Tuesday, April 1, 2008


Paul Rand (August 15, 1914 – November 26, 1996) is one of the most influential figures in American graphic design. During his long career, he established many of the definitions of the term "graphic designer." Rand’s work includes advertising design, illustration, industrial design, and typography, with clients from a broad range of industry. Laszlo Moholy-Nagy said Rand was "an idealist and a realist using the language of the poet and the businessman. He thinks in terms of need and function. He is able to analyze his problems, but his fantasy is boundless." Three dominant principles seem to comprise Rand's design philosophy: the influence of the fine arts, firm belief in modernist fundamentals, and the practice of defamiliarizing the ordinary.


The final thought of Rand's Thoughts on Design states, "Even if it is true that commonplace advertising and exhibitions of bad taste are indicative of the mental capacity of the man in the street, the opposing argument is equally valid. Bromidic advertising catering to that bad taste merely perpetuates that mediocrity and denies him one of the most easily accessible means of aesthetic development." In attempting to bring "aesthetic development" to the masses, Rand consistently converted familiar objects into commanding symbols.

In A Designer’s Art, Rand describes his motivation for finding inspiration in the potentially banal: "From Impressionism to Pop Art, the commonplace and even the comic strip have become ingredients for the artist’s cauldron. What Cézanne did with apples, Picasso with guitars, Léger with machines, Schwitters with rubbish, and Duchamp with urinals makes it clear that revelation does not depend upon grandiose concepts. The problem of the artist is to defamiliarize the ordinary."

Rand was faced with just such a problem when he was commissioned by Westinghouse Corporation to symbolically incorporate the nature of the company’s business in a new mark that would be simple, memorable, and distinct. In the resulting logo, Rand used basic graphic forms to evoke wires and plugs, electronic diagrams and circuitry, and molecular structures.

The idea of defamiliarizing the ordinary played an important part in Rand’s design choices. Working with manufacturers provided him the challenge of utilizing his corporate identities to create interesting packaging for mundane items. Rand was quick to point out in A Designer’s Art that "ideas do not need to be esoteric to be original or exciting." He insisted that artistic quality did not depend on exalted subject-matter. For years Rand worked with light bulb manufacturers, cigar makers, distillers, etc., whose products were not in themselves unusual. "A light bulb is almost as commonplace as an apple," he wrote, "but if I fail to make a package or an advertisement for light bulbs that is lively and original, it will not be the light bulb that is at fault."


Throughout his career, Rand broke away from the conventions of American typography and layout. He absorbed the visual language of Cubism, Constructivism, the Bauhaus and De Stijl, translating the innovations of European modern art into a new form of American design. He explored the formal vocabulary of the European avant garde art movements and developed a unique graphic style, characterized by simplicity, wit and a rational approach to problem solving. By drawing upon these influences, Rand linked the fine arts with popular graphic application.

Between 1938 and 1945, Rand produced a series of cover designs for Direction, a culture magazine publishing avante-gardists such as Le Corbusier and Jean Cocteau. Rand worked for free, claiming that the removal of financial obligation inspired more honest art.

The December 1940 cover of Direction, which uses barbed wire to present the magazine as both a war-torn gift and a crucifix, indicates the artistic freedom Rand enjoyed at Direction. In Thoughts on Design, Rand notes that it "is significant that the crucifix, aside from its religious implications, is a demonstration of pure plastic form as well . . . a perfect union of the aggressive vertical (male) and the passive horizontal (female)." In ways such as this, Rand was experimenting with the introduction of themes normally found in the "high arts" into his new graphic design, further advancing his life-long goal of bridging the gap between his profession and that of Europe’s modernist masters.


In 1954, Rand began his career in corporate identification, his most widely recognized contribution to graphic design. His logos adhered to principles of simplicity, ease of recognition, and absolute appropriateness to their subject matter. Many of his logos, though decades old, are still in use.

Rand’s defining corporate identity was his IBM logo, which as design critic Mark Favermann notes "was not just an identity but a basic design philosophy that permeated corporate consciousness and public awareness."

In 1956, Rand introduced what IBM refers to as the "IBM continuity logo." This modernization was a relatively subtle change from the company's previous logo, in part to communicate that any changes would come within an overall continuity. The new logotype replaced the former Beton Bold type font with City Medium. The letters took on a more solid, grounded and balanced appearance. In 1972, the logo was again updated by Rand. Horizontal stripes now replaced the solid letters to suggest "speed and dynamism." The IBM logo epitomizes the ideal of minimalism, proving Rand’s point that a logo "cannot survive unless it is designed with the utmost simplicity and restraint."

The logo became the basic unifying element that tied all IBM printed material together, and led to the company's creation of the first corporate design manual. According to graphic designer Louis Danziger, "He almost singlehandedly convinced business that design was an effective tool. [. . .] Anyone designing in the 1950s and 1960s owed much to Rand, who largely made it possible for us to work. He more than anyone else made the profession reputable. We went from being commercial artists to being graphic designers largely on his merits."


These principles remained essential throughout the menu design process. In order to channel Paul Rand, the product needed to incorporate three key elements: familiar subject matter, a synthesis of high and low art, and modernist aesthetics.

I concluded that McDonalds would be an appropriately base starting point into which to inject Rand's design philosophy. Rand was, after all, admired for his ability to elevate "lowly" subject matter to the aesthetic level of fine art. The next step was to employ the modernist philosophy Rand had so revered. This manifests itself in the final product in both the brevity of the food descriptions and the simplistic minimalism of the "M" logo that replaces the restaurant name. By abbreviating the content of the menu, I hoped to achieve a level of clarity and efficiency characteristic of Rand.

The remaining formal decisions were guided by an attempt to use fine art methods in a commercial art context. Employing techniques such as cut paper and economical line drawing, I attempted to incorporate the aesthetic of the European masters which had inspired Rand, while still adhering to the modernist principle of functional simplicity. In a final jab at his notorious ego-centrism, I completed the composition with a Rand-esque signature.

Arguably one of Paul Rand's most important legacies is the validity that he gave to the profession of graphic design. Who better to choose for inspiration than a man to whom we as designers owe much of the respect we know today?


Heller, Stephen. Paul Rand. London: Phaidon, 2000.

Rand, Paul. A Designer's Art. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.

Rand, Paul. Thoughts On Design. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1970.

Lewandowski, Daniel. "Paul Rand: A Brief Biography." Paul-Rand.com. March 21, 2008.

"1972 Hall of Fame: Paul Rand." The Art Directors Club. 1972.

1 comment:

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