By Ashley Ellen November 2007
Paul Rand has made an immense impact on advertising, identity and design writing in the twentieth century. The variety of documentation of his life and work is extensive. This essay will focus on three authors, Steven Heller, Allen Hurlburt and Phillip Megg’s in a comparison of their perspective and analysis of Paul Rand and his contributions to the realm of graphic design. I will compare the background of each author, the context, content, approach and tone of their writing to gain an understanding of the complexity of intent and purpose in the writing of design history.
The context of all three articles come after the death of Paul Rand in 1996, which helps us to understand their tone, and gives us the notion that they are writing with knowledge of the entirety of his contribution to the twentieth century era of design, spanning from 1914 to 1996 – One of the most interesting periods for a designer to witness – from the beginning of art direction in commercial advertising to the changing art of computer and digital technology.
If we look at the format for each article, it helps to understand the types of content covered in each. Steven Heller, art director, author of design history, and professor, in his article for Print Magazine, writes a more lengthy and all-encompassing biography of Paul Rand, entitled, “Thoughts on Rand” (a play on the title of Rand’s own, “Thoughts on Design”). Heller’s article is plush with intricate details of Rand’s life from youth to death, with an intimate understanding of the day-to-day stories, humor and reality that make his biography more memorable:
“He did numerous ads for, among others, Abe Spinell, the eccentric owner of Playtex and inventor of its latex products, who would call Rand into his office in the Empire State Building, seat him in a chair in front of his desk, and have him sketch ideas on the spot. For each ad he was paid $5 to $10 and a sandwich from Longchamps. While his solutions departed from the mainstream, they never compromised the product being advertised.” (Heller, 1997, 107)
Details, like the amounts Rand was paid per ad, the name of the sandwich shop and personality cues of the New York ad types he worked for on his way to the top bring the reader into a historical perspective that is visual and exciting. Each sentence is colorful with adjectives and creatively flows from year to year without causing our eyelids to droop, even while his account of Rand is the more lengthy of the three. His content is all-encompassing, beginning with his death, time-warping to the start of his career and bringing us on a journey through his advertising career, to his corporate identity developments, his influential writing and ending with an optimistic account of Rand’s outlook, prior to his death:
“Through his own radical alteration of design practice, Rand transformed the field for thousands of others, Despite ebbs and flows in the field, he never faltered, never changed, never questioned the rightness of his mission. During ceremonies at his retrospective at Cooper Union last October, he was asked whether modernism was dead. Rand replied: “I’m still alive.” (Heller, 1997, 109)
The tone of his article is forward-looking, optimistic and rich. We can draw on the assumption that his approach is to summarize the fervent and colorful details that he has stumbled upon in his research for the biography of Rand that he published the following year. We can gather that Heller has come to an exciting relationship with the stories of Rand’s life and is introspective onto his own career and motivation as an art director and writer.
Art Director and author, Allen Hurlburt’s article, “Paul Rand” from Communication Arts Magazine, rather than being an all-encompassing, day-to-day synopsis, like Heller’s, parallels Paul Rand with the development of the modern design movement. (Hurlburt, 1999) Placing him in the arena of twentieth-century design pioneers, using the term, “legend” and jumping in at the upswing of his career in 1937, he discusses the perceptions of Paul Rand through contemporary designers and his major contributions to advertising. Though lacking a personal understanding of the intricacies of Paul Rand as a designer, he focuses more on the generalities that are understood in his accomplishments and a few particulars of his designs:
“He had completed designs for several companies including Esquire, Coronet Brandy, and Robeson Cutlery. By 1955, the fates that continued to play a fortuitous role in channeling the Rand talent toward critical areas of design began to set the stage for his third major design career—corporate identity. Thomas J. Watson, Jr., had come recently to the presidency of the International Business Machines Corporation, and his search for a graphic designer to create the corporate image led to Paul Rand. The rest is design history.” (Hurlburt, 1999)
Hurlburt assumes that the audience for Communication Arts is well aware of the specific designs of Paul Rand and rather than delving into the interesting details, or dumbing-down the article to the historically design-illiterate, his tone mulls over last 30 years of Rand’s life with a confident statement on his widely-known success, as accepted fact in the design community.
We can assume that his approach to presenting the information was to comment on a well-known designer in a series on Design Pioneers for Communication Arts Magazine. His purpose is not particulary to entertain or inform a new audience, but to summarize and categorize the accomplishments of a recently deceased legend, raising him from the status of a peer to a historical icon.
Phillip Meggs(1942-2002), designer, professor and historian, writes excerpts on Paul Rand in his “History of Graphic Design.” In stark contrast to Heller and Hurlburt’s articles, Meggs notes Rand’s contributions to design in context amongst a full view of design history from ancient Egypt to present day. We read of Rand within chapters of the New York School, through the coming age of Corporate Identification. As opposed to Heller, with a very biographical and personal account of Rand as an individual, Meggs presents a historical background and universal understanding amongst other designers of his time:
“During the 1950s and 1960s many American designers- including Rand, Beall, Bass and design firms such as Lippincott & Margules and Chermayeff & Geismar- embraced corporate visual identification as a major design activity.” (Meggs, 2006, 404)
Meggs places Rand at the forefront of the age of Corporate Identity, establishing his work as an example of a precedent for high quality, simplistic and effective trademark design. As a historian and professor, the tone and approach of Meggs writing is analytical in his assessment of the patterns emerging in design, alongside the transition of historical events, social and cultural changes. To Meggs, Paul Rand, is an educational tool for the understanding of specific design concepts, specifically, corporate identity in the context of history, from the ancient Egyptian rebus principle, to Rand’s revolutionary IBM poster.
In terms of historiography of design, it is important to understand the context of the writing and the audience that is being targeted. Whether it is a narrative history of a specific designer, like the writing of Heller, a design-literate readership, with an article hailing the legends, like that of Hurlburt, or a complete overview of design as a whole, like Meggs, each author triggers the specific details of their subject, Paul Rand, for their particular purpose.
Heller, Steven. Thoughts on Rand [life and work of designer Paul Rand]. Print (New York, N.Y.) v. 51 (May/June 1997) p. 106-9+
Hurlburt, Allen. Paul Rand. Communication Arts Magazine v. 41 no. 1 (March/April 1999) p. 119-3
Meggs, Philip. Meggs’ History of Graphic Design. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Hoboken, New Jersey. 2006