The Story of “O” by Herb Lubalin
“U&LC is a clean newspaper.
I want to make it perfectly clear that, in spite of my ‘reputation’ as a designer of erotic magazines, this article has no significance as a psycho-analytical exploration of the sexual implications of my involvement with the letter ‘O.’ It is meant to document how a designer can make something out of nothing. Zero. ‘O.’ I owe (no pun intended) my financial status and my reputation to the ‘O,’ and other assorted characters.
It all started 100 years ago when I was 20. (I’ve picked these good round numbers because they symbolize my preoccupation, not because they indicate my age, now conveniently concealed behind a grey beard.) I was a struggling senior at the Cooper Union, trying to find a graphic direction which would instantly establish me as the world’s greatest designer and get me rich quick.
A call for entries from the McCandlish outdoor advertising competition came to my attention. I entered the contest, hoping to win a prize along with the ensuing publicity a ‘winner’ deserves.
I won first prize in the student category with a poster for Hires Root Beer. The sparkling, persuasively original copy line was: ‘It’s tops.’ The graphics displayed this headline in the sky with the Hires bottle top situated in the ‘O’ of the word ‘tops.’ Get it? Evidently, the judges got it. And I got $25.00 plus the enthusiastic handclasp of my graphic design instructor.
Spurred on, I decided to become the first designer to not only fill the ‘O’ with every conceivable round graphic symbol, but to exploit the characteristics of all the letters of the alphabet with the goal to replace them, whenever the occasion arose, with a symbol reflecting the nature of the character. Ultimately, I hoped to create a new graphic language, replacing the roman alphabet, which would eliminate all language barriers and, thus, enhance communications among all the peoples of the world and, thus, create everlasting peace and harmony. So be it.
I bided my time waiting for the opportunity to exploit my theory. Nothing significant happened for seven years, which is a long time between filling ‘O’s. Then, in 1947, I was working on an ad for CIBA on a product called Pyribenzamine Expectorant, for the relief of cough symptoms, through Sudler & Hennessey, a well-respected pharmaceutical ad agency. The copy, again sparkling and provocative, said ‘Break up Cough.’ I set the word cough in Franklin Gothic Condensed U&LC, and proceeded to shove my fist through the type proof in the area occupied by the ‘O’ in cough, to symbolize the words ‘break up.’ I missed. My intentions were good but my aim was bad. I broke up the entire word. I tried again with the same results. Finally, dismayed by adveristy, I submitted the job as it was. The client flipped.
A few months later I had occasion to exploit the ‘S.’ In an ad for the William Merrell Co. for a product called Bentyl, an antispasmodic for the treatment of stomach disorders, I created an ‘S’ in the word spasm out of ‘Slinky,’ a wirey kids’ toy that has a spasmodic action. This approach stimulated the judges at the New York Art Directors Show, the AIGA, and the Type Directors Club to reward me for my efforts.
At this point, I lost all constraint. I became so obsessed with my graphic alphabet that I became verbally uncommunicative. When my wife asked why I didn’t talk to her anymore, all I could say was ‘Oh?’
Appearing on this page are a few of my more notorious efforts over a span of 20 years.”