He was a groundbreaking master of the visual pun, part of a generation of designers for whom the aesthetic was in service to the idea.
Bob Gill, the irreverent graphic designer who helped transform his profession from its decorative roots into a business of ideas, died on Nov. 9 in Brooklyn. He was 90.
The death, at a hospice facility, was confirmed by his wife, Sara Fishko.
Mr. Gill once played piano with the drummer Charlie Watts (and urged him to join an unknown band called the Rolling Stones); co-created “Beatlemania,” the late-1970s Broadway pop extravaganza; wrote and illustrated a dozen or so children’s books; and redesigned High Times magazine, the once-trendy chronicle of dope culture. But these achievements were side gigs.
His métier, and religion, was graphic design, and along with peers like George Lois — the legendary art director of Esquire who once dropped an image of Andy Warhol in a can of soup for his magazine’s cover — Mr. Gill was part of a revolution in his profession. He felt passionately that good design was about communicating a message, not foisting a fashionable aesthetic on a client.
For a long time, much of the history of art in the service of commerce was about decoration, “about making things look fancy,” said Michael Bierut, a partner at Pentagram, the global design firm that grew out of a boutique London ad agency founded in part by Mr. Gill.
“Bob was not alone in his generation in thinking that you should be able to sell the idea over the phone,” he added, “that it didn’t depend on your color sense or your ability to do a nice layout. But Bob was absolutely obsessive about that.”
Salty and opinionated, Mr. Gill was a master of the visual pun. A 1964 ad for El Al airline, promoting the balmy climate of Israel, showed a photograph of a man reclining on a beach chair and clad only in a bathing suit and a slick coating of suntan oil. “This is a winter coat,” read the tag line.
In 1970, for a car rental company pamphlet listing its terms, Mr. Gill, to get across the idea that the terms were easy to understand, created a title page that declared in enormous type, “We hate small print.” A 1976 poster for Broadway was a collage of the sort of superlatives used in theater reviews — “Spectacular” … “Masterful” … “Unbelievable” — and looked to be torn from actual headlines.
His poster for Bob Fosse’s 1978 musical, “Dancin’,” was a crazy collage of limbs — an indelible image for generations of New Yorkers.
“He was modern without being a strict modernist,” said Steven Heller, an art director and the author of, among other books on design, “The Moderns: Midcentury American Graphic Design.” “His work was not high falutin’. His work was down to earth.”
Mr. Bierut said: “He was a bit of a bomb-throwing revolutionary working in the system. His real legacy is the ideological position he took on behalf of the profession. He really was a polemicist.”
Mr. Gill was perhaps as well known for his oft-quoted dictums — delivered in lectures and collected in books like “Forget All the Rules You Ever Learned About Graphic Design” (1981), a bible for generations of designers — as he was for his individual projects.
“If you have something truthful to say, it will design itself,” was one; “Boring words need interesting graphics” was another. His most emphatic belief: “There’s no such thing as a bad client, only bad designers.”
Mr. Gill taught design for 50 years, mostly at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, where he first joined the faculty in 1956. He was a captivating lecturer — feisty, acerbic and challenging. When asked, as he inevitably was, what his favorite job was, he might first bark, as he did in a short film produced by the school in 2018, a Yiddish term for an idiot before declaring: “It doesn’t make any difference. I’m not interested in the problem, I’m interested in the solution. My approach, which hasn’t changed very much, is to fight the influence of the culture.”
Robert Charles Gill was born Jan. 17, 1931, in Brooklyn. His father, Jack Gill, left when Bob was 2, and his mother, Frieda (Gotthelf) Gill, struggled to make a living as a piano teacher. Bob was her first pupil. He was in a jazz band by age 10, and as a teenager he spent summers playing at the Borscht-Belt resorts in the Catskills.
He attended the High School of Music & Art in Manhattan (now the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts), spent two years at the Philadelphia Museum School of Art (now the University of the Arts) and attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts for six months. Drafted into the Army in 1952, he was a member of the design corps working in Washington.
Returning to New York City in 1954, he began freelancing as an illustrator and designer. His work appeared in Esquire, the Nation, Glamour and other magazines. In 1960, he moved to London, where Mr. Watts was his design assistant until the Rolling Stones came calling. The two played for office parties once or twice, with Mr. Gill on piano.
In 1962, Mr. Gill and the British designers Alan Fletcher and Colin Forbes opened what would become a hot new ad agency, Fletcher/Forbes/Gill (on April Fool’s day, they liked to point out). Their work, for Time Life, Penguin Books and Pirelli tires, was idea-driven, witty and brash and emblematic of the moment — London in the Swinging Sixties. Mr. Gill went back to freelancing in 1967, and in 1972 the agency renamed itself Pentagram. Mr. Gill said more than once that if he had stayed on, he would have been a rich man.
By 1975, he was back in New York working and teaching again at the School of Visual Arts. He took a job as the director of a pornographic movie (“The Double Exposure of Holly”) for the simple reasons that someone had asked him to and that it would be an experience he’d never had, though it nearly put him off sex for life, he said.
A more enduring project was “Beatlemania,” a multimedia extravaganza conceived with his friend Robert Rabinowitz, an artist and theater designer. It presented a visual and oral history of the 1960s along with performances by a Beatles’ cover band. Critics didn’t quite know what to make of it, but audiences flocked to it, and it ran on Broadway from 1977 to 1979.
In the mid-80s, Mr. Gill finagled a date with Ms. Fishko, the longtime public radio host and producer, with a bit of subterfuge. He had been hired to art direct a commercial about a show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music called “Sheer Romance.” He asked his producer to invite Ms. Fishko to his apartment to audition for the ad’s voice-over, and he hired her on the spot. But Ms. Fishko’s deep and soothing voice was not the sort of breathy vocal the client was after, and her recording was quickly replaced.
Mr. Gill called to tell her the news, and then asked her on a date. It turned out that he had been listening to her Sunday morning classical music program on WNYC for months and had been determined to meet her. They married in 1987.
In addition to Ms. Fishko, Mr. Gill is survived by his son, Jack, and his daughter, Kate F. Gill. An early marriage to the magazine art director Ruth Ansel ended in divorce, as did his marriage to Bobby Mills, a British artist and teacher.
He collected his work in “Bob Gill So Far” (2011), which Print magazine called required reading by “one of America’s greatest graphic thinkers” who “prized elegance and wit above all else.”
In the book, he reprised his axiom that there are no bad clients, only bad designers.
“No matter how many times your amazing, absolutely brilliant work is rejected by the client,” he wrote, “for whatever dopey, arbitrary reason, there is often another amazing, absolutely brilliant solution possible.”
“Sometimes it’s even better.”