Paul Rand 1914 – 1996: A life in graphic design

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In the history of graphic design in the United States there are few more important figures than Paul Rand, who helped define visual culture after the Second World War.

Born in Brooklyn, in 1914, Rand showed an early interest in design by creating signs for his family’s grocery store, though his father cautioned against a career in the visual arts.

While studying art at night school in Manhattan, Rand began his career with a part-time job creating stock images for a company that supplied graphics to newspapers and magazines.

This led to a role at Apparel Arts magazine (which later became GQ) where he immediately impressed with his unique approach to page layouts.

“His remarkable talent for transforming mundane photographs into dynamic compositions, which did not merely decorate but gave editorial weight to the page, earned him a full-time position,” explains Steven Heller.

“The witty collages and humorously cropped photographs, unburdened by cover lines, were unlike anything on the newsstand.”

At the age of just 23 Rand was made art director at Esquire-Coronet, having turned down the role a year previously, fearful he lacked the necessary experience.

Rand‘s restless creativity found an outlet in numerous freelance advertising commissions as 1930s wore on, as well as acclaimed work for the anti-facist leaning cultural magazine, Direction.

During this period Rand‘s style evolved from being something of a homage to the European avant-garde, which he had hungrily devoured in the pages of commercial arts journals as a student, to being strikingly original, and instantly recognisable.

By 1941, aged 27, Rand became art director of the newly launched Weintraub Agency, which quickly built up a roster of well known brands.

“Before the 1940s, very little American advertising was really designed,” says Steven Heller.

“Copywriters would give rough sketches to the layout artists to refine. Rand believed that advertising composition was a design problem that required intelligent solutions. To the consternation of the copywriters, he took pleasure in tearing up their layouts.”

In redressing the balance between copywriter and art director, Rand helped create the blueprint for the modern creative agency.

By the mid 20th Century Paul Rand had become the go-to person for corporate identity design.

IBM hired him to create a logo in 1956, which he revised in 1960, and then again in 1972, when he added the now iconic horizontal stripes.

In 1961 Rand created a new logo for the delivery firm UPS, featuring a stern shield coupled with a playfully tied parcel.

“I do not use humour consciously,” Rand explained. “I just go that way naturally. A well known example is my identity for United Parcels Service: to take an escutcheon – a medieval symbol which inevitably seems pompous today – and then stick a package on top of it, that is funny.”

Funny or not, UPS used the logo for 42 years.

Rand’s logo for the television network ABC was a classic of simplicity – with the name in lowercase within a circle, and the spaces within the letters forming three more.

This led Steve Jobs to describe Rand as “the greatest living graphic designer”, and to hire him – for $100,000 – to create a logo for his NeXT computer company in 1986, when Rand was 72.

When asked what it was like to work with Rand, Jobs said, “I asked him if he would come up with a few options, and he said, ‘No, I will solve your problem for you and you will pay me. You don’t have to use the solution. If you want options go talk to other people.’”

“Should a logo be self-explanatory?” Rand once asked. “It is only by association with a product, a service, a business, or a corporation that a logo takes on any real meaning.

“It derives its meaning and usefulness from the quality of that which it symbolises. If a company is second rate, the logo will eventually be perceived as second rate. It is foolhardy to believe that a logo will do its job immediately, before an audience has been properly conditioned.”

Speaking of Rand’s influence, design curator Donald Albrecht said, “You see it in the idea that design is good for business. And that it’s not just window dressing.”

A version of this article was published as part of a weekly column by Guy Cookson on marketing, design, trends and strategy in the Lancaster Guardian, Blackpool Gazette and Lancashire Post. See our brand, web design and marketing recent projects.

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