might be, you had to fully assume that person's point of view/art style—warts and all. By being true to the host, you could easily emulate their approach and converse in their graphic language. Essentially, you would be "in their head" and the results were nothing short of pure genius. Kaestle was a mentor and great teacher to me. I cherish the lessons I learned in his studio and the opportunities he gave me. God bless him. May he rest in peace.
David Vogler

And then there's my all-time favorite postmodern index of design, The Brand New Monty Python Papperbok.

Kenneth FitzGerald

David Kaestle passed away last week...jan 23rd
Thank you for your comments about National lampoon,
Interesting about what you said about the "history books' ....Steve Heller actually did a book about humor and art direction...magazines over the last 20, 30 years...he mentions natLamp once and failed to mention Me or David.
(he credits every other "funny" art director (semour Chwast, etc...) alas...like at the acadamy awards, no credit for being funny. That was never foremost in our thinking though, and David rarely even took credit for National lampoon, modest guy that he was.He knew, I knew...and hey, it seems you knew...Thank you again...MG (semi retired from both publishing and film producing to paint and curate in Oceanside, CA)
Michael Gross

To Michael Gross and others.
I'm so sorry to that David Kaestle has passed away. Last week I bought a book called 'Tales from the Crypt' which David designed with Rick Demonico. As expected it looks terrific and I thought I would like to get in touch with David to thank him for a great design job, putting his name into Google made me click on this entry.
Both he and you came to my attention when I discovered the Lampoon in the mid Seventies, I guess. I could not believe that a magazine could be so funny and I especially enjoyed it because I worked as an Art Editor and to see the amount of detail that went into those parodies was really something. Fortunately I was able to buy and save the Lampoon from issue ten and I've saved most of the specials, too. Sadly though the Lampoon went right downhill in the late Eighties.
This stuff is still very funny and really sets a standard for design humor. Regrettably a lot of what passes for printed humor these days just looks bland because the designers appear not to have the essential groundwork in typography, visual awareness and language that is required to make print look good.
Robin Benson

I just heard about David Kaestle's passing...I went to school with his brother,Carl, and knew his older brother Paul, as well. Their Mother was my mentor and friend, in HS and many years after. She treated me like the daughter she never had, and I will always remember having tea and raisin bread toast in the late afternoons with her. I have been trying to find the obit on David...does anyone have a site I could go to...NY times was a washout. Please email me with the info if you have it. Thanks.
Anne Rowe

I can't believe I missed this discussion. I run a website called Mark's Very Large National Lampoon Site which focusses on the "golden years" of the magazine. It's no coincidence that the end of this period, by my reckoning, corresponds to the departure of Kaestle and Gross. As a budding graphic designer and art director, I was profoundly influenced by their work at National Lampoon. I completely agree, Michael, with your assessment.
Mark Simonson

Thanks, Mark. If you're a fan of the Lampoon, Mark's website is well worth checking out. I spent a few hours(!) there while I was putting the original post together and I should have thanked him then.
Michael Bierut

david kaestle was my uncle...i wanted to let you know that if you would like to read his obituary (if you have not already), you can find it in the archives of the small paper from his house up in the country...the register herald.

I always thought NatLamp were off in a world of their own, ever since their first issue that featured a centerfold of famous NYC transvestite Holly Woodlawn. Most everything they did was only dry-smile-inducingly clever. And since they aimed for a mass market, there was way too much self censorship. Krassner's The Realist was much gutsier.

Nowadays I don't read political satire at all. I find plenty of political humor in anti-Neo-Con pieces by Chalmers Johnson, Karen Kwiatkowski and the Counter Punch gang.

These days I seem to prefer more baseline, juvenile humor like in the British Viz, and the French Fluide Glacial.

Great article, though, here at Design Observer. I enjoyed it. It brought back old memories.
Sid Clark

Having just read the article and related posts, I'm once again reminded of the great heritage of the National Lampoon. As the current art director of the National Lampoon - yes we still exist - no the mag is no longer in print (there is however a web magazine ) we attempt to stay true to the mechanics of visual parody that Kaestle and Gross committed to. "The more realism a satire is wrapped in the funnier it will be." This is true no matter the media - print, film, TV, or web. Check out one of our latest pieces Rummy's Bondage Palace to see if we are living up to this very large legacy.
Thanks for the nice write-up, and wonderful comments by all.

[The Daily Show's Stephen] Colbert credits the Lampoon with introducing satire that not only eviscerated its subjects, but also did so in the style of its target, like the magazine's letters to the editor, none of which were ever real, or myriad magazine parodies.

The continuing influence of the National Lampoon, noted in Sunday's New York Times.
Michael Bierut

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