Paul Rand stands without peer at the pinnacle of graphic design’s Olympus, the North Star that guides professional practice even more than eight years after his death. (Indeed the first entry here at Design Observer was on Rand’s personal library.) An important new book, Paul Rand: Modernist Design, edited by Franc Nunoo-Quarcoo as part of the University of Maryland’s Issues in Cultural Theory series, adds to the already substantial body of writing on the man and his work. A combination monograph, anthology and festschrift, it also contributes to the unassailable Rand legend.
I did not know Paul Rand. I did not work for him or study under him. My understanding of his importance, then, has been gained in the same way as students and practitioners in years to come will gain theirs: through books like Modernist Design. The book’s more than two dozen contributors are almost uniformly positive, if not downright adulatory (the most notable exception is the reprint of Jessica Helfand’s critical essay from her own book.) So it’s with some trepidation that I wonder if I might lodge a few complaints about Mr. Rand as a model for graphic design practice. But here goes.
A single-minded emphasis on logos. Every organization needs to communicate intelligently, distinctively, consistently and effectively. Not every organization needs a logo. But communicating effectively is a complex challenge that needs to be addressed anew every day; making a logo is a largely formal exercise that can be priced, paid for, done once and locked up forever. It’s no wonder that so many clients and designers collude in the comfort of pretending the second activity is a substitute for doing the first.
More than anyone else, Rand placed logo design at the heart of our professional activity. His logos form the heart of each of his books and are invoked repeatedly in Modernist Design as the epitome of his practice. Dare we admit that not every Rand logo is perfect? Take his UPS logo, the redesign of which last year was treated in some quarters as an act of cultural desecration on the level of the looting of the antiquities of Baghdad. Designed in the early sixties for a company that positioned itself as a businesslike alternative to the U.S. Post Office in a world where Fed Ex was unimaginable, it looked like a shield partly because the logo it replaced was a shield. The bow (“That’s a present, daddy!”) is a patent anachronism; UPS refuses to handle packages tied with string. Although the Mighty Morphin Power Ranger Photoshop Fantasy that replaced it is truly vile (a friend who studied under Rand calls it “the golden comb over”) that doesn’t mean the original mark wasn’t flawed and overdue for a change.
An interest in the outside and not the inside. For a man who famously said “”Graphic design…is not good design if it does not communicate,” Rand seems to have paid less attention then you’d expect on the actual content of the things he worked on. If you’ve ever seen the inside of a Rand-designed annual report for IBM or Cummins, you’ll see what I mean. Behind the beautiful cover one finds completely uninflected three-column typography (always, to be sure, in an elegant typeface) with photos on a grid that look like they were pulled out of a drawer. There is none of the compelling visual storytelling one associates with less acclaimed designers like Erik Nitsche or Lester Beall. The IBM annuals designed by VSA Partners in the last few years for CEO Lou Gerstner feature the kind of overactive, pluralistic “messy” layouts that I’m guessing Rand would find really irritating; they are also much better feats of communication.
A curious detachment from history. Modernist Design features a timeline that tracks Rand’s life, Rand’s work and world history in a comparative chart. Above, one finds sublime posters and logos. Below, references to war, assassination, struggles in civil rights, and the general tumult that characterized much of the last century. The only place the twain meet is his 1940 cover for the magazine Direction: two strands of barbed wire “wrap” a package riddled with bullet holes. It is one of his best pieces. Rand’s dedication to timelessness drove him repeatedly to the purity of form bereft of specific content: the Direction covers let us see what he might have done had he continued to use his talent as a way to engage with — rather than shield himself from, perhaps? — the changing world around him.
Humorlessness. Rand’s work is so often acclaimed for its playfulness (one of his seminal essays was entitled “Design and the Play Instinct”) that I wonder if it’s some kind of selective blindness that makes the joy that others see so invisible to me. Just because children use cut paper and primary colors doesn’t mean that an adult that does the same is conveying a childlike sense of wonder. The famous IBM rebus poster - an “eye” for vision, a “bee” for industriousness, and…well, an “M” - seems to me to be waiting for its punchline.
I left that one for last, partly because in the face of the formidable Rand legend I simply wonder, indeed, if the problem is with me. I love his work and I miss not having known him. I also wonder whether young designers today are well served by having their forebears presented as infallible. In Modernist Design, Georgia Tech professor Diane Gromala contributes an enlightening essay with a title I would have liked to have used for this piece: “The Trouble with Rand.” Near the end she describes an exchange with Paul Rand that she had as a student: “When I asked him if it was a pain to be just worshiped, if that didn’t cause a certain sense of loneliness, he proffered a knowing smile.”
That smile, as inscrutable as the Mona Lisa’s, is what we’re left with as the living portrait hardens into revered icon. As time goes on, it’s only the cracks in the surface that will reveal the humanity within.