Obituary: Paul Rand

Paul Rand was one of the most influential graphic designers of the 20th century. Although he is not widely known to the public, his work is universally and instantly recognisable - in particular the enduring logotypes he designed over the past 40 years for leading US corporations such as IBM and Apple.

Rand was born in 1914 in Brooklyn, New York. He studied at the Pratt Institute (1929-32), Parsons School of Design (1932-33) and was taught by the graphic artist George Grosz at the Arts Student League (1933-34). Establishing his own studio in 1935, he was amongst the first to initiate what would become design consultancy. He emphasised the importance of the visual element in projecting an idea or identity, where previously text had been the predominant means of conveying these messages; and with this visual element, the crucial role of the graphic designer.

By 1937, aged only 23, he had achieved the position of art director of both Esquire and Apparel arts magazines.

His studies into the European avant-garde art movements (among them Cubism, De Stijl, Constructivism, and the Bauhaus) significantly influenced these early years and his adaptation of their principles, combined with the inspiration he derived from American culture, developed into a highly individual graphic style. Montage, collage, painting, photography and typography all found a place in his designs, which emphasised visual, rather than textual, solutions to problem solving. His sharp creative ability and skilful reading of how design should communicate through its content led him to become widely influential whilst still in his twenties.

From 1941 to 1954 Rand worked for the William H. Weintraub advertising agency, where he applied his formidable design approach to advertisements. Collaborating with the copywriter Bill Bernbach he developed the integration of design and copy into a model of the "creative team" approach - bringing together a group of people to exchange ideas - and thus anticipated a move that would change the face of advertising in the post-war years.

During the 1950s, when graphic design truly evolved, with an explosion in the worlds of television, publishing and corporate identity, Rand was one of the designers who became a seminal figure. From 1955 he freelanced, becoming a graphic consultant to leading US companies, and his work had a huge influence on the development of company corporate identity and its application. IBM, Cummins Engine Company, Westinghouse, United Parcel Service, ABC Television: all benefited from his crisp, clear, concise logotypes.

His other important contribution to design was in education - he was appointed Professor of Graphic Design at Yale in 1956 and continued to lecture there for the following 36 years. His book Thoughts on Design (1946), illustrated with examples of his work, is regarded as a classic text on graphics, influential on successive generations of designers.

This legacy can be seen in the work of many of today's eminent designers. Alan Fletcher (one of the founding members of Pentagram, the design group) considers Paul Rand to be "the first guru of design"; Rand gave Fletcher, as a young designer, his first freelance work in the United States, for IBM.

I was introduced to Rand's work while a student, by a college tutor, Richard McConnell (whose brother, the outstanding designer John McConnell, of Pentagram, is undoubtedly a disciple of Rand's "ideas" approach to graphics). What excited me about it was that the designs were concerned with ideas and content, not just technique. This was design that encompassed both simplicity and clarity of message, by aesthetic and intellectual means, and which surpassed any notion of fashion.

It was through my own writings on design, which he encouraged, that I established a friendship and correspondence with Rand over several years. He was unceasingly inquisitive about design in the UK (or Merry England, as he called it) and anything related to design. His sharp wit, anecdotes and invaluable advice were a revelation to me. For a man in his seventies his acute perception of the world was that of a man of half his age.

In his later years Rand became increasingly disaffected with the vacuousness of much of contemporary graphic design, a subject for which he found expression in his brilliant book Design, Form and Chaos (1994). In it he wrote: "The absence of restraint, the equation of simplicity with shallowness, complexity with depth of understanding and obscurity with innovations, distinguishes the work of these times."

The last time we spoke, only a few days before he died, he was, as ever, looking to the future; the planning of a retrospective exhibition of his work to be held in New York and the publication of his latest book, From Lascaux to Brooklyn (1996).

Paul Rand, graphic designer: born Brooklyn, New York 1914; Professor of Graphic Design, Yale University 1956-92; married Marion Swannie (one daughter); died Norwalk, Connecticut 26 November 1996.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Cleaner

£15000 - £16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you've got first class custo...

Recruitment Genius: Mobile Applications Developer / Architect - iOS and Android

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a medium s...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Account Executive - £40K OTE

£11830 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working in a friendly, sales ta...

Recruitment Genius: Web Designer

£15000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

Day In a Page

Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life