Brain Pickings

Thoughts on Design: Paul Rand on Beauty, Simplicity, the Power of Symbols, and Why Idealism Is Essential in Creative Work

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“Catering to bad taste, which we so readily attribute to the average reader, merely perpetuates that mediocrity.”

Paul’s a gem [who] works on perfecting the exterior of a curmudgeon,” Steve Jobs reminisced about working with legendary art director and graphic designer Paul Rand (1914–1996), adding, “He’s perfected it to new heights, actually.” Indeed, Rand is remembered as much for being one of the most significant visual communicators and commercial artists in history as he is for his famous grouchiness — a fact that renders his little-known vintage children’s books a doubly intriguing paradoxical curiosity. And yet they bespeak what Jobs said of Rand in the same 1993 interview: “He’s a very deep, thoughtful person who’s tried to express in every part of his life what his principles are. And you don’t meet so many people like that today.”

At the age of only thirty-three, Rand collected these uncompromising principles and his rare brand of idealism in the influential 1947 volume Thoughts on Design (public library), which has been newly resurrected after decades in the morgue of out-of-print gems.

Rand on a poster for Apple's 'Think Different' campaign in 1998

In the preface to the new edition, Pentagram’s Michael Bierut calls the celebrated volume “a manifesto, a call to arms and a ringing definition of what makes good design good.” Bierut describes it in terms that call to mind precisely those paradoxical children’s books — “almost as simple as a child’s storybook: short, clear sentences; vivid, playful illustrations” — suggesting the complete integration of Rand’s sensibility across all of his work and his unflinching clarity of vision. Rand himself once wrote of the book that its original intention was to “demonstrate the validity of those principles which, by and large, have guided artists (designers) since the time of Polycletus. And, indeed, there is remarkable timelessness to his convictions:

Visual communications of any kind … should be seen as the embodiment of form and function: the integration of the beautiful and the useful.

[…]

Ideally, beauty and utility are mutually generative.

And yet, Rand maintains, the integration of the two is at its highest, most potent form when it springs from the creator’s singular, unadulterated sensibility. Decades before crowdsourcing reached buzzword status, he admonished against the basic ethos behind it:

The system that regards esthetics as irrelevant, which separates the artist from his product, which fragments the work of the individual, which creates by committee, and which makes mincemeat of the creative process will, in the long run, diminish not only the product but the maker as well.

Cover design by Paul Rand, 1958

Rand emphasizes the fruitful combination of cross-disciplinary curiosity, technical knowledge, and intuition in the creative problem-solving process:

To achieve an effective solution to his problem, the designer must necessarily go through some sort of mental process. Conscious or not, he analyzes, interprets, formulates. He is aware of the scientific and technological developments in his own and kindred fields. He improvises, invents, or discovers new techniques and combinations. He co-ordinates and integrates his material so that he may restate his problem in terms of ideas, signs, symbols, pictures. He unifies, simplifies, and eliminates superfluities. He symbolizes — abstracts from his material by association and analogy. He intensifies and reinforces his symbol with appropriate accessories to achieve clarity and interest. He draws upon instinct and intuition. He considers the spectator, his feelings and predilections.

In fact, having come of age as Carl Jung was pioneering the role of symbols as a gateway to the unconscious, Rand made this mastery of symbolism a central tenet in his own teachings:

It is in a world of symbols that man lives. The symbol is thus the common language between artist and spectator.

[…]

The fact that some of the best symbols are simplified images merely points to the effectiveness of simplicity but not to the meaning of the word per se. In essence, it is not what it looks like but what it does that defines a symbol.

Magazine cover by Paul Rand, 1954

“Rhythm is one of the most powerful of pleasures,” Mary Oliver wrote of poetry. Rand advocates for the artful use of repetition as kind of rhythm that imbues design and visual communication with the same powerful pleasure:

The emotional force generated by the repetition of words or pictures and the visual possibilities (as a means of creating texture, movement, rhythm, indicating equivalences for time and space) should not be minimized…

The following are but a few instances of our everyday experiences in which the magical, almost hypnotic, effects of repetition operate: the exciting spectacle of marching soldiers, in the same dress, same step, and same attitude; the fascination of neatly arranged flower beds of like color, structure, and texture; the impressive sight of crowds at football games, theaters, public demonstrations; the satisfaction we derive from the geometric patterns created by ballet dancers and chorus girls with identical costumes and movements; the feeling of order evoked by rows of methodically placed packages on the grocer’s shelf; the comforting effect of the regularity of repeat patterns in textiles and wallpapers; the excitement we experience at the sight of plane formations or birds in flight.

Package design for IBM, 1956

Decades before the listicle era, Rand makes a special case for the use of numbers as a catalyst of rhythm in communication:

[Numbers] impart to a printed piece a sense of rhythm and immediacy.

(Cue in Umberto Eco on lists and Susan Sontag on why they appeal to us.)

But while rhythm might excite the emotions, he argues that symmetry — a phenomenon that permeates our world — dulls them:

Bilateral symmetry offers the spectator too simple and too obvious a statement. it offers him little or no intellectual pleasure, no challenge. For the pleasure derived from observing asymmetric arrangements lies partly in overcoming resistances which, consciously or not, the spectator has in his own mind, thus acquiring some sort of esthetic satisfaction.

Rand’s most timeless wisdom, however, has to do not with the techniques and tropes of visual communication but with his higher-order idealism — the deeper moral motives and responsibilities of the creator. What E.B. White famously proclaimed of the writer’s responsibility, Rand asserts of the designer’s:

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 that mediocrity and denies the reader one of the most easily accessible means for esthetic development and eventual enjoyment.

Complement Thoughts on Design with Rand on the role of the imagination, then revisit the wonderful vintage picture-books he created with his then-wife Ann.

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