Under the influence

When Paul Rand died three years ago, graphic design lost a founding father. For almost seven decades, his work across advertising, publishing and corporate design has provided pivotal points and graphic precedent for every designer who has since picked up

WHEN Paul Rand died three years ago, graphic design lost a founding father. For almost seven decades, his work across advertising, publishing and corporate design has provided pivotal points and graphic precedent for every designer who has since picked up a pencil.

New York Times art director Steven Heller has teamed up with Phaidon to publish the first comprehensive survey of Rand’s work – a hefty volume of 250 copiously illustrated, large format pages.

Of course, this is not the first time we have been able to view his work. Rand himself published several books, which already grace the bookshelves of most self-respecting students and practitioners of graphic design.

In truth, there is not a huge amount of work in Heller’s book that has not been previously aired. But you would expect that of a subject whose design work has become synonymous with the 20th century and whose graphic approach to problem-solving is now the bedrock on which we all build.

As the eminent New York art director George Lois writes in the foreword to the book: “Every art director and graphic designer in the world should kiss his ass.”

People try to borrow from the master, but it’s not easy. Put stripes in a logo and you end up debating IBM (probably Rand’s most famous logo). A string tied in a bow round a box equals UPS parcels. Attempt any kind of rebus and you think of Rand’s own Eye, Bee, M solution – which, incidentally, scared his client so much that it restricted circulation of the poster, fearing it would become too influential.

When interviewing potential designers, I used to ask a stock question: “What do you think of Paul Rand’s work?” The implication of the question was twofold: a) do you know who Rand was? and b) do you subscribe to his ideas-based, problem-solving approach to graphic design? Failure to acknowledge even a) meant several very promising designers never furthered their design career at Johnson Banks.

Heller’s book provides a detailed analysis of Rand’s role in 20th century design. It is a relief to find that its style, while reverential, keeps its feet on the ground. Reading any of Rand’s own books in one sitting is sometimes rather dispiriting because his carefully constructed, almost hectoring style can become a little wearing after a while. While the visual elements were – and still are – inspiring, reading the text was like going 12 rounds with a graphic orator clutching a book of active verbs.

Heller finds enough examples of vanity and egotism to show us that, while he was undeniably a colossus, Rand was human too. His love of European art made him insist on signing his designs for ads in a way that seems oddly egotistical now, but to Rand it was fundamental to his right as a graphic artist – as opposed to commercial artists, who bashed out ads for a living. In the publishing section of Heller’s book, there is evidence that while Rand’s book covers were of seminal influence, he was often bored with designing a series of pages and preferred the set piece of an ad or a cover.

Heller skilfully weaves Europe’s influence on Rand into the book. Rand never denied that the art of Kandinsky, Klee and Picasso, the movements of De Stijl, Constructivism and the teachings of the Bauhaus, the writings of Jan Tschichold and the theories of Le Corbusier schooled him in European modernism from the moment he discovered them in his local library. You can clearly see the influence of Matisse’s cut paper collages on his middle and later work.

The Swiss style of typographic, grid-based layout after the war provided Rand with the structure on which to base his corporate work. So respectful of the European tradition was he that when he was asked to solve the problem for IBM of dealing with the European market, Rand (then design consultant for IBM in the US) suggested that it appoint the high priest of European post-war modernism, Josef Muller Brockmann, as his equivalent in Europe.

Rand managed to synthesise all his European influences with his own brand of Brooklyn nous and Madison Avenue commercial sensibility to provide a palette and approach that is unmistakably his own, while introducing commercial American design and art direction to the key movements in European art and design.

While he would never have admitted having “a style”, there’s no doubt that his limited palette of typefaces, bright colours, geometric shapes, collage, hand-written type and cut-out photography are eminently recognisable.

Rand himself schooled a new generation of designers as assistants, such as Allen Hulburt and Helmut Krone, who were to become well-known in their own right. At one point in the Fifties, while holding down a day job at William H Weintraub & Co, he freelanced for the department store Orbach’s, producing press ads with Bill Bernbach. Bernbach’s next move was to revolutionise advertising in the Sixties at his agency, Doyle Dane Bernbach, with, among others, the immortal early ads for the Volkswagen Beetle. The debate rages to this day as to whether Rand, not Bernbach, was the architect of this advertising revolution. Like Tensing and Hillary, they carried the truth to their graves.

Rand’s work influenced just about every designer in Fifties America, most notably Brownjohn, Chermayeff & Geismar. It is this New York-based, ideas school of design – and Rand’s teaching at Yale – that encouraged a young Alan Fletcher to try it for himself in London, with the aid of Colin Forbes and Bob Gill. Robert Brownjohn followed Gill’s example of the American abroad and spent several fruitful years in the Sixties, plying the “big idea” in swinging London. The early work of Lou Klein, Michael Peters and Minale Tattersfield all show the influence of the New York school.

The rise of UK corporate identity design in the Seventies feeds off the systems that Rand put in place with his work for IBM. His influence, though perhaps subtler now, lives on. When he lectured in London six years ago, the room was stuffed with generations of principals of the country’s design groups, all eager to hear a few words from the master.

But it wasn’t just visually that Rand exerted influence. From the first days of his career, he championed graphic design as a respectable profession. Throughout his life, he upheld the most uncompromising attitudes to his work and dealing with clients. Rand always insisted on the highest level of client contact for his work. Much of his classic identity work for IBM, Westinghouse and UPS was based on board-level contact, not day-to-day jockeying with middle-management yes men trying to second-guess their bosses’ biorythmic cycles.

He never liked to present more than one – maybe one-and-a-half – solutions to a problem. When his fees in later life rose to hundreds of thousands of dollars, clients who asked why they had only one choice on the table were lectured by a gruff Rand, who would often tell them: “You don’t write two letters – you make one statement and this is it.” He would explain to colleagues that “if you show them more than two ideas, you weaken your position”.

For corporate presentations, Rand developed a technique of printing up a presentation booklet that “walked” the client through the analysis, leading to a single solution. Steve Jobs, who commissioned Rand to design the logo for NeXT, his post-Apple Eighties computer venture, described the booklet as “a complete surprise. I was convinced that each typographic example on the first few pages was the final logo. I was not sure what Paul was doing until I reached the end. And at that moment I knew we had the solution… Rand gave us a jewel, which in retrospect seems so obvious”.

Rand was also one of the first graphic artists to make serious money from his profession, once demanding that his then employer give him double the pay for half the time. And he was perhaps the first to insist that graphics was an art in itself. He always maintained that art must be the goal of all graphic designers and considered that his advertising work should “contribute something to the quality of life”.

Rand’s first publication in 1946, Thoughts on Design (later updated as A Designer’s Art), became a touchstone for post-war American design. The success of this form of designer monograph influenced the production by Pentagram and Minale Tattersfield – and a million others – of their own books. This navel-gazing activity has reached epidemic proportions, judging by the piles of self-obsessed, glossily-varnished tomes that spill on to the floor of Zwemmers bookshop in central London.

So, Rand single-handedly introduced European art to commercial America, arguably influencing all advertising since the late Fifties. He championed the graphic designer’s position in the boardroom, virtually inventing corporate identity design. He inspired pioneering design groups from either side of the Atlantic, providing them with the impetus to set up companies and write books. Apart from this, Rand didn’t get up to much.

Only history will reveal if any graphic designer can bestride the 21st century as Rand did the 20th. If you don’t already have his books, this would make a valuable addition to any designer’s library.

Paul Rand, by Steven Heller, is published by Phaidon, priced £39.

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