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5 Timeless Marketing Lessons For Today’s Brands From Visionary Designer Paul Rand

Paul Rand codified his approach in the 1947 book Thoughts On Design, available again after years out of print. Pentagram’s Michael Bierut, who wrote the forward for the reissued book, outlines Rand’s enduring principles and what today’s brands can learn from them.

“For an advertisement to hold its own in the competitive race, the designer must steer clear of visual clichés by some unexpected interpretation of the commonplace.” That’s legendary designer and art director Paul Rand writing in his remarkably prescient 1947 book Thoughts on Design about the value of surprise in marketing. A master of advertising, editorial design and brand identity–his logos for ABC, IBM, UPS, and Westinghouse are still in use some five decades after their creation–Rand inspired and influenced everyone from George Lois to Steve Jobs and Jonny Ive. And after a long period out of print, his seminal book, which captured his design philosophy and approach, is available again.

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Pentagram Design partner Michael Bierut, who wrote the preface for Chronicle Books’ new edition of Thoughts on Design, says “Paul was this more or less self-trained, tough-talking kid out of Brooklyn who had a real talent for figuring out how to reconcile the worlds of things he cared about–art and self-expression–with the needs of clients to sell things.”

Bierut explains why Rand’s mastery of symbol, simplicity and form-making contain timeless lessons for today’s brand builders.

Simplicity Speaks

Bierut says, “Rand understood the universality of symbols and how human beings communicate with shapes and color and form. If he did a logo for a company that happened to look like a face, he’d look at everything from pre-Columbian sculptures to African masks to naive drawings, all of which addressed how expressive the human faces could be. The big lesson you can take from Rand is the search for simplicity.


“Rand anticipated brand building in a way that’s very interesting,” says Bierut. “In Thoughts on Design, he writes about the symbol in advertising and discusses these deep cultural things, talks about Joseph Campbell, about the crucifix as a symbol, the swastika as a symbol. In Rand’s wake, there arose this whole industry of people who charge $2 or $3 million dollars to do a big corporate identity program, and fill it out with a lot of complex jargon and byzantine processes.”

Rand, by contrast, worked alone from his home in Connecticut, occasionally employing a student assistant recruited from Yale University. “Rand wasn’t interested in trying to create this obfuscated magical process,” Bierut says. “It was about clarity and simplicity and paring things down.”

Even Pared-Down Ideas Can Be Playful

Rand early on drew inspiration from the clean aesthetic originating in Europe, Bierut explains. “A lot of émigrés from Europe arrived in the United States–architects, artists, designers, representing European modernism, which was often portrayed as being rather dour. What Rand was able to do was to was come up with a very American version of what modern communication could look like. He dealt with abstract subjects and forms, but always with a sense of playfulness and wit that marked it as American.”

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Advocate for the Consumer–The Human Being

“Throughout his career, Rand saw himself in the service of helping people sell cigars, or booze, or women’s stocking or whatever it was,” Bierut explains. “He took that seriously. But Rand also saw his role as being someone who mediates between the commercial concerns of the client, governed by spreadsheets and the bottom line, and the world of the consumer, who has normal human needs.

“How do you communicate with people in a frankly commercial and ever-more confusing world? That question remains exactly the challenge today for anyone designing a website, launching a brand, creating a logo for a startup, figuring out what an app should look like. You’re basically dealing with the same principals that Rand identified in In 1947, when people probably thought the world was insanely complicated and getting more so by the minute. You had new inventions like television, you had jet travel, you had American men and women emerging from this global conflict. Rand’s response to all of that was simplicity, universality, and humanity.”


Design Beyond the Logo

By the mid ’50s Rand shifted his focus to corporate identity projects that typically extended from logo design into the entire business structure. Beirut says “At IBM, Rand not only designed the logo, he designed the packages the replacement ribbon came in, he designed the boxes the main frames came in, he set the standards for how the instruction manuals should look. He had an advocate in Thomas Watson Jr. who coined the phrase ‘Good design is good business.'”

Shape the Brand as a “Vessel for Meaning”

“Rand describes the function of a logo as being a vessel for meaning,” Bierut says. “He said forms are inherently abstract, so the best a designer can do is to give a company the right-shaped thing to hold meaning they can put into it. When you think about the brands we admire today, they make products and create experiences for customers, and the good will generated by each of those experiences gets ascribed to the logo. It’s a never-ending process. Rand said the trick in building a brand is that it’s not just something where you do it and it’s done. You also have to be a steward for the brand and make sure it continues operating at a high level.”

Rand, Verbatim

Rand, who died in 1996, wrote often and deeply about his craft. Here’s a few observations culled from Thoughts on Design.

“Visual statements which express the essence of an idea and which is based on function, fantasy, and analytic judgment, is likely to be … memorable.”

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“The visual message which professes to be profound … often boomerangs as mere pretension.”

“The magnetic force of humor … achieved by means of juxtaposition, association, size relationship, proportion, space, or special handling, creates an atmosphere of confidence goodwill, good fellowship and the right frame of mind toward an idea or product.”

“The emotional force generated by the repetition of words or pictures should not be minimized.”

“The isolated letter possesses some magical quality other kinds of imagery cannot quite duplicate. Letters in the forms of trademarks, seals, and monograms … serve not only as status symbols but have the virtue of brevity.”

“Catering to bad taste, which we so readily attribute to the average reader, merely perpetuates mediocrity and denies the reader one of the most easily accessible means for esthetic development and eventual enjoyment.”

“The symbol is the common language between artist and spectator.”

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Check out the slide show for a sampling of Paul Rand iconography.

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About the author

Los Angeles freelancer Hugh Hart covers movies, television, art, design and the wild wild web (for San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times and New York Times). A former Chicagoan, Hugh also walks his Afghan Hound many times a day and writes twisted pop songs.

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