Paul Rand Graphic Designer

Matthew Baines

I'm a huge fan of Paul Rand graphic design. He is probably one of the most influential American Modernist graphic designers of the 20th century, certainly in America. His works are witty, crisp and timeless. Developing his career in magazine design, he created graphic images for book covers, posters and advertising, although it was his approach to corporate brand and logo designs that catapulted him into fame. It was Paul Rand who developed the meaning of a consistent brand identity and companies quickly took note about what he had to say. 

During Post War America there was a huge fear of Communism but also of the persecution of apparent Communism. Companies as well as individuals wanted to avoid at all costs the possibility of being accused of having Communist sympathies. Like artists, who tended to avoid any suspicious figurative representation in art and moved more towards Abstract Expressionism, so too did big business want to be perceived as modern, global looking and "all American".

Born Peretz Rosenbaum in Brooklyn 1914, Paul Rand found himself in the right place at the right time. Heavily influenced by new avant-garde ideas coming out of Europe, he realised the importance of visual communication when it came to commercial design. In the 1930s he started to bring Bauhaus, Sachplakat and Russian Constructivism influences into the field of modernist graphic design, with striking fonts and flat colors as well as modernist function over form principles, which was to turn American advertising on its head.

Paul Rand Design Style

Rand was American and knew the importance of developing a clear design style that appealed to the new Post War American consumer.  For Rand, the essential elements to visual communication were simplicity and geometry. It was important to strip design right back to the basics. Remove all sense of nostalgia, sentimentality and figurative representation and get right back to the bare shapes and colors of the artwork. Like a lot of modernist designers of his time, Rand leant heavily on Swiss Style that allowed him visual clarity in his graphic design. For Rand the key to visual communication was to develop a "universal language" of design without weighing upon the need to communicate so much with words as with pictures. In Post War America, this was revolutionary.

By the 1950s Rand was able to merge his influences from European abstract art with the radical fast-paced New York art scene, embracing artists such as Miró, Klee and Léger with American consumerist pop culture, whilst avoiding any sentimentality or nostalgia in his art completely.  For Rand, in the age of McCarthyism, honesty was critical, especially when it came to corporate brand identity. In this febrile atmosphere of distrust and suspicion that descended on suburban America during this period, his American roots were a perfect foil to his modernist European contemporaries.

Paul Rand IBM Logo

Rand promoted the idea of a consistent memorable brand identity that provided the consumer with an immediate sense of what the company was about. Famously working with IBM, he revolutionised their approach to brand, developing a bright, modern logo that could be used across all communication channels, be it print media, packaging, billboards or the side of buildings. The IBM logo told a clear story about the company and where it stood as a symbol of Post War global culture, as well as how that defined American success as a whole during this period.

It is worth noting that it was Rand's philosophy that the corporate logo should not be the entity responsible for devising the company ethos and meaning. Rather it should be the opposite and that a successful logo is one that reflects distinctly, memorably and clearly the meaning of the company, not the other way round.

It is only by association with a product, a service, a business, or a corporation that a logo takes on any real meaning. If a company is second rate, the logo will eventually be perceived as second rate. It is foolhardy to believe that a logo will do its job immediately, before an audience has been properly conditioned.”

In other words, for Rand the importance was what the logo symbolised rather than what it represented. 

Paul Rand NeXT Logo

In 1986 Paul Rand worked with Steve Jobs, who had left Apple to create his own computer company, NeXT. With limited financial brand  and advertising budget, Jobs was looking for a "jewel" that would not require him to spend millions of dollars in advertising in order to connect, in the consumer's mind, the corporate logo with the company name. Rand was able to solve this problem and presented a logo for the new enterprise that contained the company name with its own brand identity, allowing the entire logo to be re-applied to whichever context it was required.

Within the presentation Rand explained his concern that the company name sounded too close to "exit" and how he overcame that by creating a new rhythm to the name within the logo, where the copy was contained within a two-dimensional image. He did this by changing the case of the "E" to a lowercase "e" and adding a 28 degree tilt on the design. This would force the consumer to pause for thought upon reading the name, making it more memorable and enduring. To this day the company name is still referred to in copy as NeXT, showing how deeply seated Rand's design has become.

Rand presented the logo in a 100 page document which laid out clearly the process he had gone through to come up with the design. For Rand it was not a case of providing a few options to the client. He would provide a single design, not in concept but in completion. Clarity, as always, was the keystone to his entire approach.

Paul Rand and Modernist Graphic Design

Looking at Rand's design approach more broadly, we can see that he might strip down an idea to its basics, using just lines, shapes and colors to create an abstract sign or a symbol that would convey a message, whilst at the same time successfully make up the artistic composition. If the visual at first sight did not appear appropriate to the message of the composition, this was secondary to what it represented as an abstraction of the element.

For me, personally, I am drawn to the magazine covers Rand produced in his early career, working for Esquire and Direction magazine from the late 1930s - 40s. During this wartime period Rand was starting out his approach to graphic design, using Swiss Style and mathematical grid formats in order to produce Le Corbusier type designs to put his message across clearly. In this example of a Christmas cover for Direction magazine in December 1940, Rand produced a Christmas present-type design, but rather than ribbon he substituted barbed wire, with red dots suggesting blood splatters, in order to convey the horror of war at that time. The design is full of humor and metaphor that stops the reader in their tracks. Truly the work of a genius.

It is Rand's book covers, in my opinion, that are the epitome of mid-century modern design; something I just adore. His use of flat geometric shapes, bold colors and whitespace is quintessential mid-century modern design. In these examples, each one hints at the message conveyed within the book by use of symbolism to represent the message. In the Lost Steps, the criss-cross design hints at steps that are essentially lost within confusion. In American Son, the blue and red angular geometric shapes suggests an awkward, American flag and the green with the leaf suggests fertility. In Perspectives upon Science, the abstract eye on top of the church weathervane with rectangular shapes fanning out, as well as bird feathers, suggest perspective. The church, symbolised by the weathervane shape is, of course, a polar opposite to science.


What we get with Paul Rand is honest, clear design that communicates to us. Whether it is in corporate logos or magazine and book covers, his ethos is clear: get the message across by stripping non-essentials away to create a pure un-sentimental design for the consumer.

This is what I find inspiring in Paul Rand and is something that I try to incorporate in my own retro style designs and patterns. I love modern retro design style and Paul Rand's simplicity and geometry form the biggest influence in my own vintage style interior design ideas and apparel lines. For this reason, for me at least, Paul Rand deserves his place in history as one of the giants of timeless graphic design.

graphic design Paul Rand

Older Post Newer Post

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

By using our website you agree to the use of cookies to deliver you a better site experience. Learn more