Book Review: Thoughts on Design.

“Graphic design –
which fulfills esthetic needs,
complies with the laws of form
and the exigencies of two-dimensional space;
which speaks in semiotics, sans-serifs,
and geometrics;
which abstracts, transforms, translates,
rotates, dilates, repeats, mirrors,
groups, and regroups –
is not good design
if it is irrelevant.”

Excerpt from “The Beautiful and the Useful” essay by Paul Rand.

Photogram by Paul Rand for Paul Rand, 1943.

Paul Rand – not to be confused with Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky – was one of the most influential designers in the history of print. Born in 1914, his centennial year was celebrated with the rerelease of Thoughts on Design (Chronicle Books), which he wrote in 1947, at the age of 33.

This book is “a manifesto, a call to arms and a ringing definition of what makes good design good,” writes designer and critic Michael Bierut in the foreword. Michael’s words, along with a new copyright page and table of contents, were the only concessions to modernity that the publisher made. The book is printed in black and white, like the original, because “it is a classic revisited,” says Michael Carabetta of Chronicle.

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Magazine advertisement by Paul Rand for Olivetti, 1953.

Rand’s language is a joy to read. His sentences are complex, sometimes in dire need of editing, but his words are pushed forward with excitement, like a professor whose passion for his subject builds as he continues to lecture. Even his chapter names are catchy: The Beautiful and the Useful; Imagination and the Image; Typographic Form and Expression. Of course, Thoughts on Design is a visual feast as well, with each subject richly illustrated with Rand’s own work.

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Magazine advertisement by Paul Rand for Westinghouse, 1963.

I praise the editors for not modernizing Rand’s language, which I suspect was a bit dated even in 1947. For example, when Rand describes punctuation marks as “emotive, plastic symbols,” he’s using the original meaning of the word plastic, which derived from the Latin plasticus, meaning “able to be molded.” Rand’s use of the word “buckeye,” however, still puzzles me. I can infer the meaning from this sentence – “A typeface which sometimes is described as having character often is merely bizarre, eccentric, nostalgic, or simply buckeye”1 – but I can’t find any reference to such usage. (If you know, please drop me a note in the comment field below).

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Book jacket by Paul Rand, 1946.

While many people have favorite logos or posters or book covers by Rand, I have a favorite sentence. It is: “The visual message which professes to be profound or elegant often boomerangs as mere pretension; and the frame of mind which looks at humor as trivial and flighty mistakes the shadow for the substance.”2

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Poster by Paul Rand for Apparel Arts, 1940.
Abacus textile by Paul Rand, 1946.

The image Rand used for the cover of Thoughts on Design was also used for a textile (see above). He created this photogram by placing an abacus on a sheet of sensitized paper and exposing it to light. “It is not a picture of the object, but the object itself,” explained Rand.

For more about Rand’s techniques and, naturally, thoughts on design, pick up a copy of this must-read book. If you’re in the New York area, be sure to catch Everything is Design: The Work of Paul Rand at the Museum of the City of New York.

1. Page 81
2. Page 22

  • Mimi Dekker

    Paul used the word “buckeye” often. Slang for something or someone inferior, something of poor quality or otherwise cheap. I worked with Paul Rand every day in the late 80’s and early 90s when he was still our graphic design consultant at IBM.

    • Gwendolyn Horton

      Thank you for solving this for me! If you’re in the New York area, the Paul Rand exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York opens tomorrow. We had a preview today and it’s wonderful – and there are many beautiful archival materials from IBM. -Gwendolyn