Paul Rand – Pioneer of Design-lead Business

By shimon speigel 06 / 06 / 2017

“Graphic Design, which fulfills aesthetic needs, complies with the laws of form and the exigencies of two-dimensional space; which speaks in semiotics, sans-serifs, and geometrics; which abstracts, transforms, translates, rotates, dilates, repeats, mirrors, groups, and regroups, is not good design, if it is irrelevant”
- Paul Rand

Most commonly known for his corporate logos, Paul Rand shaped the world of modern design and the role of the graphic designer to what we know them to be today. Arguably, he was one of the greatest influences in convincing businesses and corporations that design was not only an effective strategy but a vital marketing tool. As a direct result of Paul Rand’s life-long career, groundbreaking work, and many publications, commercial artists became graphic designers.

Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1914. His fascination for design started when he painted the signs for his father’s grocery story as a teenager. During high school, Rand took night classes at the Pratt Institute and later attended the Parson’s New School of Design, although he was largely ‘self-taught’ as a graphic designer.

He initially gained his reputation through page design, notably crafting page layouts for Apparel Arts (now GQ) before becoming the art director for Esquire-Coronet magazines. At the peak of his career, Rand designed infamous brand logos as an independent designer. His most famous logos include IBM, ABC, UPS, Enron and Steve Jobs’ neXT computers amongst many others.

Rand published many books on design work, many of which have become integral parts of graphic design syllabuses all around the world: Thoughts on Design (1947), A designer’s Art (1985), Design, Form, and Chaos (1993) and From Lascaux to Brooklyn (1996) are his most influential. In these publications, Rand outlines his methods and his approach to graphic design.

In A Designer’s Art (1985), Rand attacks prejudice against the color black. He analyses the semiotic nature of the color by underlining its psychological and cultural associations. He draws examples from poetry, architecture, film, fashion, painting and interior design to illustrate his point: “the power and usefulness of black have been limited or misunderstood”.

Black has long been the color of night and death by association it also depicts mourning, sadness, and sin. Somewhat contradictorily, he argues, it can also connote sleekness, sexiness, style and simplicity. Rand argues that a good graphic designer can use the connotations of colors to convey meaning in their work. He adds that limited color, when combined with black and white brings it into focus and draws attention to it.It is by using these notions in surprising and unusual ways that Paul Rand has managed to achieve some of this most significant work.

Perhaps the most obvious example is the design campaign Rand created for the Kauffman stores, see here. “Black was used for the large Easter egg primarily because of its ambivalent qualities. The combination of the egg form, which is a literal symbol of life and also suggests life by its swelling breathing shape, with black, the color of death, has shock value. A black egg is a paradox. Because of this, the egg symbol is far more striking in black than if it were presented in its natural hue or in any other color. Light pink, which is a gay and playful color becomes increasingly effective when juxtaposed with black, again because of the associative paradox which their combination produces and because of the brightening action of black. Also, the thin white lettering becomes livelier when set on a heavy contrasting background.”

Although Rand’s approach is extremely analytical at times, he often seems to be designing as if he were playing a game or piecing together a puzzle. His rebus logo for IBM, in particular, illustrates his penchant for humor in his designs. In an interview with Steven Heller for his book ‘Design Dialogues’ (1998), Rand outlines what he calls ‘the play instinct’, meaning the necessity for playfulness and experimentation while dealing with the problems of form and content. ‘The notion of taking things out of context is inherently funny’, he says. He uses the logo he created for UPS to illustrate his point: “taking something sacred, the shield, and sort of poking fun at it […] by sticking a box on top of it is a seemingly frivolous gesture. The client, however, never considered it that way, and as it turned out the logo is meaningful because it is lighthearted and playful”.

Paul Rand was undoubtedly a man with an acute perception of the world, a sharp eye for the aesthetically pleasing, and immense talent. By some, he is considered to have singlehandedly pioneered the era of design lead business. What is certain, is that he has fused meaning with art to create beautiful and effective advertisements which have marked the ‘look’ of the 20th century.