Paul Rand and the symbol

No Way Out, 1950 movie poster by Paul Rand.

PIET MONDRIAN AND De Stijl freed contemporary design of its former restrictions, despite the criticism of rigidity it sometimes receives (see “De Stijl: Mondrian, Oud and Van Doesburg”).

American graphic designer Paul Rand was one of the freed. His reputation rose early for page layouts as a young art director for Esquire and Coronet magazines in 1937, and only increased with time; fame came in the 1950s and ’60s with logo designs, many of which are still in use, for IBM, ABC, Cummins, UPS, Enron, Westinghouse and NeXT.

Paul Klee’s and Wassily Kandinsky’s work initiated his development. Thanks to a meeting with László Maholy-Nagy, Rand was inspired to study art criticism and became profoundly influenced by the work of pragmatic philosopher John Dewey who emphasized the need for a “functional-aesthetic perfection.” One of Rand’s subsequent ideas was to test for recognition even when the work was blurred or mutilated.

The engine that drove Rand’s work was modernism. In his book A Designer’s Art he wrote: “From impressionism to pop art, the commonplace and even the comic strip have become ingredients for the artist’s cauldron. 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 defamiliarize the ordinary.”

Left to right: The evolution of the IBM logo from the International Time Recording Company in 1888, the Computing Scale Company in 1891, the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company in 1911, International Business Machines in 1924, 1947, 1956 and 1972 when Paul Rand designed the “eight-bar” lettermark.

He wrote another excellent book, Thoughts on Design, in which he said, “The symbol is the common language between the artist and the spectator… a symbol may be depicted in an abstract shape, a geometric figure, a photograph, an illustration, a letter of the alphabet or a numeral.”

Technology since his day has only increased the speed of communication worldwide, but Rand and his corporate clients were well aware of the need for symbols because they need no translation, being preverbal.

See this great website for detailed information:

~ Robert Grey