Michael Bierut | Essays

The Sins of St. Paul

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.

Posted in: Business

Comments [28]

last time I said something remotely critical of Mr. Rand I got this remarkable defense in my comments: http://www.abstractdynamics.org/archives/2003/03/27/ups_rebrands_in_time_for_war.html#comments


On this subject, I am in total agreement with Michael Bierut, and I want to applaud his bravery for raising these issues in the face of the monolithic Rand legacy.

I would like to add two other areas where I believe Rand historicism has been less than forthright.

Paul Rand spent more than twenty years in advertising (mid-30s to mid-50s), yet we know little of this work beyond the choice tidbits he choose to publish. I want to suggest that, especially in these decades, his body of work included a lot of bad design and bad advertising. Such was the nature of even the best designers in the client-driven profession of advertising in these years. This critical challenge does not negate his best work. But, those perpetuating his legacy do not want to acknowledge that he might, on occasion, have been a hack too. This is especially important in evaluating Rand because he created a myth about his own integrity: the history, as he told it, is that he never let clients tell him what to do. I believe this is a falsehood, and it wrongly suggests to young designers that they too should aspire to an uncompromising relationship with clients, rather than acknowledging the struggle and challenges of a complex practice.

Paul Rand also created a myth around clients: namely, that great work is only possible when one finds, courts, and educates that rare breed — the enlightened, trusting, powerful CEO who makes it possible to do great work. Rand certainly had such clients. (I've had three in my own time.) Yes, such clients are an occasion for celebration. But it is not true that great work cannot be done through other means, and through teams, and through new decentralized organizations. It is wrong to suggest that the only way to do great design is to find and tap into the singular vision of an individual client. Ironically, such a view underestimates the power of designers to persuade, and to participate in, increasingly fluid and complex organizations.

Paul Rand was a great designer. He was also an influential educator. But he was also a person; fallible; sometimes a hack; usually arrogant; often not nice (to say the least); an isolationist; an intellectual who put form before ideas; and a Jew who struggled with his own heritage (a part of his work that has not been deeply analysed).

We've now had two monographs on Paul Rand (Steve Heller's in 1999, and Franc Nunoo-Quarcoo's in 2003) that are excellent beginnings, but only touch the surface of what design criticism needs to do. Beyond these two books, the most critical dialogue about Rand has been by Jessica Helfand (as my partner and wife, obviously a biased observation). [The person who should be applauded here is Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, who was the first mainstream editor to recognize the importance of Paul Rand, and who was willing to run a long essay by Jessica Helfand in a national publication.]

This is an important dialogue that needs to be continued.
William Drenttel

(Yes, Abe. Anyone who reads the Speak Up site is familiar with Design Maven's well-informed, passionate, and semi-incoherent posts. He seems as attached to his rhetorical style as to his beliefs about graphic design history.)

Michael, [insert acknowledgment of Rand's greatness and importance as a graphic designer here] but you're right about Rand's Mother Teresa status seeming a bit over the top. Is it some sort of American provincialism, a home-grown hero taking on the Europeans at their own game thing? (We see the bicycling of Greg Lemond and Lance Armstrong as more heroic than the performance of Benard Hinault or Eddy Merckx.)

What really gets me is that Rand seems to be the design philosophy Guinness Book of World Records, the authority to settle all bar arguments. I can't say how many on-line discussions have been capped by a quotation from Rand's writing as if his having said something settled everything. Maybe I have a reading comprehension problem to match your obvious problems with aesthetic perception but I've never managed to find the trove of wisdom in Rand's writings that others do.

I know that hagiography is as much the only proper form of discussion of Rand as a writer as it is of Rand as a designer. (Recently on an email list I mentioned his tendency to make pronouncements without explanation and was accused of having a psychological impairment based political resentment and my having been born in California.) Rand's early writing was a rare example of a noted practitioner of graphic design writing about the subject. I suppose there was a bit of the "if a mule flies, nobody asks how far" syndrome then; why is Rand so often brought up as a great writer about design today? Even if you agree with his assessment on any subject, his writing was often poorly argued, logically flawed, incoherently stated, grammatically confused, and (at least from my point of view) not terribly useful.

I think some of the seemingly-unique status of Rand as a designer is political. No, he didn't advance communication or systematic thinking (two hallmarks of great graphic design in my opinion, also) as much as others did but he did more to advance the social status of the designer (and particularly the designer's relationship with clients) than anyone since Frank Lloyd Wright and Raymond Lowey.
Gunnar Swanson

My thanks also to Michael for introducing this topic. His fine review in Eye years ago of Design, Form and Chaos showed he was willing and able to address Rand honestly and thoughtfully.

In its uncritical worship of Paul Rand, design does violence to the man's true accomplishments and stunts regard for its activity. The inflated claims just can't be supported, while the actual contributions go unexamined. The best thing design could do now is ban any further designer-initiated studies and give open access to an "outside" investigator.

Like Gunnar, I have little regard for Rand's writings. They are important only as artifacts to examine. I first came to them full aware of their status in the field. I can't exaggerate how stunned I was at how bad Rand was as a writer--both in his prose and his arguments. What I felt most of all was embarrassment and disappointment for design: it deserved better than this.

For me, Rand's legacy is a simple irony, one that William Drenttel succinctly outlines above. How can you be the prophet of communication and be so contemptuous of any opinion but your own? In his work and his personality, Rand comes off as dictatorial. Isn't this the antithesis of what design is supposed to be?
Kenneth FitzGerald

is this blog called design observer or designer slammer? it is hard to distinguish if the beef is with those who write about rand, his work, or with the designer himself. is the overwhelming adulation we find in biographical accounts of rand making us dig for dirt?

of course paul rand was human, fallible and not perfect. of course the majority of writing about rand is positive. i don't see how this is any different than most historical accounts, especially in the design field -- good ones are simply few and far between. the eames come to mind from my industrial design point of view. i certainly understand the call for well-researched accounts of rand's practice and legacy. but when it is mixed with unsubstantiated personal opinions, it degrades the critique to the traditional "i think the IBM logo is awesome!, i think it lacks a punchline!"

maybe i have to accept that design critique is more like what ebert & roper do. "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." actually, it may. this is clearly a slam and not a comment based on any sort of evidence. most of michael's critique suggest worthwhile questions; what did paul rand's graphic design convey to the audiences he served in the middle of the century? child-like wonder? confusion? disconnectedness from history? these could all be valid hypotheses but we will not know something about them without some research.

a final critique of the critique is the tendency we all have to evaluate the range of a particular designer's work against all the possible areas of design intervention. perhaps the majority of rand's work was logos and magazing covers. specialization is not a negative. i understand that rand contributes to this point of view by writing about "design" in general rather than "graphic design", if not "logo design" in particular. this is a pervasive problem in all fields of design.

several of you one day (hopefully a day far in the future) will suffer the same fate. unbridled adoration for michael's work -- wait it is already happening...i'm guilty! i have to remember to tell others what a jerk he can be!

we need heros and heroines as much as we need rigorous research that results in credible claims on the value and impact of design and designers on society.
chris conley

I share Chris Conley's suspicion of the tendency to throw mud on people of great accomplishment and as one of the recent slingers I take his questions seriously.

Is the beef with those who write about Rand, his work, or with the designer himself? Yes, not very much, and a bit. I think it's clear that Michael's objection was to Rand's beatification and to the distortion of our goals based on holding up Rand as an ideal of graphic design practice. I have not talked to anyone who was familiar with Rand's work who did not acknowledge that he was a great designer and did some great work that was well worthy of study. I have met many people who refuse to acknowledge any fault in any of his work. Rand himself, as Bill implied, seemed to have deliberately contributed to a distorted view of his status.

If we defend Rand's self-adulation as the sort of PR that we all engage in then we need to recognize much of his writing as PR rather than a manual of design practice and philosophy. It is the acceptance of his writing as great and important that confuses me. I understand why he is considered a great designer (although not, I confess, why he is considered the great designer) but the only reason that makes sense to consider him a great design writer is that he was a great designer. The link between skill as a designer and successful promotion of the understanding of design may seem obvious but there is plenty of evidence that we cannot count on this connection.

Various Paul Rand promoters (including Rand himself) have put out his work as prima facie evidence of its greatness. Michael's statements that the greatness is not as obvious as is assumed can hardly be countered by a demand for evidence. Those who make the initial claim would seem to be the ones who need to make an explanation that would allow those of us who miss the point to respond. Even though I objected to Rand's casual, terse, and subjective dismissal of others' work, I don't think Michael's statements can be put in this class of argument.

Is any of this an attack on Rand personally? I see no evidence that this is the case with Michael. He, like Kenneth and I, did not really know Rand. Bill's connections are more direct but his statements struck me as an interest in full consideration rather than in character assassination or iconoclasm. Kenneth and I might be more accurately accused of having something personal in that we are responding to his writing. Although I know many of Rand's former students and have heard a broad spectrum of comments on his teaching and his personality, I only met him once. I found him charming and funny and he reminded me of a couple of my favorite uncles. His writing, however, is often arrogant and dishonest.

This is not meant as a dismissal of the man—I don't even like all of my writing—but I can see someone considering that statement to be personal and I will not argue that point. People I trust who knew Rand well tell me that he wrote out of his passion for art and design rather than out of a meanness of spirit. Although I would not infer that from my reading, I have to accept their statements. Not all readers of this have reason to trust me but I presume to claim to know Michael, Bill, and Kenneth well enough to vouch for their good will in this case. I don't see this as an eagerness to call someone a jerk as much as an eagerness for a full understanding of graphic design and what does make it great (including Rand's many wonderful contributions.)
Gunnar Swanson

Perhaps one might insert the word 'American' between the words 'of' and 'graphic' in the first line of the article.

I believe I can speak for my collaborators at Design Observer is saying that this site does not want to simply foster negative opinions, nor do we wish to make or encourage personal attacks. Instead, we aspire to offer fresh perspectives, critical commentary, and hopefully, interesting and engaging writing.

In this thread, the goal is not to personally attack Paul Rand. For instance, I would never think of calling Rand a hack. Suggesting, however, that some of his mid-century work may have been hack-like is not a personal attack: it's a challenge to Rand historians to paint a more accurate picture of his body of work. Why does this matter?

Design research and scholarship are not furthered by proving that someone was less than perfect. However, in the case of Rand, much of his legacy has an iconographic quality to it: thou shalt not let clients tell you want to do; thou shalt only work for enlightened despots; thou shalt not put content in front of form; thou shalt get $100,000 for a single logo solution presented with only a didactic proposal; etc. Obviously, Rand created some great work following these principles. But are these principles to which we should blindly aspire (much less teach our students)?

I believe it is critical, even essential, to challenge such ideas precisely because Rand was a great designer and remains a hero. Uncritical worship of heroes leads to demigods and dictators. [Recent historical research into the lives of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson has upended many myths, especially with regard to their attitudes and actions regarding slavery. They are still heroes, despite our increasingly deep knowledge of their flaws.

Chris Conley has challenged us in a couple posts to support our opinions with research: "I certainly understand the call for well-researched accounts of Rand's practice and legacy. but when it is mixed with unsubstantiated personal opinions..." Obviously, the line between "unsubstantiated personal opinions" and "informed criticism" is a thin one. I hope that Chris will continue to challenge us when we seem to cross that line.
William Drenttel

Martyrs, Saints, Sinners, and Distress

Uncritical worship of heroes leads to demigods and dictators. William, this really drives it home. Designers I meet---young or old---strive for Randness, but most of them don't have a full grasp of his legacy. I confess that I've only viewed Rand through the lens of his own books, or historical accounts by Helfand, Meggs, or Heller.

Rand rose above his work, even becoming a celebrity. He did a good job of perpetuating his own legacy, becoming a legend in his own time. Perhaps this is why so many designers are fond of him or the likes of David Carson. They're driven to make communication that's in the public eye, with hopes of being seen themselves, "Look at what I made! Look at me! Look at me!!!" Some would label this narcissism as being a legend in your own mind. Complicating matters are Rand's books. We're given one p.o.v. by a man that uses his own work to amplify that p.o.v.

Anecdotally, Rand had a sense of humor. I've often wondered how Rand dealt with criticism himself, or who had the nerve to deliver it to him. Some of my mentors and professors, who were instructed by him, feared the man and cried pathetically after his critiques. Surely, he's looking down on us now, and either crying, cursing, or laughing.

Bierut's opinions make me do all three, and are valuable because they touch on issues that I've neither considered nor been aware of. Whether you call it "unsubstantiated personal opinions" or "informed criticism", I enjoy gaining insights like these and the likes of Mr. Conley's. As the URL and Headline state, this is the Design Observer. What would an observation be without opinion or criticism?

While it pleases me to read the above comments and Mr. Conley's challenge, I'm also pleased to see William stand up for Michael. What I appreciate about this site is its noble, team-based attitude. William, Michael, Jessica, and Rick, thanks for having this valuable design presence online.

Jason asks how Rand dealt with criticism. . .[and] who had the nerve to deliver it to him. When Steve Heller published Rand's "Form and Chaos" essay in the AIGA Journal I found it to be straw man arguments strung together by unsupported assertions which were at once forceful and vague. The nature of his argument style made it both very difficult to answer and very important to challenge. I wrote an attempt that Steve refused to publish. Rereading it years later I'm not sure I blame him. I wish I'd been calmer and done a better job of parsing Rand's arguments. Here's a few sentences to give you an idea of my tone:

He must assume we know why "ziggurats" come "wrapped in a cloak of arrogance" but cute little stick figures, stripes and polka dots did not, or why "boudoir colors" are inherently uncommunicative but the (living room?) colors he chose were/are meaningful. A good case can be made for the claim that Rand's squiggles and doodles of forty years ago are better than most people's "squiggles, pixels, doodles," et al of today, but the same case can be made for his squiggles versus those of most of his contemporaries.

I believed that it was important to challenge both Rand's thesis and his style of argument so I sent it to Rand. Nerve? Maybe. Temerity? Probably. His hand written reply read

Dear Mr. Swanson:
Thank you for your letter.
Paul Rand

Gunnar Swanson

I agree with Graham's notion that Rand is the pinnacle of graphic design in America. His work is great, very influential in many ways, but frankly, the profession has changed drastically and designers simply do things differently now. Rand sort of paved the way, but not entirely and I'm glad to see some questioning of his status because I think rigid adherence to his methodology has held designers back.

For what its worth, one of the true giants, in my mind anyway, of all graphic design is Matthew Carter; sure his lectures can be dry (the last time I saw him, at Wash U in StL, he finished up by asking if anyone was still awake), but his knowledge and passion is insane. Very international and holistic in his approach, and realistic too. It's a relief not to hear errant bullshit from a graphic designer (or typeface designer, whatever) about saving the world or re-engineering this and that.
Bradley Gutting

My original title for this article was "Down with Paul Rand." Paraphrasing Winston Smith's transgressive scribbling about Big Brother seemed to set the right tone. So I've been really gratified by the tenor of the responses here.

I did not want to attack Rand personally and apologize if some of the shots seemed cheap. As Chris detected, I was most self-conscious writing about Rand's sense of humor (or "humor"), which I confess I still don't get. And forgive me, Graham, for pegging Rand as the most influencial designer period, instead of the most influencial American designer. (Is there a comparative European?)

Much of the writing about Paul Rand seems to be tied up in the relationship between his public persona, his private persona, and his body of work. (His "playfulness," for instance, strikes me as exaggerated by the contrast between his public severity and his use of charming graphic elements like bows, ducks, and swiggles.) But as time goes on, it's only the body of work -- and the informed commentary about it -- that we're left with.
Michael Bierut

I can't speak for the bows and ducks, but I'm pretty sure the swiggles were deeply influenced by the art that Rand looked at constantly. These days, I see students looking at Gordon Matta-Clark and Ed Ruscha and Candy Jernigan and Robert Rauschenberg as they probe the thinking, the process, the root of the commentary before embarking on their own journeys, informed by these influences. For all his writing, Rand wasn't this deep: he just looked and borrowed. That the IBM stripes had any connection to counterfeiting striations might have been a 20-20 hindsight stretch, or it might have been just this: a formal reappropriation, like the swiggles.
Jessica Helfand

i also applaude the lively discussion here and promise not to pull the critique of the critique angle everytime i post! and i certainly don't want to become known as the research wonk.

i am not against criticism, or informed critique. i do try to assess writing on design from a naive perspective to see if i could understand something more deeply about design or a particular person's work from it. i am a little sensitive if too much of my understanding is coming from knowing the author. you know, it's easy to go along with michael because i know what he means by it.

on a separate note, i am concerned by the overall agreement that paul rand is portrayed as god-like to graphic design students. that kind of portrayal fosters the cult of personality that design so desperately needs overcome. how are we ever going to realize good design on a daily basis if we need gods to make it happen?

cheers again for the great interchange.
chris conley

Sorry to jump into the fray so late, but you inspired me to re-read Janet Abrams' Sept/Oct 1993 cover story on Rand in I.D. It was a brave effort to take on the hagiographers, not to mention Rand himself, who had just published his third book, Design, Form, and Chaos. A typical extract:

"In contrast to his pugnacious spoken persona, Rand's own essays are lucid and eloquent, larded with references from Vasari to Bacardi by way of the Brothers James and Alfred North Whitehead. On closer examination, they are also studded with arbitrary value judgments passing for objective analysis, and statements that might be considered merely sententious if they did not happen to issue from one of the Grand Seigneurs of graphic design."

I am fascinated by the whole question of how designers establish and maintain eminence. Members of Rand's generation had an easier time of it because they invented modern design and helped to codify the philosophies and expectations. It's important to reassess their contributions because a shift in attitude doesn't come just through clarity of hindsight but also through changes in the way design is practiced and taught.

Julie Lasky

Graham's point about Rand being at the pinnacle of (American) graphic design was nicely understated. I've been reading the responses - which Michael anticipated before posting with obvious relish - with a mixture of pleasure and bemusement. Pleasure because people bring such eloquence to the subject. Bemusement because, despite the appearance of the new monograph, and accepting Julie's point about the need for critical reassessment of key figures, this hardly feels like the hot topic of the day.

It just shows that those endless puritanical bromides about the perils of fixating on individual designers (in magazine profiles and monographs) are wasted breath. We love to talk about people. This thread ignited faster than just about anything else on DO since Tufte.

So here's an offshore perspective. Rand was hugely inspiring for a generation of British designers now in their 60s and 70s, people like Alan Fletcher and Derek Birdsall, who cherish their memories of the great man's acknowledgement and favours. Some of the generation that followed them and aspired to be like them, now in their 50s, felt the same, but Rand is not an overwhelming presence, or influence, or father-to-be-slain, for younger designers in Britain - still less, I would imagine, in continental Europe, which has so many towering design figures of its own. Saul Bass is mentioned more often, partly because of his place in popular culture. We still watch and admire and plunder those film titles, and his posters are costly, much-prized collectables.

So this enduring passion for and against the god-like Mr R is above all an American phenomenon. I would echo everything that people have said here about the shortcomings of Rand's writing. It undermines the intellectual seriousness of his books (though not their fascination as documents) that their arguments are illustrated so self-servingly with examples of his own work.

To answer Michael's question about comparable Europeans, the closest figure in terms of saint-like status, staying power and unassailability is probably Tschichold - not forgetting, of course, that his work is fundamental to the development of modern design. But Europe is a collection of different cultures speaking many tongues, so the situation is inevitably looser. The tides of influence ebb and flow across national borders. Muller-Brockmann returned to favour a few years ago - the Lars Muller monograph was a factor. Lately, Wim Crouwel, another charismatic master of self-promotion, is the name to drop in these parts. Again, a book is nudging this along.
Rick Poynor

I'd agree with everything Rick says-I also think that there isn't really the need (desire? drive?) for the notion of a peerless pinnacle character, for a number of reasons-hubris and schadenfreude among them. which makes things fun.

I'd definitely agree that Saul Bass is one of the major U.S. influences, in the U.K. particularly-I'd also add Bradbury Thompson, personally. Don't hear his name much these days.

graham, yes on B.T.

He's not given the credit he deserves.

During Art Chantry's rant here in NY a few months back he managed to barrel thru several cantankerous assertions- one of which was that Rand was an evil monster for having his logos stamped on bombs (Westvaco) and etched into the rotten grass of Enron Field in Houston.

Of course, its not his fault those companies went down, but it bears mention that yes he did them and surely it was only a matter of time.

I took Thoughts on Design with me to San Diego last week in hopes of gaining some inspiration for my speach. The only thing I could muster was (and is) where the hell is Woody Pirtle's catalogue of identity design? His body of work doesnt include IBM but its just as great as Rands'... and its humorous.
felix sockwell

I must begin with a disclaimer: I contributed one of the essays to Modernist Design and studied with Rand's in the mid 1980s.

Michael and other commentators accurately describe many problems associated with treating Rand as an all-knowing design guru/god. My approach to Rand is that his contributions need to be evaluated in a historical context. Sure, some of his ad work is not so great. I really don't care for his cigar holding a bowling ball (A Designer's Art, pg. 138). But one should look at the state of advertising in the United States in the 1930s and 40s to see how Rand helped influence important changes in design sensibilities. Additionally, in 1947 when Wittenborn published Thoughts on Design, to what other texts could one refer clients/students/colleagues to help them develop an understanding of graphic design? Other great designers were producing work equal to Rand's best work. Unfortunately no one else wrote a book to help others gain such insights into this "new" discipline. And why did Rand fill this book with his own designs? Rand mentioned often that he used his own work to illustrate his writings not because he thought it was the best work around, but that it was the work he understood best. I think that is a fair reason. Then again, I'm not naive enough to not understand that it was also an effective form of self-promotion.

If one compares Rand's work to the work of today, it may fall short and fail to resonate with our expectations of quality. In his oeuvre we can see work that seems weak and writing which may not satisfy. It is more than fair to criticize our predecessors, it is necessary. William makes an important observation about new research into Washington and Jefferson. This new information, however, doesn't discount their enormous importance or achievements. Rather, it helps make them more dimensional and relevant to an understanding of our own situation. Likewise, if we examine Rand's achievements within his milieu, we should develop a reference that can help us to understand and evaluate our own circumstance.

And a small aside to Michael: The eye-bee-M rebus is not not supposed to be a "joke, ha-ha, funny, made you laugh." There is no punchline. It is an example of Rand's "play instinct." It is meant to engage the viewer in participating in the solution. This kind of solution, Rand suggests, makes the message more memorable. I think his work can be witty, clever and playful but will rarely make you laugh.

Thanks to everyone for a great discussion and site.
Antonio Alcala

I was delighted to find Bradbury Thompson finally mentioned! With Rand a teacher at Yale. When I was there in the late 60s Rand had "removed" himself and one had to make a pilgrimage to study with him. I didn't but some of my classmates did and benefitted from his attention. But back to Thompson: now there was a gentleman and a gentle man. He introduced us to design history with quiet authority; he assigned projects requiring useful research. Only later, when I discovered his work for Westvaco did I realize he had us working as he had - making meaning with disparate materials. In terms of his work: corporate design, book design, postage stamp design and art direction. The Westvaco work is amazing in his use of visual rhetoric, humor and visual delight. I would put that work up against Rand any day. Bradbury Thompson is an example of the modest, successful and kind designer role model, and his book represents him well.
Martha Scotford

Michael Bierut

Say a Gazillion "Hell Marys"
and perform a lifetime act of kindness.

While reading Mr. Bierut's post The Sins St. Paul. I was reminded of a funeral I went to when I was twenty (20) something. Can't remember the person who died. At the graveyard I remember searching for my GrandFathers grave. When I found it two men whom attended the funeral were standing on the name plate of my GrandFathers burial ground. As he did not have a head stone.

When I read the name. I looked at them angrily with all my male bravado and testosterone. Told them to get the F...k off my GrandFathers Grave. God forbid I almost beat the crap out of both of them. My mother came over, wanting to know what was going on. I explained. Another family friend came over put her arms around me and said "Son I understand your pain." She told me in a very knowing way.
"That's what people do when you die. It's the only time they can walk on you".

I looked at her and said thanks. She looked me in the eye and said "if your GrandFather were alive. Those men would not come within walking distance of him.

Much of what I have said can be related to Mr. Bierut's post. It's cad and crass to make negative comments in reference to someone under the guise of critique and free speech. Especially someone you did not know, work with or study. At the same time, the person is not here to fend for themselves.

I've asked myself if the Founding Fathers of Pentagram Alan Fletcher, Colin Forbes and Bob Gill were elevated to the same status as PAUL RAND. Would Mr. Bierut make the same comments?

Fletcher Forbes and Gill Idealized Paul Rand. The mammoth Pentagram is built on the principals of Paul Rand's Ideology which I will later draw parallels of similarity, cross reference and reference.

Furthermore, would Mr. Bierut express the same obervations of his former Partner Massimo Vignelli? Founder of Unimark International along with Ralph Eckerstrom. Massimo Vignelli, a self professed purveyor of Bauhaus, Swiss and American Modern ideology and esthetic. Leading proponent of the grid.Admitted to using only six typefaces. Mostly sans serif.

If we look beneath the myths of any of our super heroes. We will find chinks in their armour.
Supprisingly, to some aghast in the realization our super heroes put their pants on one leg at a time.
Suddenly they find out there's no Santa Claus, Easter Bunny or Tooth Ferry. Simingly forge lifelong vendettas because a super hero doens't qualify their Dilution Of Grandeur.

I'll take this time to dispel a few more myths that got twisted in this presentation relating to Paul Rand.

Graphic Design activity can be categorized in three (3) classifications, Design Masters, Professionals,and everybody else.

Paul Rand was a Design Master. Along with Saul Bass and others of the Twentieth Century. Design Masters are classified asindividual Designers or Design groups with a distinguished national or international reputation.Design Masters Range of discipline covers Corporate Identity, Packaging, Print, Exhibition Design, Environments and Product Design, Architecture and Interiors. Today their practice also incorporate Information Architecture and/or Experience Design. Design Masters are not directly involved in web design.

Because of Paul Rand's work for IBM. His eminence allowed him to pick and choose his clients and refuse work he was not interested. In association with Eliot Noyes at IBM and Westinghouse. Paul Rand had direct contact with Chief Executives and built enduring relationships with them. A practice that followed him throughout his independant practice until his death. His long standing associate Bert Jackson was his only full time employee. Hired in 1956, worked with Paul Rand until his death in 1996. Every Design Master has acolytes and disciples that assisted and facilitated process. Mr. Rand was no different.

Contrary to popular belief. Paul Rand never thought of himself as a Design God. He admitted in several articles within my archives there were other Designers that were more gifted than he. Mr. Rand named Armin Hoffman as a Designer with more skill. And Adolphe Mouron Cassandre.
The humility that Paul Rand exuded in reference to his statue can be found in his article with Janet Abrams Industrial Design Magazine September/October 1993 pg. 53 "I don't consider himself a great Designer. That's not my opinion it is the worlds opinion." Because of this status he expects a certain amount of respect from people. Janet Abrams was deliberately taunting Mr. Rand.

Mr. Bierut mentioned in his article The Sins of St. Paul.

"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."

Paul Rand, along with Saul Bass, Raymond Loewy, Lippincott & Margulies, Walter Landor. Louis Danziger, Mr. Danziger noted projects of the era, M. Flax Company of Los Angeles and Clinton Labratories. Chermayeff & Geismar, Frank Gianninoto Associates, Peter Muller Munk, Dickens Associates, (others) Understood everything in Visual Communication springs from the identity of the company and product, its architecture, interiors, print advertising, media communications. Today e-branding is relevent.

Thus, a well Designed and Implemented Corporate Identity Program can position and leverage a company for financial growth. Building Brand Loyalty among its Consumers. Inspiring Investors (shareholders) and Motivating Employees.

The first Corporate Identity Project of record is Peter Behrens Total Design for AEG 1907 in Germany.To include, architecture, interiors, products, packaging and trademark design.
It is debatable whom Developed the first contemporary Corporate Identity Project. Raymond Loewy's International Harvester or Lippincott & Margulies, Walgreens, FTD Forist, Tucker, and Waterman. Both Loewy's and Lippincott & Margulies Identities were created in the 1940s. As well, it's debatable whom coined the phrase Corporate Identity. Loewy claimed in invented the word. Gordon Lippincott claimed he invented the word.
Whichever you believe the chicken or the egg.

Not debatable IBM, the first archetype Branded Corporation of it's time. IBM was Paul Rand's baby via Eliot Noyes recommendation.Paul Rand Developed and Designed every aspect of IBM's Corporate Identity to include, Trademark, Packaging, Environments, Interiors, Display, Exhibition Design, Trade Fair and Print Advertising. Consultation for media advertising.
What was different was IBM's example was seen to work Globally in terms of sales, recruitment, image and prestige. Every Corporation since IBM has tried to replicate its success. In terms of Identity and Branding. IBM is the most successful Identity Program ever implemented. With exception of Bell System (now defunct) Developed by Saul Bass. Managed by my mentor and good friend Mr. Thomas Ruzicka former Design Manager AT&T 1964-1984.

Paul Rand Developed all his Identities without any analysis i.e. qualitative analysis, quantitative analysis, and focus group research testing. He did not have to. Because he thoroughly understood its market. Spent countless number of hours with Chief Executives and company employees.

Soon followed the success of other Identity Programs for Westinghouse, American Broadcasting Company (abc), United Parcel Service (UPS), Cummins Engine, Illinois Institute of Technology (itt), NeXT, Ideo, Enron. Other smaller companies.

Paul Rand throughout his Independant Career worked with a relatively small amount of Corporations and Businesses.

His Identity Design was as accurate as a Smart Bomb or Heat Seeking Missile. Always on target. In his Independant Practice. Paul Rand never had a dissatisfied client. He was given Carte Blanche. I would be remiss if I did not inform you. Paul Rand lost a couple of commissions because he emphatically hated to give presentations. Instead of given presentations he would write and Design a brochure to present to the client. Instructing the virtues of his Identity Design. Such was the commission from Henry Ford. To redesign Ford's existing automotive Identity. Paul Rand felt he lost the commission because he did not give the presentation. Just forwarded a brochure.
This was a standard Corporate Publication with Introduction of the new Identity.
Paul Rand's $200.000.00 - $300.000.00 salary for Corporate Identity and one solution presentation is not Folklore.

Although, this thread is a week couple weeks old. I needed to search my archives for Paul Rand Annual Reports of which Mr. Bierut compared to Lester Beall and Erik Nitsche and VSA Partners. Paul Rand, Lester Beall, and Erik Nitsche were equally as gifted.
I have in my hand the 1974 IBM Annual Report, and the 1977 Cummins Engine Annual Report. I certainly don't see the dissatisfaction of Rand's layout and Design as Michael Bierut. I am looking at beautiful photographs that convey an accurate depiction of the Corporation to its shareholders.
At the same time, I've seen Annual Reports Designed by Erik Nitsche for General Dynamics. Which are abstract illustrated to convey the future. Beautiful in their own right.

I've seen Lester Beall's collection. However, Scope Magazine impressed me the most. Well Designed radical and innovative for it's time.

You cannot compare Scope Magazine to an Annual Report. Because of its different markets and impact to their respective targeted audience. Scope is a Medical Magazine targeted to Physicians and Pharmacist.

The comparison Mr. Bierut made of Annual Reports Design by Paul Rand compared to VSA Partners.
Paul Rand a minimalist in Modern Design Aesthetic was concerned with the message. Mr. Rand knew better to let the efficacy of Words and Ideas be diminished by Design over indulgence.

None of VSA Parters Annual Reports compare to Robert Miles Runyan, Jim Cross, and Bill Cahan.

Design is about communication. Not Smoke and Mirrors and the latest Flash in the Pan technique generated by the idiot box.

Before the computer age. VSA Partners would sit at and kiss the masters feet!!!!

Most important, in my Design and Identity Archives. I have reproductions of movie posters for the Film Noir 'No Way OUt' 1950 Directed by Joel Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Produced by 20th Century Fox.
20th Century Fox invited noted Designers Paul Rand, Saul Bass, Erik Nitsche, and Herman Temple to compete in a billboard (24 sheet) traditional 27 x 41 and lobby card 14 x 22 Poster Design Contest for 'No Way Out'.The posters were Art Directed by Victor Sedlow for 20th Century Fox. 20th Century Fox Advertising Agency at the time was Charles Schlaifer & Company.

Each noted Designer executed a complete unit for their respective Poster Designs. Erik Nitsche worked in Hollywood extensively during the 1930s. Hollywood was most certainly Saul Bass' arena for incomparable visual expression. Paul Rand had no interest in working for Hollywood. This assignment would be his first and last assignment for tensile town.
Needless to say, Paul Rand won the competition among Design Luminares of equal statue. Paul Rand's 'No Way Out' billboard advertisement can be seen on the cover of noted historian and author Steven Heller's Book. Titled Paul Rand.

Anyone questioning Paul Rand's Design Capability compared to equally gifted Designers of his generation are un-aware and mis-informed.
Paul Rand, Bested my beloved Saul Bass, as well Erik Nitsche and Herman Temple. Without question a competition Saul Bass and Erik Nitsche should have easily won.
A True Testament to Paul Rand's Genius. Comparing Designers or personal oberservations are purily subjective. Unless you address each individual Designers work against the cannons of Design Practice. The Principles and Elements of Design.

Earlier I stated, I would make and analogy between Paul Rand and Pentagram. As stated, Alan Fletcher, Colin Forbes, Bob Gill, Idealized Paul Rand.Fletcher Forbes Gill in 1972 directly or indirectly incorporated Paul Rand's Principles and Methodology into its practice.

1. Pentagram is a Monolith = Rand like.

2. Pentagram treat their Partners as GODs = Rand like.

3. Pentagram uses no marketing expertise to arrive at Design Solutions = Rand like.

4. Pentagram is also accussed of being rigid and inflexible in their Ideology and Methodology = Rand like.

5. Pentagram has not changed the way it persues Design Activity since it was founded in 1972 = Rand like.

Pentagram has written more books than any Design Consultancy in the history of Visual Communication to promote their Design Activity = Un Rand like.
Pentagram is only promoting their work in their big glossy picture books. Why would they show the work of another Design Consultancy?
Yet Pentagram has revelled nothing to it's public in reference to their methodology and process.
Un = Rand like.

Biblical, "He who is without sin, cast the first stone."

There's an old saying. "If you live in a glass house don't throw stones."

The other old saying. "When you point your finger at someone. You have three fingers pointing back at you. And one finger pointing up at GOD."

Because this site is titled Design Observation. I would like to make some astute Design Obervations of my own. Referencing the Design Practice of Pentagram.

Pentagram incorporates the formalist approach to resolving Corporate Identity issues. Meaning no market research e.g. Qualitative Analysis, Quantitative Analysis, and Focus Group Research Testing. The formalist approach is concerned with Cosmetics the Logo itself. A logo in and of itself is a useless device.And simply an exercise in plastering the Identity within the adaptability aspect of the program.

The functionalist approach adequately address the communication aspect of the Identity Program. Incorporating, Marketing Analysis and Communication Strategy to include, Qualitative Analysis, Quantitative Analysis, and Focus Group Research Testing, Internal Communications Planning, Media Relations, Communication Audits, Employee Opinion Surveys.

Corporate Identity is an artful science. The Identity is the tip of the iceberg. The foundation of all Corporate Identity Programs lay beneath the surface which is marketing and communication. Neither of which Pentagram address in their Corporate Identity and Branding Practice.

Pentagram the monolith First Tier Design Consultancy with a Worldwide Reputation is a Crumb Snatcher compared to Identity Consultancies of equal statue such as Landor, Lippincott & Margulies, Siegel & Gale, InterBrand, FutureBrand, and Enterprise IG.

Smaller lesser known Design Consultancies such as Mires Design, Malcom Greer, R. Bird Associates, Lipson Alpert Glass, Kiku Obata & Company, Fitch, Oh & Co, Hans Flink Design, Kass Uehling Inc., Desgrippes Gobe' Group, CommArts, the now defunct Luxon Carra'. Will chew Pentagram up and spit them out.

Notwithstanding, the legendary work of Chermayeff & Geismar, BrandEquity International, and Monigle Associates. Each with one Design Practice and/or Identity Consultation Practice in the United States. These exemplary Consultancies are several light years ahead of Pentagram in Forward Thinking. To include Results Oriented Design Solutions. Which exceed their clients expectations.

Having said that. Lets Design Observe a project from Pentagram's Corporate Identity Practice.

Star Alliance. Star Alliance is an Airline Corporate Identity used to identify a network of International Airlines. Namely, Air Canada, Air New Zealand, ANA, Austrian, LOT Polish Airlines, Scandinavian Airlines, Singapore Airlines, Lufthansa, Mexicana, bmi, Singapore Airlines, and Thai.

If the end result justify the means. Star Alliance Identity is neither Appropriate nor an Original Solution of the Design Problem.

The Star Alliance Identity is a Bastardized Identity incoporated from an Identity Solution by Lippincott & Margulies 1960s CITGO Gas Station Identity.
Designed by my Good Friend Arthur King. Former Design Manager at Lippincott & Margulies responsible for Chrysler Pin Star, Eastern Airlines, Hertz, and New York Life.

Certainly, Paul Rand can never be accused of Bastardizing and Identity. He embodied and applied Original Design thinking and Ideology.

Pentagram Identities compared to Paul Rand and Pentagram's Contemporaries are Prosaic. Notwithstanding, Pentagram's Identity and Branding Practice has evolved into patchwork
programs for mostly boutique companies. That fail to portray consistant, credible and relevent company portraits. The standard by which Paul Rand, Saul Bass, Landor, Lippincott & Margulies, and Raymond Loewy established.

Don't misinterpet my message. I love Michael Bierut. I love Pentagram. Michael Bierut and myself have mutual admiration and respect for one another. Michael has sought of taken me under his wings.
In my own way. I'm conning Michael into bringing me aboard his staff. Clearly Michael Bierut is the big brother Design Master with the international reputation. I the little brother, the acolyte.

However, my big brother is not so big. I can't take him to the woodshed for desecrating my DesignFather Paul Rand.

As I approach my DesignFather's grave. I saw four figures kneeling. Each bearing flowers to place on his grave. Looking at them through my Jaundiced eyes. I realized it was Jessica Helfand, Willian Drenttel, Rick Poynor, and Michael Bierut.

Asking the Spirit of Paul Rand to absolve them of their Sin. Looking at them I said. No chinks in my DesignFather's Armour. Your Arms to Short to Box with GOD!!!


Excerpted from, Industrial Design Magazine May 1959 Typography USA Panel

Quoted from William Golden, Creative Director, CBS TV, Advertising and Sales Promotion.

Bill Golden: I don't know what it is that impels so many designers to drop their work to write and speak so much about design. Is it the simple (and perfectly justifiable) instinct for trade promotion? Or have we imported the European propensity for surrounding even the simplest actions with Gestalt.
Since our professional medium of communication is not verbal, designers don't seem to be lucid writers or speakers on the subject of design. I have been frequently stimulated by the work of most of the people on this panel, but I have only rarely been stimulated by what they have to say.

Cross Examination:
For a more accurate assessment of the Mammoth Pentagram. Load link below into your web-brawser.
It is a case study of Pentagram's Organizational Structure compared to First Tier Identity Consultancy Wolff Olins.

Titled, 'Tale of Two Studios'.

You be the judge. Sigmund Freud said it best in his Looking Glass Theory. "We never see ourselves as other people see us".



If you've never read a post from Design Maven before, it takes some getting used to. The best description I've heard (after a similar exchange on Speak Up) is that it's like a Keith Moon drum solo.

The comments, viewed in the immediate context of the cult of personality that surrounds designers like Paul Rand, speak for themselves, to say the least.

In respect to the prolonged analysis of Pentagram's abundant shortcomings, I would only clarify that any opinions I express on this site are strictly my own.
Michael Bierut

I've never loved Pentagram's work more than I do now.
Kenneth FitzGerald

i feel the need to clarify what i said in my 'rant' (note: jason, i was dancing like a mofo trying to fill space while the projector ate the entire middle third of of my presentation). to begin with, the company trademark that i was refering to was WESTINGHOUSE, not WESTVACO. secondly, it's not just bombs, but NUCLEAR WARHEADS that rand's logo decorates. at one point his work was adorning our entire atomic arsenal.

now, that, in and of itself, is open to discussion. i can easily argue both sides of the issue of the responsibility of the designer as a 'service' industry (question: who do you serve?) but, the issue i have to take with this particular issue has more to do with the self-righteouness of rand's moral stance, and yet the obviously nypocrisy of his actions. to actually take his statements about himself and his work at the face value of his words misses the larger point of what he did. this complaint is not isolated to this one logo, but appears to be a continuing problem throughout his entire career.

as designers we recognize our power to influence minds in this culture (note the controversy and condemnatiuon of mike salisbury and his involvement with joe camel). but to lionize one designer who simply had a great line of bullshit to rationalize his actions reminds me of the current adulation of henry kissinger. there is a dangerous blindness in our larger vision.

i won't go into a long list of complaints i have with rand's career and philosophy in this forum. but, we as a group need to begin to question just what it is we do and how we do - and particularly who we empower with our magic.

blind faith and enormous ego is not good enough.
art chantry

Paul Rand was my favorite teacher at Yale ('65). And that was at a time when the faculty consisted of giants: Herbert Matter, Norman Ives, Bradbury Thompson, Alexi Brodovitch, Walker Evans, to name a few.

Most of the comments on your site came from people who either never knew Paul Rand or never had him as a teacher so the discussion naturally focused on his work and not what he accomplished in the area of design education. It would be wonderful if you could hear from some of the hundreds of successful designers he taught and influenced, not just as designers, but also as teachers. I for one, Gordon Salchow for another.

Paul Rand may have upset some students with his harsh criticisms and sarcastic remarks (which I enjoyed), but there
was no denying his dedication. While his work may elicit controversy, his teaching and teaching methods continue to influence generations of graphic designers.
Jim Craig

A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to attend a "Brand Matters" speaking engagement. The guest was John Maeda. The auditorium filled, and to my astonishment, seemed to be sold out. My observations of the crowd proved to be correct. A distiguished design college made the attendance of their students a mandatory requirement, or so it seemed.

Maeda talked about an hour or more, then came the exciting part. These students, surrounding me, were not much younger than myself. I wanted to see the questions formulated by a group that will take the torch someday. Out of a group of approximately 400, only 5 questions were asked.

Through readings of Maeda's published works, I found he had a working and personal relationship with Paul Rand. I asked Maeda, "What is the thing you will remember most about Paul? To this day, I still don't remember the exact answer, but I will never forget the smile that came across his face before he started speaking.

Most young designers, like myself, are failing the industry. There are no statistics that can argue this opinion, but the blame can be shared. It was apparent with Mr. Maeda's response, that Paul was a great influence, personally and professionally. We, as a young and inexperienced group, need this direction, mentorship, and leadership.

Although Paul Rand's realism, to most of us is idealism, it provides a standard. That high standard, which Mr. Bierut worries will negatively affect our "green" careers', actually gives hope and something to strive for in the end.

Hope that next time Mr. Maeda speaks, 400 hands go in the air, just to get a chance to pick his brain... Hope that I will never again be forced to change a design, because the CEO's daughter likes a certain color... And hope that someday, I will be able to pass down all the lessons of failure and success to the next generation of designers.

We are hungry, and seek your knowledge.
Paul Saarinen

The references to Paul Rand's annual reports for IBM and Cummins are intriguing. As though all the effort was placed on creating a "beautiful cover" while inner pages would carry a sort of visual monotony described as "uninflected three-column typography with photos on a grid that look like they were pulled out of a drawer." Funny, isn't that the case with all annual reports?

Funny also because this is exactly the feeling I get when visiting designobserver.com: 3-column pages with body text set in Verdana at 11 pixels (are you kidding me?), a sandwiched-looking left navigation column clocking in a whopping 90 pixels width with just 10 pixels of horizontal padding between elements. I need a bloody microscope to read the copy on this site (the desktop version). Time for a complete redesign.


Jobs | July 23