Author’s Note: In all the articles I’ve written. In all the designer profiles I’ve written and will write, this article… this testament to Paul Rand is the most worthy. If I had to write one last piece before I died, none would be so fitting or so satisfying as a spotlight on Mr. Rand. He exemplifies the best any creative could ever be. He is a symbol of struggle and strength. He is creative play and joy and power with humility. Oh, if I could only be half the creative he was.
Paul Rand (August 15, 1914 – November 26, 1996) lived a lie when he was young. Born Peretz Rosenbaum, in Brooklyn, New York, he was Orthodox Jewish. As Orthodox law forbids the creation of graven images that can be worshiped as idols, he must have felt a yearning and creative turmoil that ate away at him… and strengthened his resolve and character.
Growing up in America at that time and with his strict upbringing, he hadn’t much of a chance to follow his creative urge. With virtually no avenues for him to follow, he found creative outlets where he could – painting signs for his father’s store and doing work for his schools special events. A career in art was certainly not viewed as one that could support a family and not one a Jewish family, especially an Orthodox one in post World War l America would encourage. Considering the rampant anti-Semitism of the time, such careers were unheard of.
Art School Lives Inside Us
Peretz attended a High School chosen by his father while taking night classes at the Pratt Institute, though neither of these schools offered him much stimulation. Despite studying at Pratt and other institutions in the New York area, including Parsons School of Design and the Art Students League, he was more or less self-taught as a designer, learning about the works of great European designers from magazines such as Gebrauchsgraphik.
It could not have been easy for Rand to afford those magazines, and they were, in all probability, not welcomed in his family home. One has the vision of young Rand hiding in the bathroom at night, pouring over the pages of the magazine and hiding it under his mattress during the day.
Creatives today come from all religious backgrounds. We have found more tolerance for each other yet we all share the same tortured youth of being creative. Our family and others around us still continue to make us question our inner dreams of making a living doing what we love and are driven to do. Imagining what Rand faced and overcame, many of us realize how easy we have it… only having the internet to skim for creative inspiration, in the darkened corners of our bedrooms while our parents sleep.
While in his studies, Rand worked a part-time position creating stock images for a syndicate that supplied graphics to various newspapers and magazines, which allowed him to amass a large portfolio, influenced by European designers and the German advertising style Sachplakat (ornamental poster) as well as the works of Gustav Jensen. To further his career he felt he had to the hide his Jewish identity, easily spotted by his name. Shortening his name to “Paul” and taking “Rand” from an uncle to form his new surname. Morris Wyszogrod, a friend and associate of Rand, noted that, “he figured that ‘Paul Rand,’ four letters here, four letters there, would create a nice symbol. So he became Paul Rand.”
Rand Creates His Brand
Peter Behrens notes the importance of the new title: “Rand’s new persona, which served as the brand name for his many accomplishments, was the first corporate identity he created, and it may also eventually prove to be the most enduring.”
In his early twenties he was producing work that began to garner international acclaim, notably his designs on the covers of Direction magazine, which Rand produced for no fee in exchange for full artistic freedom. Among the accolades Rand received were those of Moholy-Nagy:
“Among these young Americans it seems to be that Paul Rand is one of the best and most capable. […] He is an idealist and a realist, using the language of the poet and business man. He thinks in terms of need and function. He is able to analyze his problems but his fantasy is boundless.”
One has to wonder what would have been said of Peretz Rosenbaum — would talent overshadow the racism of that time? Perceptions of the person and not the work still, unfortunately, exist.
While all of us who write on the industry warn about shying away from doing free work, Rand found an avenue in his pro bono efforts. Perhaps it was just the time, but if one were to find such an avenue today, willing to give total creative freedom, there are many working professionals who would jump right in. Creative freedom is too rare these days to pass up. Not to mention that most pro bono work seems to be just as restrictive and subject to “design-by-committee” as does any paying assignment.
His work for Direction caught the right people’s eyes. Success led to other successes. After being hired to design the page layout for an Apparel Arts magazine anniversary issue, an offer to take over as art director for the Esquire-Coronet magazines came his way. Initially, Rand refused this offer, claiming that he was not yet at the level the job required, but a year later he decided to accept it, taking over responsibility for Esquire’s fashion pages at the young age of twenty-three.
Twenty-three! The time of the 1930s aside, in what universe would a twenty-three year-old be given such power for a publication that even back then had huge clout in the media? Rand was experimenting with the introduction of themes normally found in fine arts, into his graphic work, further advancing his career and forming new ways of looking at graphic design, more as art than just a way to fill a page. Layout, as it was termed, was becoming art.
Rand was probably best known, at least among designers, for his iconic logos (back to the breaking of his childhood upbringing of false idols) for IBM, Westinghouse, the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) and the United Parcel Service (UPS). Even children enjoyed his work and, as adults, who doesn’t feel fond memories for his fun Colorforms logo?
Rand not only changed how design was executed and respected – he also changed the way businesses saw the need for design and branding. According to graphic designer, Louis Danziger: “He almost single-handedly convinced businesses 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.”
One of Rand’s defining corporate identities, if one has to pick just one, was his IBM logo in 1956, which as designer Mark Favermann professes, “was not just an identity but a basic design philosophy that permeated corporate consciousness and public awareness.” The logo was modified by Rand in 1960, and the striped logo in 1972. Rand also designed packaging and marketing materials for IBM from the early 1970s until the early 1980s. It was Rand’s ability to sell the importance of the corporate brand and how it needed to evolve and grow with the corporation itself that has given us the … permission to see that brands are not held still in time. Growth, both as a designer and with design was Rand’s gift to us… and the world!
His logos are brilliant in the simplicity and power they exude. Rand was quick to point out that, “ideas do not need to be esoteric to be original or exciting.” Looking at the unchanged ABC logo, now fifty years old (created in 1962), it epitomizes that ideal of minimalism, while giving an undisputed truth to Rand’s point that a logo “cannot survive unless it is designed with the utmost simplicity and restraint.”
Among the ideas Rand pushed in his book, Thoughts on Design, was the practice of creating graphics capable of retaining their recognizable quality even after being blurred or mutilated, a test Rand routinely performed on his corporate identities.
As with all of those who sought to change the status quo or think differently, Rand had his detractors and they were more than willing to flail him publicly with such labels as, “reactionary and hostile to new ideas about design.” Though some of us believe the title “reactionary” is a must to stretch one as a creative designer, Rand was also labeled, “an enemy of mediocrity, a radical modernist.”
As designers, don’t we strive for the fabulous? Don’t we revel in what is Earth-shattering? There are many designers we idolize but, in my opinion, few who truly deserve it. Paul Rand was no flashy egotist. It wasn’t hype or a good public relations geek working in a corner of a studio, being paid to send a thousand press releases out on one design job, hoping someone will notice. Rand gained popularity and changed our industry by struggling against everything he knew and by which he was bound. He gambled and won; and his prize is also ours while we sit comfortably behind our computers. He made us all stars and our work worthy of doing. For that, he deserves the title, as opposed to it as his religious upbringing might be, of design God… or at least our design angel!
Speider Schneider is a former member of The Usual Gang of Idiots at MAD Magazine, “among other professional embarrassments and failures.” He currently writes for local newspapers, blogs and other web content and has designed products for Disney/Pixar, Warner Bros., Harley-Davidson, ESPN, Mattel, DC and Marvel Comics, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon among other notable companies. Speider is a former member of the board for the Graphic Artists Guild, co-chair of the GAG Professional Practices Committee and a former board member of the Society of Illustrators. He also continues to speak at art schools across the United States on business and professional practices. Follow him on Twitter @speider.