Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Thoughts on (Paul Rand's) Design

“I didn’t choose. God chose,” answers Rand when Janet Abrams asks why he chose to become a designer. Never digressing from a certain style, Rand was known for clever advertisements, visually stimulating corporate logos, eloquent philosophies and of course, his blatant haughtiness. Rand was prominent for his corporate logos for firms such as IBM and ABC. He started his career with small jobs putting together stock images for certain newspapers and magazines. It wasn’t until he landed a job as art director for editorial magazines such as Direction and Apparel Arts, that his career as a designer started to gain fame before he established his reputation as a corporate designer. He forced the audience to engage and interpret his work through his clever puns and humor. Rand was known for also eloquently simplifying complicated design problems. He believed in simplistic design, proving that design doesn’t need an overwhelming flood of visuals or text to convey a point. Some of the innovative designs that made an impression on me were the redesign of the IBM logo (1956), Coronet Brandy poster series (1945) and one of his children’s books, Listen! Listen! (1970).

Before delving more into detail of these three specific designs, expanding on design philosophies that Rand consistently embraced in his work will help to further comprehend his work. In his first book, Thoughts on Design, Rand provided a compilation of his own various works and ideologies that they were based on. One main philosophy he stresses is the use of symbolism, especially in advertising. A symbolic element should connect and form a relationship between designer and spectator by transforming abstract forms into concrete forms helping the viewer to better understand the design. He states that the designer “must discover a means of communication or a point of contact between himself and the spectator” (Rand 7). He considers this one of many problems that designers encounter and offers the symbol as a means of alleviating it. Furthermore, he adds that the “same symbol can express many different ideas…By juxtaposition, association, analogy, the designer is able to utilize its effectiveness to fulfill a specific function” (Rand 13). This is a recurring concept in numerous works.

Similarly, the use of humor was recurrent throughout his work, also referring back to the idea of symbolism and visual puns. He mentions that humor is often viewed as “trivial and flighty” and the “notion that the humorous approach belittles or depreciates has been disproved by many advertisers” (Rand 29). Rand argues this point, stating that humor can serve as an aid to better understand serious problems. He then quotes Thomas Carlyle, a satirist and essayist of the Victorian era, “True humor springs no more from the head than from the heart; it is not contempt, its essence is love, it issues not in laughter, but in still smiles, which lie far deeper” (Rand 30). The IBM poster demonstrates the use of puns and playful colors that embody the idea that humor is an aid to design.

IBM poster, 1981


IBM logo process

The redesign of the IBM logo took approximately five years. In 1956, Rand approached the job with much caution and developed it by making subtle changes to it ever so often so the audience would develop a gradual appreciation to it. He began by using solid black serif type and then modified it by dividing the letters into thirteen horizontal stripes. A few years later, Rand tweaked it slightly by reducing the thirteen stripes to eight stripes, which is the acclaimed logo that we recognize today. I was surprised by his attention to minute details that I had not noticed until reading about it. In the 1994 ID Magazine issue, Janet Abrams’ essay helped me to gain a deeper insight into his personality and work ethic. In one passage, Rand discusses with Abrams his meticulous attention to details that viewers don’t even notice. Abrams asks, “Then, why bother doing [fixing] it?” Rand answers, “Because it bothers me…It’s just not right” (Abrams 49). To me, this was one of Rand’s admirable attributes: striving for perfection in all his work. Decades later, in the IBM poster (1981), he utilizes a rebus which is defined as replacing a letter or word with an image. Here, he replaces the “I” with an eye and the “B” with a bee. By using these simple puns, he incorporates light and childlike (not childish, as Rand was adamant in distinguishing the difference in Abrams’ essay) humor. I chose the IBM logo and poster, which jump-started Rand as a corporate designer. It’s interesting how he takes a company’s refined and serious logo and replaces the words with simple, childlike images, which he believed made IBM seem more “human”.

In "Thoughts on Design", Rand reiterates what typographic designers sometimes forget: readability. Rand reminds us to not lose the legibility at the expense of “style, individuality, sensibility, and sparkle” (Rand 113). He includes that asymmetry and white space create greater interest because “the pleasure derived from observing asymmetric arrangements lies partly in overcoming resistances which, consciously or not, the spectator adjusts in his own mind” (Rand 118). I felt that this was an powerful way of stating how today’s typographers and designers lose the legibility at the expense of flashy layouts.

Boy and Girl on Fence, 1939

During the 1940s and 50s, Rand’s work was unlike most of what was being done in the United States. An American designer of the post war period, Lester Beall is one designer whose work is compared to with Rand’s. Beall did corporate designs for clients such as Merrill Lynch and the US Government's Rural Electrification Administration. However, one distinct difference between these two designers is that Beall’s designs depicted deeper messages such as patriotism in the famous poster, “Boy and Girl on Fence”. For Rand, his work was based on form and content, which he further explains. He states, “Design issues are form and content and proportion…Design can help elucidate or explain social issues. Social issues are not design issues…” (Abrams 50). He takes a dogmatic and somewhat narrow-minded stance on such an issue, which I personally disagree on. To me, any social issue can be a design issue. For example, for one design project, I brought up the controversial hunger problem that still continues in North Korea. By using photography and typography, I attempted find the right type to depict the quotes in the social issue in my project.

Throughout the whole article, there are multiple instances of Rand’s arrogance in his work. He firmly believes in being modest, yet claims he deserves an excessive amount of money for some of his logo designs. For example, “he is said to have commanded more than $100,000 for doing the NeXT logo” (Abrams 49). Later, he rants, “I don’t consider these ‘young innovators’ innovators. I consider them a pack of undisciplined gibberish…” and when asked how he judges the difference between good design and bad design he replies, “By looking” (51). With such a succinct and proud answer, Rand is basically stating that only his style is the right style. Again, he contradicts himself by stating he is modest while believing he is the only one who can discern what good design and bad design is.



Coronet Brandy Poster Series

Man in Hat, 1912 by Picasso

Regardless of Rand’s imperious nature, he admits to the great influences in his life. Much of his work was a merging of American visual culture and European modern art which included Cubism, Constructivism, and Bauhaus. Picasso was one of Rand’s primary influences. Rand quotes, “Without play, there would be no Picasso. Without play, there is no experimentation. Experimentation is the quest for answers,” Rand stated in his book, Design and the Play Instinct. He was fascinated by the way Picasso and Braque collaged materials all on one surface of unrelated ideas. These collages strongly influenced Rand’s work, which were reminiscent of abstract, geometric paintings. Rand did experiment with many of his designs with the use of photomontages and collages. One example was in 1941, when he was appointed art director for William H. Weintraub Advertising Agency where one of his clients was Coronet Brandy. He did a series of advertisements incorporating montages in full color. The symbolic element recurs once again in this series. Rand represents the waiter with a head suggestive of a brandy glass forcing the viewers to translate the ad for themselves. In Thoughts on Design, Rand also mentions subtle details such as the dotted background to symbolize “the effervescence of soda” (62). In one of the advertisements, the waiter juggles glasses to play off of the lightness of the brandy. In another version, the waiter balances the tray of drinks on a beach ball again suggesting lightness and buoyancy.



Listen! Listen!

Beginning in the 50s, Rand began to illustrate children’s books while his wife, Ann Rand, wrote them. These included Listen! Listen!, Sparkle and Spin, and Little One. Listen! Listen! demonstrates the wide variety of work that Rand involved himself in. Listen! Listen! was written later on in his career in 1970 while he still juggled designing posters and trademark logos. The books bring out his unique style of simple, collaged cut outs in daring vibrant colors. In the first photo, the words contour to the blue cloud, bringing harmony between text and illustration. In the third photo, the letters are cutouts just as the illustrations are, keeping the book very coherent.


Alan Fletcher

Helmut Krone

While illustrating for children’s books, Rand taught design at Yale for several decades, Fletcher being one of the many students he influenced. Fletcher, the co-founder of the renowned design studio, Pentegram, produced works visually similar to Rand’s by using simple cutouts and dynamic colors. Rand also had an impact on Helmut Krone, art director and advertising designer whose celebrated ad campaign was for Volkswagen. He admired Rand so much that his work area was covered with Rand’s work. He once stated, “If you want to be as good as Rand, don’t look at Rand; look at what Rand looks at” (www.aiga.org). Although Rand has passed away now, he is still influencing designers to this day.

To create a subsequent menu redesign under Rand’s style and influence was a challenging assignment. From the plethora of philosophies to choose and focus on, I was a bit overwhelmed. Then, I realized the process of experimentation and playful humor were two main defining characteristics of Rand’s work that struck me. As I was searching for which menu to attempt to redesign, I knew I either wanted to redesign a boring menu or a menu that was already playful, but could be pushed further. I chose to redesign one I particularly liked, Jamba Juice’s takeout menu, which already had very playful elements. However, to give it the Rand touch I used geometric layouts and cutouts whereas the original menu consisted of organic elements. I kept to Jamba Juice’s vibrant color palette, but took the idea of symbolism and puns that Rand often used and applied them to the redesign. I experimented with cut out images to represent the titles for certain sections. For example, in the dairy section by placing an image of a cow as the title, I wanted to force the viewer to engage with the menu to figure out what part of the menu it represented. To push the playfulness that Jamba Juice already had going, I decided to use a layout with guides or “paths” that the audience could follow, which allows the menu to be a visually interactive “game”. Additionally, I pasted the six sheets of the menu onto a lightweight foam core cube to push the interactive aspect even further by pulling it out of its original 2 dimensional, flat layout. I chose Rand as my influence because of his simplicity and playful experimentation. I was immediately attracted to his designs because I felt they were somewhat similar to my own style. I tried to adhere to my style while hopefully doing justice to Randism.

Menu Redesign

Abrams perfectly describes how one would react to Rand: “…he could inspire such contradictory feelings among those who have encountered him… on the one hand, undying devotion from many former students and colleagues; on the other, a kind of weary resignation… on the part of those who regard him as an unreconstructed Modernist, rigid in his views and dismissive of new approaches to graphic design” (Abrams 46). While Rand may have roused up enemies, it would wrong to say he wasn’t a prominent figure in graphic design. Through the use of symbols, experimentation, and immaculate white space, Rand forced viewers to engage in his work. His philosophies still remain significant to today’s designers. His signature is forever embedded in most, if not all, his work as possibly a way of indirectly showing he wanted to be recognized and praised. Although he may not praised by everyone, he has left a legacy as an influential designer.

Works Cited

www.paul-rand.com. 18 March 2008.

Abrams, Janet. "Paul Rand: A Profile." ID Magazine. 1994.

Rand, Paul. “Thoughts on Design.” New York, Wittenborn & Company.

www.aiga.org. 25 March 2008. .

Rand, Paul. “Listen! Listen!” New York, Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.

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