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  • Writer's picture@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

Think IBM: Think Paul Rand

Updated: Jan 3, 2022

He introduced stripes in 1972 to make the logo less heavy and more dynamic.


In his six-decade career, Paul Rand changed the direction of American graphic design to straight-ahead by fusing words and pictures into one symbol. He brought art to the commercial world, persuading IBM, Westinghouse, UPS and ABC of the importance of branding and designing their memorable logos.

Rand looked to Europe for inspiration, he says in an interview with art director and critic Steven Heller in Graphic Design in America: A Visual Language History (1989) by Mildred Friedman. As a student, he became obsessed with commercial arts journals from Britain and Germany. He discovered the Bauhaus school’s ideas of form and function. “My models were always painting and architecture: Picasso, Klee, Le Corbusier and Leger.” These influences were reflected in his work as collage, montage, hand-lettering, drawing and photography.

Twenty-five years after his death, Nagla Samir and Daniel Lewandowski organized the retrospective exhibition, Paul Rand: The Idealist/Realist, at the American University in Cairo (AUC) (December 11, 2021 - January 20, 2022) and a companion book in Arabic and English detailing his “extraordinary thoughts and processes”. Samir is an associate professor of practice in the Graphic Design Program at AUC. Lewandowski founded the website, Paul Rand: Modernist Master 1914-1996.

According to Print (December 8), the name of the exhibit is derived from the artist and Bauhaus professor, Laslo Moholy-Nagy, in a 1941 essay in Architectural Design Magazine:

“He is a painter, lecturer, industrial designer, advertising artist who draws his knowledge and creativeness from the resources of this country. He is an idealist and a realist, using the language of the poet and the businessman. He thinks in terms of need and function. He is able to analyze his problems, but his fantasy is boundless.”


“He photographed barbed wire against a white background lit to pick up the shadows. Little red circles made by a hole punch represented spilled blood. The barbed wire was a striking mnemonic for oppression.”


Art critic Steven Heller says in Print (December 8, 2021):

“The exhibit, an excellent research job featuring rarely seen Rand pieces, highlights his ‘idealist’ phase of advertising and editorial work where he used play, vibrant colors, progressive compositions, and challenged the norms of design. The ‘realist’ phase showcases his identity design work and solutions to clients’ visual problems and the presentation booklets of his process.”

Lewandowski writes:

“Today, designers across the world derive influence and inspiration from Rand’s body of work, acknowledging that he set new standards for graphic design.”

Paul Rand was born Peretz Rosenbaum on August 15, 1914, in Brownsville, Brooklyn, in New York and raised in a strictly observant Jewish household. The son of an immigrant Viennese fabric cutter, he had an older sister and a twin brother, who became a professional jazz musician, playing saxophone and clarinet. At a young age, Rand painted signs for his father’s grocery store and for school events at Public School (P.S.) 109. It was said that he was always drawing.

However, Rand’s father did not trust art to provide his son with a sufficient livelihood. He insisted that he attend Manhattan’s Haaren High School, which had a notable vocational program. Rand took night classes at Pratt Institute. He also attended Parsons School of Design and the Art Students League of New York. However, he considered himself to be self-taught as he learned from books and European magazines such as Gebrauchsgraphik.

“The term graphic design was virtually unheard of in the 1920s. How could one know about Jan Tschichold in Pratt Institute, or in Brooklyn, or in Brownsville, or in East New York? One knew about pool sharks and ice-pick murders but not about Tschichold or the New Typography, (which rejected traditional arrangement of type in symmetrical columns)”, he says in the interview with art critic Steven Heller.

While still taking classes, he added to his portfolio. At this time, he decided to change his overtly Jewish name to one designed for Madison Avenue. He changed his first name to Paul and took Rand from an uncle. Morris Wyszogrod, a friend and associate who survived a concentration camp, said that “he figured that ‘Paul Rand’, four letters here, four letters there, would create a nice symbol. So, he became Paul Rand.”

Roy R. Behrens, graphic arts teacher, writer and designer, notes the significance of his adopted name in Print (September-October 1999):

“Rand’s new persona, which served as the brand name for his many accomplishments, was the first corporate identity he created, and it may also eventually prove to be the most enduring.”

He may have changed his name but not his religious identity, according to The International Design Magazine (1993):

“Though he is at pains to keep his observances a private matter, he is clearly a devoutly religious man. On each of our two days of conversation, he thrusts his left arm toward me, proud to show the impression of his tefillin (a set of small leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah. A strap is wrapped around the arm, hand and fingers.) worn for daily morning prayers.

“When I asked him how he chose to become a designer, his answer was unequivocal:

‘I didn’t choose. God chose.”


"To take an escutcheon – a medieval symbol which inevitably seems pompous today – and then stick a package on top of it. That is funny.”


One of Rand’s first jobs was laying out product spreads for Apparel Arts, a popular men’s fashion magazine owned by Esquire, says Wired (June 4, 2015). Soon after, he started doing magazine covers. His work was quickly noticed so that by his early 20s, he was considered one of the most important designers of his generation.

In 1941, at the age of 27, he was named chief art director of the newly formed advertising agency, William H. Weintraub & Co. American advertising had changed little since the 19th century.

“Before Paul Rand, the copywriter was the lead,” says Donald Albrecht, curator of the Paul Rand exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, in Wired.

The copywriter would supply the words – oftentimes a great many of them – and the words would dictate the layout of the ad, often drawn from one of several templates or formats. The visuals would be filled in later by commercial artists, who typically just illustrated whatever the copy was describing.

Creativity was in short supply.

Rand embraced wit and humor, developing hand-drawn characters for spirit-maker, Dubonnet, and the cigar company, El Producto. He used bold, arresting colors. He signed every one of his creations.

He thought he was bringing art to advertising,” says Albrecht.


"Simplicity is not the goal. It is the by-product of a good idea and modest expectations."


Lewandowski writes: “He defined design as a unified activity, based on analysis and governed by imagination. His design work was governed by fundamental principles that he identified in his writings, such as beauty, intelligence, repetition, symbol, and humor.”

Rand, who was a professor emeritus of graphic design at Yale University, viewed his assignments as problems to be solved systematically.

“A good solution, in addition to being right, should have the potential for longevity. Yet, I don’t think one can design for permanence. One designs for function, for usefulness, rightness, beauty. Permanence is up to God.”

This is what he says about the IBM logo (1962):

“There was a problem in the sequence of letters, going from narrow to wide. It was just da-daa-daaa instead of da-da-da-da-da-da. You were left dangling. I thought of a legal document as a possible solution, a cluster of thin parallel lines used as a background pattern to discourage plagiarism of signatures. Based on this idea, why not make the three letters out of strips, or into a series of lines? That satisfies both content and form. Since each letter is different, the parallel lines, which are the same, are the harmonious elements that link the letters together.”

About the UPS logo (1961):

“I do not use humor consciously. I just go that way naturally. A well-known example is my identity for United Parcel Service: to take an escutcheon – a medieval symbol which inevitably seems pompous today – and then stick a package on top of it. That is funny.”

Rand favored imagery to serve as art and message.

“His 1940 Christmas cover for Directions magazine substituted barbed wire for gift wrap ribbon,” says Steven Heller in Design Literacy (1997). “He photographed barbed wire against a white background lit to pick up the shadows. Little red circles made by a hole punch represented spilled blood. The barbed wire was a striking mnemonic for oppression.”


For the Bureau of Indian Affairs


In 1968, the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the U.S. Department of the Interior engaged Rand to design a logo. The bureau’s objectives were to illustrate the economic self-sufficiency of Native Americans and their full participation in American life. He used three elements: the sun denoting a life-giving force and unity; the arrow representing Native American progress, aspiration and optimism, and the star suggesting American, patriotism and hope.


When he was 72, he designed the logo for NeXT, an acquisition of Apple, says Wired. He billed Steve Jobs $100,000. In return, Rand gave Jobs a single finished logo and an intricate report explaining its rationale. His work delighted Jobs.

A logo “cannot survive unless it is designed with the utmost simplicity and restraint,” says Rand.


At the American University in Cairo exhibit


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