by Art Chantry ( email@example.com)
i have extremely mixed feelings about the life and work and importance of paul rand. in the ‘fine’ graphic design world, he has been elevated to enormously lofty status. he’s often seriously referred to as ‘saint paul.’ he’s credited with being the sole graphic designer to bring modernism to america, the man who invented corporate graphics, the great moral philosopher to first put an organized tome of modern design thought and social responsibility into print, the man that every single graphic designer in america has been (supposedly) copying for over half a decade. he’s considered that primal, that influential and that godly. in fact, in one of his very last interviews, he even referred to himself as ‘god.’ no kidding.
being an instinctive iconoclast (i was raised without trust in all things i’m told to trust), i have always immediately knee-jerk reacted to paul rand as an overblown bloated fantasy trip of weak merit, a career of BS and hubris that falls apart upon deeper inspection. at least that’s the way i’ve always looked at his work.
to push my position a little further, to claim he brought modernism to america is to ignore such lofty careers a full generation his senior such as european immigrant alexy brodovitch or even the thoroughly american born lester beall. there were many graphic designers practicing modernist ideas in their work for decades before paul rand popped up. so, i always thought of him as the ‘young whippersnapper’ who showed up copycatting his competition and getting all the fame and glory. it’s a classic path to graphic design immortality. our design history if cram full of very short attention spans and a deep hesitance to research facts.
then there’s rand’s blowhard pontificating on the ideals and ‘art’ of graphic design. when i checked him out, i found him an unbearably bloated read full of arrogant self-aggrandizement and lofty artistic (and inappropriate) ideals with no real application. this isn’t art, it’s design. never confuse doctors with dentists. rand would often wax poetic on and on about the ‘inviolate’ sacrosanct importance of staying true to the design truth of (say) a logo design. then on the opposite page of that ‘absolute’ rule set in concrete, rand broke up one of his famous logos into tiny little decorative chunks to design with, like it meant nothing but tinkertoys. he would contradict himself in these really short-sighted ways everywhere in his writings.
as to the notion that he invented modern corporate graphics also puts the lie to the entire careers of people like bradbury thompson and william golden and george nelson and (again) lester beall, like they weren’t even there pioneering the corporate look independently before rand. the mythology has paul rand (the ‘young turk’) stepping up and singlehandedly bringing all the wisdom of good design to corporate america through sheer force of will and chutzpah. but, again, he was copycatting his contemporaries. he was a late comer there, as well. the one thing that rand may have actually pioneered in the realm of corporate design is the ‘sell-out’ of the socialist vision of modern design thought to corporate interest (and profit). prior to him, the idea of abstract modern ideas in contemporary design language was still primarily the province of ‘the people’. i do credit paul rand with almost single-handedly making modernist design the american corporate decorative style – the ‘patsy’ design style of corporate ambition. he empowered american corporations with the camouphlage of the ‘people’s design language’ like no one ever had before. and he talked like this was a GOOD thing. and we all believed him. …