July 11th, 2009

Relearning from Paul Rand

By Nate Burgos

Relearning from Paul Rand

One Week, Lifetime of Lessons
Another summer had arrived when the 1994 Yale Summer Program in Graphic Design commenced in Brissago, in the canton of Ticino, Switzerland. A noticeable hush of recognition descended when Paul Rand entered the Hotel Ticino to kick-off the five-week program and teach the first week. I felt intimidated. Who wouldn’t? He was one of the big reasons to apply to the program. There was a giant in the same room.

By 1994, Rand had written his third book “Design, Form, and Chaos.” And this was only one milestone in a tall body of work in design—and one that continues to surprise me. Did you know that he designed the logo (among many) for design and innovation consulting firm IDEO? He also designed Enron’s logo, which didn’t dampen his reception by many, who view Rand as nothing less than a vanguard.

Reflecting back to that summer session, I believe many in the room felt bouts of surrealism (aided by the simultaneous view of the Swiss Alps and palm trees, which Brissago’s semi-tropical climate nurtures). Our recognition of Rand was bated with the curiosity of what he’d teach us.

Paul Rand has been an ongoing source of inspiration for me—from seeing “Mr. Rand” converse with summer program participants and occasionally engage in spirited discussions, to the “Randisms” and the rare Rand-designed books that I collect—here are three things I’ve gleaned:

Rand’s books are filled with citations and references to diverse sources on aesthetics. It’s been said that Bauhaus teacher László Moholy-Nagy asked Rand whether he explored books about art and design theory. Rand answered that he did not. Moholy-Nagy’s reply was “Pity.” Perhaps this was a genesis for devouring subject matter in art and other fields. Looking beyond one’s domain offers opportunities to reinforce or debunk one’s thinking about design and approaches to designing. In either case, the ultimate opportunity is self-discovery.

In a 1991 television interview, Rand said, “Writing is a matter of having ideas. … The ideas have to fit.” His passion for making substance out of words—be they in articles, essays or books—was a precursor to terms like “design writing” and “design journalism,” which have recently appeared on the radar of design-based disciplines. Rand’s writing fed his designing and vice versa. Each discipline is a type of articulation and helps make sense of a concept or problem. Design office Pinch lauds the benefits of writing this way: “we find that writing about a project, as candidly as possible without the use of profanity, is useful in helping us to clarify and refine our process.”

Speak up
It’s one thing to be visual storytellers, and it’s another to complement it with being verbal storytellers. Having an opinion and attempting to express it was an opportunity that Rand seized repeatedly in his projects and in person.

Looking at these three lessons, they may seem overly elementary. Yet, one can never be done with the basics. The week with Paul Rand was spent absorbed in such basics—colored paper, scissors, rubber cement, ink, colored pencils—and talking about what you’re doing in, as Rand put it, “realizing a visual idea” which, though oriented toward graphic design, was a definition of design.

Relearning from Paul Rand

When asked by Steven Heller about the “play instinct,” Rand said, “There can be design without play, but that’s design without ideas.” Two years later in 1996, Rand passed away in Norwalk, Connecticut. Yet 1996 had been another productive year for Rand: His last book “From Lascaux to Brooklyn” was published and he lectured at MIT, among other work activities. The fire of play remained intact.

If there’s an ultimate lesson to be repeated, it’s to keep being curious and doing it with cunning, and “Everything is going to be OK.” With this said, I’m still learning to play.


Nate Burgos is a designer who is ever-curious about design and designing through his webliography Design Feast. He also collects rare examples of innovative book design, such as first editions of Paul Rand’s “Thoughts on Design” (1947) and Ladislav Sutnar’s “Catalog Design Progress” (1950). Follow Nate on Twitter: @designfeast