If ever there were a single graphic designer to whom businesses turned for their logos, an original “mad man” who could truly fuse art with commerce, it was Paul Rand. Steve Jobs, then recently departed from Apple in 1985, recruited Rand to create the logo for NeXT. Afterward, Jobs thought so much of this “Picasso of design” that he used the graphic designer’s image in Apple’s “Think Different” campaign.
It was also in 1985 that Rand published what his designer’s manifesto, A Designer’s Art. The book, just reprinted—exactly as Rand had meticulously designed it over 30 years ago—is equal parts graphic design manifesto and art direction retrospective, from a man who was very opinionated about what design was and what it should be. As expected from the guy who famously said “everything design,” Rand imbued A Designer’s Art with precise modernist design.
Rand’s friend, New York Times art director and author Steven Heller, penned a new afterword to the reprinted A Designer’s Art. Like many who knew or dealt with the man, Heller found Rand to be eager for adulation, but also a man who brought early 20th century modern art into people’s daily lives through his “commercial art.”
“He was an early adopter of European or Bauhaus modernism,” Heller tells The Creators Project. “Design had a function, provided a service, but should be imaginative and entertaining. Art wasn’t the goal but it was the inspiration and a possible outcome. He did this in advertising in particular as a tool of engagement.”
Apart from modernism, Heller says Rand pulled from nature, primitive art, and pop culture. He also despised sentimentality and championed the new, but not at the risk of forgetting or condemning the classic. This brought him into some conflict with “postmodern” designers later in his career.
Rand, according to Heller, asked that designers be disciplined with a strong purpose, though they should not return to the past. In his opinion, artists and designers shouldn’t be too challenging in their work, but neither should they dumb the visuals nor the communication down.
“He was a classicist with a contemporary spirit,” says Heller. “He would call it the ‘play principle’—the idea that the eye should be made joyful through form and content. Artists like Paul Klee and Jean Arp filled this requirement. It was about wonder in finding surprise in all things visible. He loved to explore shapes, colors. He revered geometry and systems, too.”
A look through A Designer’s Art also illustrates how involved Rand was in corporate logo design. Aside from creating NeXT, he also crafted logos for IBM and Westinghouse, and one for Ford went unused. More infamously, Rand created the logo for Enron (a pretty great design, admittedly), a corporation that spectacularly imploded in 2001.
Heller says Rand’s love of creating logos was something like a scientist trying to develop the perfect solution to a complex problem.
“He loved doing logos. It twas like a scientist trying to develop the perfect solution to a complex problem,” Heller says. “The problem with NexT was there was no product so he had to make a logo that hinted at the form of the ‘thing’ while blindly work on its identity. I recall he was in heaven.”
While Rand was and is still revered for his design work, there are some critics. And not just critics of his modernist style, but his aversion to newer forms of graphic design popping up in the 1980s and 1990s. Work that was influenced by punk rock and new wave visuals, pop art, underground collage aesthetic, or other types of art and design that combined low and high culture.
Some of these new designers felt attacked by Rand’s modernist philosophy, voiced in his books and Yale lectures. While Heller thinks Rand really focused his criticisms on design quality, it also seems that he struggled to come to terms with a rapidly changing design world—one that didn’t always share his aesthetic values.
“He had a personal standard based on work he and those he admired had done,” says Heller. “He objected to the rejection of those standards. It was part ideological, part intellectual and part egotistical. If his ideas were rejected he rejected the opposition.”
But it’s not as if design has completely passed Rand by. You can see the DNA of Rand’s design philosophy in contemporary “commercial art,” with its minimal, playful, and straightforward aesthetic.
“[The book’s] truths are still valid,” Heller says. “Its opinions are still discussed. Its perceptions are still inspiring.”