Paul Rand’s 4 Most Enduring Bits Of Design Wisdom

Pentagram’s Michael Bierut selects the passages of Rand’s seminal Thoughts on Design that are most relevant to designers today.

In 1947, at 33 years old, Paul Rand published Thoughts on Design, a 100-page illustrated volume articulating his pioneering vision for design that seamlessly integrated “the beautiful and the useful.” Rand, largely self-taught and already a sensation as chief art director at ad agency William H. Weintraub and Co., was writing at a time before schools offered graphic design degrees and desktop computing changed everything. Yet, 67 years after its original publication, his slender book is still crucial reading for anyone passionate about design.


This month, Chronicle Books republished Thoughts on Design, putting it back in print for the first time since the 1970s. Pentagram partner Michael Bierut, who fell in love with the book as a graphic design student at University of Cincinnati, has written a foreword to the new edition, calling it “a manifesto, a call to arms and a ringing definition of what makes good design good.”

A few weeks after the 100th anniversary of Rand’s birth, we asked Bierut to select the passages from this book that he finds most relevant to the contemporary design world. Here, Bierut’s thoughts on Rand’s thoughts:


1. Everything You Need To Know About Design Can Be Boiled Down To 22 Lines Of Text.

Graphic design–
which fulfills esthetic needs,
complies with the laws of form
and the exigencies of two-dimensional space;
which speaks in semiotics, sans-serifs,
and geometrics;
which abstracts, transforms, trasnlates,
rotates, dilates, repeats, mirrors,
groups, and regroups–
is not good design
if it is irrelevant.
-from “The Beautiful and the Useful”

Michael Bierut: The way he begins the first essay, “The Beautiful and the Useful,” is still really compelling when I reread it. The first two paragraphs are basically typeset as poetry, with line breaks that are broken with the cadence of speech. It’s an ingenious and kind of a tricky thing that he does, outlining what’s in the book to follow, saying that none of this matters if what you’re doing is irrelevant or uncommunicative. He encapsulates his whole philosophy and all the books that will follow in his life in these 22 lines of text. Those 22 lines give you a four-year design education in four inches worth of typesetting.

2. Designers: Beware self-seriousness.

“The visual message which professes to be profound or elegant often boomerangs as mere pretension; and the frame of mind which looks at humor as trivial and flighty mistakes the shadow for the substance. In short, the notion that the humorous approach to visual communication is undignified or belittling is sheer nonsense.” -from “The Role of Humor”

MB: This passage is so beautifully put. Rand’s essay on humor, and distinguishing between cleverness or gag comic strip humor and the kind of subtle humor readers can discover on their own, really had a lot to do with setting the tone for a whole school of design and the tone of advertising that would follow. If you picture the world he was writing in, advertisements were dominated by exclamation points and all these explicit overwritten evocations of convenience, modernity, product performance, with humor brought into things only in comic strips.


Likewise, high design was a very serious thing. American art directors pictured their work achieving a European prominence–they were associated with the Bauhuas, emigres that moved from Europe to America. Rand, on the other hand, actually had this wry kind of take on high design work that made it less pompous and more accessible and more playful. In “Design and the Play Instinct,” he talks about how designers, as manipulators of form, are really playing games in their own minds.

A lot of design has this tension between trying to be grim, serious, and objective and trying to leaven that objectivity with humanity in the form of visual wit, humor, and playfulness. When Fast Company runs designers’ headshots, I’m always amazed at how many look grim and serious and stern. Rand certainly could be dour, and if not short-tempered, at least a man of few words. But in his work, he introduced humanity. That’s difficult to do today. When new logo work is presented or introduced to the world, the claims that are made on behalf of work are often so overwrought and serious, without any sense of how overblown it is. As Rand says, all this stuff boomerangs back as pomposity. It’s a lesson in his lightness of hand. Even when doing really important things, like packaging for IBM or doing covers for philosophy books, he brought a lightness to it, showing that the work was was directed not toward corporations that may or may not be people too but towards human beings.

3. Avoid typographic cliches.

“To distort the letters of the alphabet ‘in the style of’ Chinese calligraphy (sometimes referred to as chop suey lettering), because the subject happens to deal with the Orient is to create the typographic equivalent of a corny illustration. To mimic a woodcut style of type to ‘go with’ a woodcut; to use bold type to ‘harmonize with’ heavy machinery, etc., is cliche-thinking. The designer is unaware of the exciting possibilities inherent in the contrast of picture and type matter. Thus, instead of combining a woodcut with a ‘woodcut style’ of type (Neuland), a happier choice would be a more classical design (Caslon, Bodoni, or Helvetica) to achieve the element of surprise and to accentuate by contrast the form and character of both text and picture.” -from “Typographic Form and Expression”


MB: I remember reading as a student this passage in the section “Typographic Form and Expression.” He writes with a real clarity about the role of typography in terms of both amplifying and complementing a message. It might sound like common sense to us now, because it’s so many decades later, but it’s still so relevant. It has to do with what happens when you combine two competing ideas in one message–rough and heavy type conveying a message that’s light and elegant. If you’re teaching a design class, like intro to typography, every student will take the route he’s advising against, using typography that mimics the message. He was writing in a time when I couldn’t begin to guess how many fewer typefaces were available. Now there are 10 to 100 times more available. His way of thinking required an economy of means, since there are fewer choices available. When you read it today, it’s actually a lesson in being purposeful and thoughtful in the choices you make when the options are nearly infinite.

4. Design really does make the world a better place, but not in the ways you might think.

“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 the mediocrity and denies the reader one of the most easily accessible means for esthetic development and eventual enjoyment.” -from “Reader Participation”

If you read between the lines, he’s purporting a kind of paternalistic, elitist role for the designer as instructor to the great unwashed. In a larger sense, he’s talking about the role design can play to make world a better place. People don’t talk about that much anymore, unless it’s a poster telling people to recycle. There’s really a very limited, literal view of what that is. Rand’s view was that every single mark you as a Homo sapien could leave on earth could be done with care and taste and attention to beauty, or carelessly, thoughtlessly, without attention. If you stick with the first way, the world would be improved, in the second way, it would be degraded.

Bierut on whether aspects of Thoughts on Design are dated:

The first time I saw Rand’s book in the mid-’70s, when I was student, it looked dated. It didn’t look cool to me. I entered a design school with my mind full of all these cool record covers I’d seen and loved and wanted to be designing by the time I graduated. His stuff looked old-fashioned to me. As I matured and as time passed, I realized how innovative, how forward, how far-seeing and how timeless the work he was doing was, in a way that transcends the kind of style.


Thoughts on Design, republished by Chronicle Books, is available for $19.95 here.


About the author

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering art and design. Follow her on Twitter.