thoughts on design
paul rand

Paul Rand (1914-1996) was a prominent American graphic designer, art director, book designer, children’s book author, and the list goes on. A real masterpiece, this book is his seminal work on design, originally published in 1947.

My first encounter with the name Paul Rand was in the prospectus of School of Visual Arts in New York for its MFA Design programme. As a young designer who didn’t have formal training in graphic design and who, at that time, wanted to pursue further studies, I was very eager to find out what the curriculum looked like. So it was a bit of a surprise to see a course devoted entirely to the life and work of one designer. And I would later find out why.

A staunch advocate of Modernism, Paul Rand was influenced by the European avante-garde art movements and utilised art principles and sensibilities to inform his design. He became the chief art director of advertising agency William H. Weintraub & Co. in Madison Avenue at age twenty-seven, worked alongside Bill Bernbach, designed countless posters and book covers, published essays and monographs on design, and developed some of the world’s enduring corporate identities, including IBM, UPS, ABC and Westinghouse. He was widely considered as the “Picasso of Graphic Design”.

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At the age of 33, Paul Rand put down in words his ideas and beliefs as a designer and published Thoughts on Design. Originally printed in 1947, this manifesto/monograph became one of the bibles of modern graphic design. In 2014, Chronicle Books released the fourth and latest edition, keeping the original material in its entirety, including fonts, sources, captions, footnotes and prefaces. A new foreword was written by designer and critic Michael Bierut.

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Why read this book
Paul Rand, who was a confident designer but reluctant writer, has put together a straightforward, honest, personal and modernist take on what makes or breaks good design. Using his own body of work as illustration, his essay synthesised the basic tenets of design into bite-size chunks. Covering topics such as problem-solving, the power of symbols, typography, the importance of humour, the traditional/modern dichotomy, and reader participation, the book, in less than a hundred pages, has captured Paul Rand’s mantra of marrying ‘The Beautiful and the Useful’. His essay starts, and aptly so, with this free verse:

Graphic design —
which fulfills esthetic needs,
complies with the laws of form
and the exigencies of two-dimensional space;
which speaks in semiotics, sans-serifs,
and geometrics;
which abstracts, transforms, translates,
rotates, dilates, repeats, mirrors,
groups, and regroups —
is not good design
if it is irrelevant.

Graphic design —
which evokes the symmetria of Vitruvius,
the dynamic symmetry of Hambidge,
the asymmetry of Mondrian;
which is a good gestalt;
which is generated by intuition or by computer,
by invention or by a system of co-ordinates —
is not good design
if it does not co-operate
as an instrument
in the service of communication.

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Simple (but, more often than not, philosphical) language and bold graphic visuals (all in greyscale) present the narrative in a non-linear format. Sometimes pragmatic, sometimes funny, but always insightful, Rand’s words affirm the essential questions a designer faces and are answered through a gallery-like sampling of his most iconic works, spanning print ads, posters, book covers, packaging design and logos.

Relevant more than 60 years ago as it is today, Paul Rand’s Thoughts on Design, like most of his work, distills art and function, concept and execution, into its most essential form. And like any poetic expression, this monograph has substantiated yet another modernist principle of saying much more with less.

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You may also want to read

Paul Rand
by Steven Heller


Paul Rand: Conversation with Students
by Michael Kroeger

Princeton Architectural Press