Paul Rand interview by Steven Heller

From Mildred Friedman’s “Graphic Design In America: A Visual Language History”, 1989

During the early 1930s, when Paul Rand was a young designer, most American advertising and magazine layout was performed either by printers who followed established conventions or by commercial artists schooled in accepted graphic styles. The then dominant American “streamlined” forms were often nothing more than superficial coverings that allowed the old to appear new. Rand, however, influenced by European Modernism, embraced a functional, systematic, yet extraordinarily expressive approach to graphic design in both his editorial and advertising work. Though Rand’s approach for a book jacket is substantially different from that for a package design or a corporate identity, each solution is underscored by a sensibility that is grounded in wit, simplicity, and of course, appropriateness. In addition to his contributions to the design of books and magazines (he was art director of Esquire and Apparel Arts when he was only twenty-three years old), Rand has devised benchmark corporate identities for IBM, Westinghouse, United Parcel Service, and NeXT.

— Steven Heller

One summer I discovered an issue of Gebrauchsgrafik, the German advertising-art publication, in a little bookshop near the old Brooklyn Paramount theater. And in 1929 I saw my first copy of Commercial Art, a British publication that covered the most up-to-date trends in design. I also discovered the Bauhaus in an issue of that magazine. Those things were never mentioned at art school, so my education came essentially from magazines and books.

The term graphic design was virtually unheard of in the 1920s. Even though in 1922 W.A. Dwiggins referred to it, it was not a generally accepted term. How could one know about Jan Tschichold in Pratt Institute, or in Brooklyn, or in Brownsville, or in East New York? One knew about “pool sharks” and icepick murders but not about Tschichold or the “new typography.” Moholy-Nagy’s first American book, The New Vision [1932], was, in a way, a papal bull for me. I thought that design had to be the way he described it ordered and systematized. System is a natural need for order. Whether one likes it or not, one lives by a system. You have breakfast every morning, you go to work, you go to sleep. That’s system.

If I was influenced by anything, it was architecture Le Corbusier in particular. If you don’t build a thing right, it’s going to cave in. And in a certain sense, you can apply this philosophy to graphic design. Fortunately, nobody’s going to die if you do the wrong thing. But that’s also one of its difficulties. There’s no easy check on bad work. But with architecture, there is—at least structurally.

European painting was also very important for me. When I was doing a cover for Direction, I was really trying to emulate the painters. I was trying to do the kind of work Van Doesburg, Leger, and Picasso were doing—to work in their spirit. But there are no rules, no magic bullet, just work. Even in advertising design my models were always painting and architecture: Picasso, Klee, Le Corbusier, and Leger. The model was not the advertising agency. There was always the implication that you do things willy-nilly simply to achieve a certain look. Nonsense. Everything one does must make sense, must be practical, because the problems are practical ones. In this regard design differs from painting. But the formal problems are identical. One still must cope with issues of color, proportion, scale, and myriad relationships.

Even painters have to please nonprofessionals. Likes and dislikes are often arbitrary. Henry James remarked in the essay “The Art of Fiction” that “Nothing, of course, will ever take the place of the good old fashion of ’liking’ a work of art or not liking it: the most improved criticism will not abolish that primitive, that ultimate test.” If the guy who owns the business doesn’t like what I do, no amount of explanation is going to help. I have to satisfy myself in relation to the problem and to the client. If he wants something done, I try to do it, and if it’s right—fine. But if I think it’s wrong, I won’t do it. If it’s ruined, start over! This has always been true for me. The quality of the work always precedes everything else. And the quality, of course, is my standard. By quality I mean, if it corresponds to some belief, some painter, or some person whom I respect, then fine. If not, forget it.

Humor is another goal I have always steered toward in my work. People who don’t have a sense of humor are a drag. Interesting people are humorous, one way or another. Shakespeare, Mencken, Shaw… each had a wonderful sense of humor. And humor is important in every arena—especially in business.

In the 1950s I began to do corporate design work. While designing a logo is somewhat analogous to any kind of design problem, it’s special. The problems are different from those in advertising. You have to break everything down into the smallest possible denominator. You’re not selling a product, so you don’t have to persuade anybody except the client. This kind of work wasn’t completely new to me. I had done similar things at the advertising agency for firms like Kaiser, Dubonnet, and EI Producto.

I was asked to design a logo for IBM because Thomas Watson, Jr., observed, that Olivetti did wonderful things, and he wondered why IBM design couldn’t be more distinguished. As IBM was a very conservative organization, especially when Thomas Watson, Sr., was alive, I reasoned that what I produced had to be pretty close to what already existed. The first logo I designed for them was merely a transition—something that was similar to what existed—a slab serif. The stripes didn’t occur to me at the time. I believe that if they had, the logo would now be gathering cobwebs. Indeed, questions came up later. Someone quipped that the stripes reminded him of a prison uniform. Fortunately, it wasn’t anybody who had too much say. I added stripes be. cause I felt that the letters in themselves were not sufficiently interesting. There was a problem in the sequence of letters, going from narrow to wide. It was just da-daa-daaa, instead of da-da-da-da-da-da. You were left dangling. I thought of a legal document as a possible solution, a cluster of thin parallel lines used as a background pattern to discourage plagiarism of signatures. Based on this idea, why not make the three letters out of stripes, or into a series of lines? That satisfies both content and form. Since each letter is different, the parallel lines, which are the same, are the harmonious elements that link the letters together.

I have always believed that if I could understand my own work, anybody could. I use myself as a measure, but I also use other people —not experts or professionals. My daughter, for example, was seven when I showed her a sketch for the United Parcel Service logo. I asked her what it looked like, and she said, “That’s a present, Daddy.” You couldn’t have rehearsed it any better.

When I showed a recent logo design to the plumber, who was working under the sink, I asked him, “What does this say?” And he read it right off. And I knew that it was right because readability was one of the problems I was dealing with. I then showed it to my wife, and she read it without difficulty; then to my accountant, and he read it. I decided that if these three people could read it, it must be right.

Intuition plays a very significant part in design, as it does in life. It’s the initial phase of any creative work. It’s the factor that makes it possible to be alive. Animals live by instinct, and we do, too. The difference is that they don’t reason. We do, and that can be a problem. You get an idea, which comes intuitively. You then look at it and decide whether it’s right or wrong. The important thing is not the intuition but the decision—whether it’s right or wrong—whether or not to pursue it. Most of the time people simply latch on to trends or to freakish solutions they believe are creative but which have nothing to do with real problems—with right or wrong.

A good solution, in addition to being right, should have the potential for longevity. Yet I don’t think one can design for permanence. One designs for function, for usefulness, rightness, beauty. Permanence is up to God.

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