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Paul Rand | A Designer's Art by Paul Rand

25 August, 2022 - 11 min read


I. Brief Summary

This is a collection of short essays about theories and ideas surrounding not only graphic design, but art and visual role in our society written by legendary Paul Rand. He was one the most influential American art directors and graphic designers. I had a privilege to listen to a story about how Morningstar's logo came about which was designed by Paul Rand. He also worked with Steve Jobs. He took the position of design consultant at companies such as ABC, UPS and IBM. In an era where creative direction and art direction was somewhat unknown, Rand was a pioneer in this area. Rand shared lessons that are timeless and still most relevant today. Driving into Rand's mind is an absolute treat! This is an alchemy of design mastery.

II. Big Ideas

  • Words such as design, form, beauty, artistic, creative, and graphic are hard to design as it involves subjective interpretation.
  • Design focuses more on conception than it does on execution. The design of an idea might be conceived by a designer but it cannot come to fruition without the skills of a printer or a stone cutter.
  • Graphic design is essentially about visual relationships. It is the designer's job to select and fit the material together and make it interesting.
  • Form and function is the integration of the beautiful and usefulness.
  • Designer experiences, perceives, analyzes, organizes, symbolizes, synthesizes; considers spectator's feelings; draws upon instincts and intuition; must go through rigorous mental exercise.
  • The designer is primarily confronted with three classes of material: a) the given material: product, copy, slogan, logotype, format, media, production process; b) the formal material: space, contrast, proportion, harmony, rhythm, repetition, line, mass, shape, color, weight, volume, value, texture; c) the psychological material: visual perception and optical illusion problems, the spectators’ instincts, intuitions, and emotions as well as the designer’s own needs.
  • If there is vagueness in problem statement, it is the designer's job to restate the problem. Driving clarity is essential!
  • Since graphic design deals with spectator, it is the goal of the designer to be persuasive or at least informative. Painters need not concern with this since a painting is open to interpretation.
  • Trademark and logo are symbols. There are good symbols and bad symbols. The flag is a symbol of a country. The cross is a symbol of a religion. A trademark is created by a designer but made by a corporation.
  • Stripes draw attention. They are memorable. Nature has created stripes (Zebras). They are effective.
  • Ideas do no need to be esoteric to be original or exciting. Originality is related more to the unexpected idea than to some flamboyant or peculiar technique. To defamiliarize the commonplace, to see it as if were for the first time, is the artist's goal.
  • The artist is a collector of things imaginary or real. He accumulates things with the same enthusiasm that a little boy stuffs his pockets. The scrap heap and the museum are embraced with equal curiosity. He takes snapshots, makes notes and records impressions on tablecloths or newspapers, on backs of envelopes or matchbooks. Why one thing and not another is part of the mystery, but he is omnivorous.
  • Repetition is an effective way of achieving unity. Repetition also means remembrance.
  • Humor is misunderstood and plays a significant role in design process and artifacts. Plato, in The Republic declares: Therefore do not use compulsion, but early education be rather a sort of amusement.
  • The deployment of any visual image must begin with some tangible idea or conscious.
  • Collage and montage draws spectators engagement because it requires personal discovery and exploration on what an artist is trying to convey. The value of audience participation is critical!
  • Type matter involves readability. However, this function by a designer is taken too literally and overemphasized at the expense of style and individuality.
  • Symmetry offers the spectator too simple and too obvious a statement. It offers little or no intellectual pleasure, no challenge. With asymmetric, designer is able to achieve great interest.
  • In his writings specifically around typography, he puts emphasizes on there is no such thing as American font. A long-standing debate in many disciplines. American type is the combination of many geographies, culture and people.
  • Meaningless solutions are produced when too much emphasize is placed on freedom and self-expression. Conversely, meaningful solutions are produced with defined limits. The latter is the instinct of play and will most likely yield novel solution. The rules are the means to the end, the conditions the player must understand thoroughly and work in order to participate. Without specific formal limitations and without the challenge of play, both teacher and student and teacher cannot help but be bored. The student has the illusion of creating great art in an atmosphere of freedom, when in fact, the designer is handicapped by the absence of certain disciplines which would evoke ideas and make playing with those ideas possible and interesting.
  • Rand lists number of design exercises to work up your design muscle: crossword puzzle, the tangram, hokusai's drawing, chinese characters, the modular, the grid system, mason's mark, tatami, albers, cubist collages, matisse, picasso, mu ch'i, the photogram, piet zwart, japanese craftsman.
  • Taboos and prejudices have long created limiting barriers to experimentation and to meaningful work in the arts, that is against the color black. However, the color black has many virtues. It is perfect for contrasting. Looking around us, nature has many elements of black. In Japanese painting, black (sumi) is often the only color employed.
  • Together black and white act as complementary colors. Bright light reflected by the white area nullifies the reflected light from the black area. This makes the black seem blacker and white more brilliant.
  • The field of packaging include materials, construction, and application. The Chanel packaging and design is an excellent study. In a well designed package, the designer does not seek to exploit consumer's visual memories and attachments by sentimental distortion but to express his objective appreciation of the fact that people do have strong affective reaction to things.
  • The last two chapters Politics of Design and Integrity and Invention are worth re-reading. Rand worked with large organizations when design was at its infancy, so he knows how design was perceived in the world of commercialization. I have both chapters filled with annotations and notes. There is a lot of wisdom in them.

III. Quotes

  • Design is the animating principle of all creative processes. — Vasari
  • It is no secret that the real world in which the designer functions is not the world of art, but the world of buying and selling.
  • Design is a problem-solving activity.
  • Dignity, like understanding, is a general term, a principal of action.
  • The problems of optical illusion and visual distortion are but a few considerations about which the designer must be aware.
  • Functionalism does not preclude beauty, but it certainly does not guarantee it either.
  • A mind so disciplined should be both more abstract and more concrete. It has been trained in the comprehension of abstract thought and in the analysis of facts. — Alfred North Whitehead
  • It is impossible to define cold without contrasting it with heat. It is impossible to comprehend life if death is ignored. Black is the color of death, but by virtue of the same psychological fact it is also the color of life—it defines, contrasts, and enhances life, light, and color.
  • The source of the creative impulse is a mystery. Where do ideas come from?
  • Curiosity is the common denominator and the pleasure of discovery an important by-product.
  • Don't try to be original; just try to be good.
  • Visual communication of any kind, whether persuasive or informative, from billboards to birth announcements, should be seen as the embodiment of form and function: the integration of the beautiful and useful. Copy, art, and typography should be seen as a living entity; each element integrally related, in harmony with the whole, and essential to the execution of an idea.
  • Design can be art. Design can be aesthetics. Design is so simple, that's why it is so complicated.
  • Everything is design. Everything!
  • You will learn most things by looking, but reading gives understanding. Reading will make you free.
  • So that is the design process or the creative process. Start with a problem, forget the problem, the problem reveals itself or the solution reveals itself and then you reevaulate it. This is what you are doing all the time.
  • Design is the method of putting form and content together. Design, just as art, has multiple definitions, there is no single definition. Design can be art. Design can be aesthetics. Design is so simple, that’s why it is so complicated.
  • Simplicity is not the goal. It is the by-product of a good idea and modest expectations.
  • All art is relationships, all art. Design is relationships. Design in a relationship between form and content... Your glasses are round. Your collar is diagonal. These are relationships. Your mouth is an oval. Your nose is a triangle - this is what design is.
  • Without aesthetic, design is either the humdrum repetition of familiar clichés or a wild scramble for novelty. Without the aesthetic, the computer is but a mindless speed machine, producing effects without substance. Form without relevant content, or content without meaningful form.
  • Design is the silent ambassador of your brand.
  • The designer does not, as a rule, begin with some preconceived idea. Rather, the idea is (or should be) the result of careful study and observation, and the design a product of that idea.
  • Even if it is true that the average man seems most comfortable with the commonplace and familiar, it is equally true that catering to bad taste, which we so readily attribute to the average reader, merely perpetuates that mediocrity and denies the reader one of the most easily accessible means for esthetic development and eventual enjoyment.
  • Design is a way of life, a point of view. It involves the whole complex of visual communications: talent, creative ability, manual skill, and technical knowledge. Aesthetics and economics, technology and psychology are intrinsically related to the process.
  • The artist is a collector of things imaginary or real. He accumulates things with the same enthusiasm that a little boy stuffs his pockets. The scrap heap and the museum are embraced with equal curiosity. He takes snapshots, makes notes and records impressions on tablecloths or newspapers, on backs of envelopes or matchbooks. Why one thing and not another is part of the mystery, but he is omnivorous.
  • The public is more familiar with bad design than good design. It is, in effect, conditioned to prefer bad design, because that is what it lives with. The new becomes threatening, the old reassuring.
  • The hardest thing to see is what is in front of your eyes. — Goethe
  • Stubbornness may be one of the designer's admirable or notorious qualities (depending on one's point of view)—a principled refusal to compromise, or a means of camouflaging inadequacy. Design clichés, meaningless patterns, stylish illustrations, and predetermined solutions are signs of such weakness. An understanding of the significance of modernism and familiarity with the history of design, painting, architecture, and other disciplines, which distinguish the educated designer and make his role more meaningful, are not every designer's strong points.
  • Technologically, scientifically, and hygienically packages of today are practical, but are they beautiful? Functionalism does not preclude beauty, but it certainly does not guarantee it either. The obsession with functional shapes and new materials is a questionable limitation even for the conscientious designer blessed with a sensitive client. It tends to promote a misconception of simplicity, translating this admirable quality into bareness or rendering it self-conscious to the point of vapidity.