Paul Rand makes the nurse's needle a little less scary: Big Families advertising flyer 1947
Paul Rand makes the nurse's needle a little less scary: Big Families advertising flyer 1947

In Praise of Paul Rand

George Lois celebrates the man who Steve Jobs once called 'The greatest living graphic designer'

Paul Rand (1914-96) was a pioneering figure and is a continuing major influence in the field of graphics and visual communication. Rand was an art director, teacher, writer and design consultant to major companies including IBM, Olivetti, Ford, Enron and Steve Jobs’s NeXT. Adopting what he called a problem solving approach to design, he drew on the ideas of European avant-garde art movements such as Cubism, Constructivism and De Stijl and synthesised them into his own graphic design language. He embraced design at a very young age, painting signs for his father’s grocery store as well as for school events.

The core ideology that drove Rand’s career, and hence his lasting influence, was the modernist philosophy he so adored and lived by. He celebrated the works of artists from Paul Cézanne to Jan Tschichold, and constantly drew connections between their output and graphic design.

“From Impressionism to Pop Art, the commonplace and even the comic strip have become ingredients for the artist’s cauldron,” he said. “What Cézanne did with apples, Picasso with guitars, Léger with machines, Schwitters with rubbish, and Duchamp with urinals makes it clear that revelation does not depend upon grandiose concepts. The problem of the artist is to defamiliarise the ordinary.”

Rand's genius lay, in part, with his grasp of function. No matter what was being advertised, the overall design scheme had to function as art and persuasion - style was a mere by product. Everything he designed had to have a practical aspect because, as he said, "it's a practical problem."

In the image above he succeeded in putting a happy, if not witty, face on his drug client's products - even the traditionally unfriendly doctor's syringe. Likewise, in the image below, his 1952 cigar gift box for El Producto, he upturned the traditional formula of an embossed engraving of a historical vignette or figure in favour of a 'cigar album' with a photogram of different cigar styles. "What's the big deal?" he said of the radical concept. "I was just showing the cigars." This is what George Lois, author of Damn Good Advice (For People With Talent), has to say about him.

“‘Every art director and graphic designer in the world should kiss Paul Rand’s ass.’ That was the last line of a speech I made honouring Paul Rand while he was still alive. In the audience, Paul sat at the front and at the centre, his fair Marion at his side. At the close, he came up to me, held me close and rasped, ‘Ah, Georgie, you’re always too kind…too generous.’ Then he leaned even closer to my ear and said: ‘And every goddam word is true!’

“The constant concern of the scholarly and humanistic Paul Rand was to create images that snared people’s eyes, penetrated their minds, warmed their hearts and made them act. His major concern was to strive for cause and effect in the creation of his work. Paul Rand is acknowledged as the father of the expression and of modern graphic ideas, of the exquisite blend of them, image and typography that defied anything that came before him, that the essence of powerful communication had to be the unforgettable image. Paul Rand’s art direction was an imagery that was a marriage of the verbal and the visual, where one and one made three. His legacy is never ending.”


Paul Rand Design
Paul Rand: cigar gift box for El Producto