Obituary: Paul Rand
Monday 30 December 1996
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.
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