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  1. Tipping Point on a Train
  2. Paul Rand: The Designer as Brand
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Paul Rand: The Designer as Brand

Even people who know nothing about graphic design have heard of Paul Rand (1914–1996). His logo for IBM is probably the most copied—and the most impossible to copy—of all modern brand marks. His client portfolio included Westinghouse, El Producto, Cummins, UPS, and numerous others. Unlike most other designers in the top echelon, Rand worked alone for most of his career, utilizing at most an assistant or student intern. His work is characterized by a powerful directness, sometimes leavened with a disarming whimsy.

Born Peretz Rosenbaum to Orthodox Jewish parents in Brooklyn, New York, he studied at Pratt Institute, the Art Students League, and Parsons, yet described himself as “a self-taught designer.” In his early twenties his work for Esquire magazine attracted worldwide attention, and he built a portfolio by designing magazine covers—sometimes for no fee, in return for a “no alterations” agreement. This allowed him to do fresh, experimental work before a large, influential audience. An articulate spokesman for design, he is credited for giving graphic design, and particularly branding, legitimacy as a strategic business tool. He taught graduate-level classes in graphic design at Yale and and continued working until shortly before his death in 1996.

JANUARY 1978 I hold George Nelson’s letter of introduction to Paul Rand in my hand, rereading its four sentences, and decide to walk out of my way to use a good-quality Midtown copy shop, then post it. A week goes by and I receive a phone call from IBM.

A crisp, youthful, military-sounding voice begins without greeting or identification, “Mr. Laufer? Mr. Rand will be at the Manhattan office on Thursday next week. He can see you at 10:30 for about twenty minutes.” He is not asking for a reply; it doesn’t matter whether I can be there or not.

“Very good, thank you.” In a moment of lucidity, I remember to ask for the address and how to pass security.

“Just tell the guard you are visiting Paul Rand.” At IBM, Rand’s name is a security clearance! I take my gray Presbyterian suit to the dry cleaner, put the Valise Cruiser in order, and shine my shoes. I reread his writings and review everything I know about his clients and his work. I also call my classmate Geoff Fried, who went on to get a master’s at Yale and study under Rand.

“Rand,” he says in a tone of considered reflection, “has definite opinions about everything in design—and,” he pauses to choose his words, “his opinions are never wrong. He explains the way design is—conclusively. You know his work?”

I play back what I have just been studying: “Westinghouse, IBM, UPS, some of his magazine work. The stuff that is published regularly. Not in great detail.”

“Well, you will learn the most if you ask him about his decisions. You have to understand that he believes there is a best way, and that he alone knows it. Don’t make the mistake of dropping names with Rand. He’s a bit like Frank Lloyd Wright: he knows he’s great and he can’t bear the work of other famous designers, with the exception of a few great predecessors. Herbert Bayer, he likes. A. M. Cassandre.”

The security guard at IBM shows me to a small meeting room furnished with a Knoll table and a few chairs. Rand comes in with the confident stride of an impresario on stage. He is wearing a gray suit, a red tie, and black shoes. His close-cropped, salt-and-pepper hair and his glasses look like all the publicity pictures. I am seated, but rise to shake his hand. I stay semi-bent over and sit back down, conscious of the difference in our height and not wanting to tower over him. He is very commanding in his carriage, but he is short! Rand has a mild tic that causes him to squint frequently, but he is relaxed and businesslike.

Rand begins, “So, you are a student of Nelson’s; he thinks rather well of you, and you are working at Oxford. I have a few minutes before my next meeting. How shall we spend our time together?” I notice he has a folder with my name on it, with the resume I sent and Nelson’s letter in it. I’m on.

“I went to school in Pittsburgh, so I spent quite a lot of time watching your Westinghouse animated sign, waiting to see if it would ever repeat.”

His mouth curves up, almost imperceptibly. Print magazine did an article about the large outdoor installation Rand designed, a series of large neon Westinghouse logos set on one of Pittsburgh’s prominent hillsides. Each stroke of each logo could be illuminated independently. The article said that the sign was programmed with so many variations that it would not repeat for at least a thousand years.

“I studied under Dennis Ichiyama [also a student of Rand’s at Yale], who made no secret of using many of your assignments. We did a proportion book, a series of type posters, and we drew a Roman alphabet from scratch.”

“Ah, time to change my lessons again,” he says, matter-of-factly,

“or there will be no reason for anyone to pay Yale’s tuition!”

“I brought a portfolio, and I would be happy to have your insights.” I put it on the table. “But I have to confess, that what I am most interested in is, how you ...”

“Became Rand?” he fills in.

“Just so!” I am glad he understands.

“Well, I publish. My books are my best marketing. I do shows of my work. The shows are also good visibility, though it is hard to measure how much they really benefit me. As far as how I came to be, I didn’t have a grand plan. I was working for a guy who stopped paying me, so I got a job in an agency, I learned as much as I could about advertising, then I left. I’m too opinionated to make a tolerable employee. I needed to know about ads, but I gravitated toward work where I could get involved in the subject matter as well as the form. Editorial work, especially magazines, and design.”

He looks at my design for the Oxford title On with the Show, set in linotype Caledonia supplimented with hand lettered chapter titles.

Rand’s design aesthetic is deceptively simple. One design utilizes a strict grid, the next design is casual brushwork. Many of his designs feature loose components or fragments of something familiar, and let the viewer’s eye assemble them. He can find meaning and emotion in small details and extract humor from the most elemental forms. Rand thought of himself as an artist, his quirky signature becoming a sought-after brand in its own right. In his writings, Thoughts on Design and Paul Rand, A Designer’s Art, he is as articulate and forceful in his prose as he is in his designs.

“You shouldn’t waste your time with Caledonia.” Fred Schneider uses the Caledonia font as a mainstay for some of Oxford’s most established formats, and I am about to ask why. “It’s just a mish-mash of shapes from other, more successful fonts. Lacks clarity. Not in the same league as Bodoni, Garamond.”

He flips through my work, moving at a brisk pace, but very attentive. He lingers a minute on a jacket for Many Dimensional Man, an Oxford hardcover that uses a moiré pattern to define a human head.

“That’s good.” Note to self: call Schneider and tell him Paul Rand likes our cover!

He stops at my identity package for the Oxford quincentenary, and his jaw tenses.

“Mmm. Optima, problematic choice for an identity system.”

Hermann Zapf, the creator of Optima, is a European rival, commanding high fees and wielding influence similar to Rand’s. But where Zapf is a classicist, Rand is a modernist; Zapf is known primarily for his calligraphy and typography, Rand is known for identity systems and startling, symbolic statements. Fred Schneider loves Optima, so I use it a lot.

“It’s so classical in its origins—” I start to explain why I use it, why it is such a good choice for Oxford, but Rand will have none of it.

  • “I’m too opinionated to make a tolerable employee. I needed to know about ads, but I gravitated toward work where I could get involved in the subject matter as well as the form.”

“I already said I don’t like it.” Right, Geoff Fried had warned me that Rand doesn’t discuss design. He moves on smartly. “Now this makes a good layout,” he says, holding Arthur Tress’s Shadow out at arm’s length to flip the pages. “You stay out of sight as designer, and let your photographer shine. Important skill—augurs well for you that you learned that so young. Futura would have been a better font choice, but since you are using only the Avant Garde capitals in a light font, this works. Looks like your publisher changed your title page, though. You have to choose your battles, but when you come this close to perfection, it’s important to win.” I’m dismayed. He has picked up on exactly what happened: an editor threw in a single line of extra copy on the title page in a different font. It doesn’t look bad—I told myself at the time—but Rand sees immediately that it’s inconsistent with the rest of the book.

Remembering Geoff Fried’s advice, I decide to ask about his decisions. “I understand that you work mostly by yourself. How do you accomplish so much?”

  • “I’m very direct with my clients. I tell them that I will work out precisely what they need, and it will be excellent, but I don’t change my work and I expect them to implement exactly what I do. If they want to dink around, they can hire someone else.”

“Well, I usually have a grad student or two assisting, setting up content and managing the workflow for me,” Rand explains. “But I’m very direct with my clients. I tell them that I will work out precisely what they need, and it will be excellent, but I don’t change my work and I expect them to implement exactly what I do. If they want to dink around, they can hire someone else. That scares off the dilettantes, and allows me to work faster.”

The Rand aura sinks in further. His designs are nonnegotiable, even before he is hired. He dictates the terms of the relationship at the outset. Compared to Schneider’s soft-spoken give-and-take with his editors, even compared with Barbara Bertoli’s forcefulness, Rand is a commanding presence.

He is looking at a few of my illustrations. “You draw well,” he says, flipping through my sketchbook, “but you rarely use your drawings in your designs. Seems like a missed opportunity. In fact, your work is still a bit polite—maybe it’s your employer. But you should be more aggressive about becoming ‘Laufer’.” He says this with an eyebrow raised.

A young man in a dark blue suit pokes his head in the door. “Mr. Rand, two minutes.” Rand’s nod to him is barely perceptible. He continues in a smooth manner.

“Two minutes,” he reiterates under his breath, as if he wished for more time to go into detail. He flips back through my portfolio quickly. “I want you to send me a few samples. I have to take care of my students first, of course. I can’t make any promises, but things come up.” We shake hands and I try to express the type of gratitude I feel toward him—not just for seeing my work, but for “being Rand.” Rand nods with a silent cordiality and steps briskly out the door.

I came to New York thinking that if I could meet famous designers and find out how they planned their careers, I could follow their plans and be as successful as them. The interview with Rand is the beginning of the end of that youthful misconception, yet the insights gathered from my dialogues with creative legends are among my best navigational tools. Creative careers are difficult to map in advance. I learn later that Rand was born Peretz Rosenbaum, and that he “rebranded” himself Paul Rand. So ambition is a crucial ingredient—talent and drive too, certainly—yet neither Rand nor any of the heavy-hitting creative professionals I interviewed professed to have a career plan—at least not one that actually worked out. If there were any common threads to their stories, it was their ability to recognize their own shortcomings as well as their strengths, to act quickly on creative opportunities, and to employ strategies to build the trust and respect of their clients.

Rand represents one extreme in client relations: an autocratic style that insists on his control as a precondition. Nelson’s style was perhaps the opposite extreme: charming and storytelling and joking his way to his client’s trust. But both arrive at the real goal: the deep trust of their clients. Successful design requires control, and gaining control comes when the client willingly relinquishes control, entrusting the designer with the decision making, the budget, and the positive impact of the design in question.

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