If you’ve ever marveled at the elegant simplicity of the IBM logo, with its horizontal stripes linking three letters, you’ve admired the artistry of Paul Rand (1914–1996). A towering figure in the world of twentieth century graphic design, his work has a timeless quality that in our age of ever-multiplying screens seems more relevant than ever.
“Paul Rand: A Designer’s Art” was first published in 1985 and weaves together essays he wrote about design with copious illustrations of his ideas, mostly examples of his own work. The book was reissued last year by Princeton Architectural Press and belongs on your bookshelf whether you’re a designer or simply interested in the history of visual communication.
I was drawn to this book because I’m on a quest for the underlying design principles that remain the same no matter how fast communication changes. How can you be an effective designer when the ground beneath your feet is shifting more quickly than ever? Paul Rand’s work and ideas provide a kind of solid bedrock for how designers might thrive in the current century.
There’s no need to read this book sequentially. Leaf through it to find work that inspires you or essays that draw you in. If you’re a designer, I recommend that you head straight to the “Politics of Design” essay on page 233, which describes the obstacles and challenges facing designers in a way that sounds like it could have been written yesterday.
Some other standout essays for me were “Black Black Black” about the power and significance of this colour and “Design and the Play Instinct” which brings together descriptions of crossword puzzles, Chinese characters, Tatami floor mats, the paintings of Josef Albers and other phenomena in a discussion of the discipline of rules in conjunction with the freedom of play.
One of the pleasures in reading this book was encountering facing pages where the designs were made decades apart, yet there was such a consistency in approach, including the use of simple, expressive shapes, ample white space and type so spare and powerful it knocks you to the floor.
Stepping into this book’s world is like stepping onto the set of “Mad Men” and wandering through Sterling Cooper, stunned by how mid-century design can feel so right now—except this isn’t a made-for-TV simulation, it’s the real thing.
My only complaint about this book is that it was over too soon. I read it sequentially and as with a captivating movie I was left with a feeling of satisfaction mixed with longing. Fortunately, Rand wrote two subsequent books, “Design, Form and Chaos” (1993) and “From Lascaux to Brooklyn” (1996) and there are no doubt many other ways to learn from his genius.
This book is a starting point for my further exploration and it could be for you as well.
Paul Rand: A Designer’s Art, by Paul Rand
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