Food for thought‘[...] do not think that good design can make a poor product good, whether the product be a machine, a building, a promotional brochure or a business man. But [...] good design can materially help make a good product reach its full potential. In short, [...] good design is good business.’
Thomas J. Watson Jr., IBM CEO

Paul Rand: Conversations with Students — Book review

January 2, 2011, 9:52 PM

«Everything is design. Everything!» … «It is important to use your hands, this is what distinguishes you from a cow or a computer operator.»

Starting with bold, very Rand-like quotes, Paul Rand: Conversations with Students, written by Michael Kroeger, is a small book divided in two parts: first, the conversations themselves, from February 1995 (first between Kroeger and Paul, together with his wife Marion, then between Rand and students from the School of Design, Arizona State University) and second, five homages from designers that had the privilege of studying with him closely. The author himself had the privilege of an individual one-week session in Brissago, Switzerland — as did Phillip Burton, Armin Hoffman, Herbert Matter and Wolfgang Weingart (also the book’s Foreword writer).

Probably the best definition: «Design is a relationship between form and content.»

In spite of the shortness of the conversations, Rand’s strong, clear and almost indisputable ideas on design are stated right from the very beginning. Every page — no, each paragraph is a lesson in itself, forcing you to stop and think. Rand’s words are direct, easy to understand, usually followed by practical examples or stories from his own extensive experience, but at the same, their meaning is complex, thought-provoking. His relentless spirit is easily felt as he abruptly stops any waste of precious time, guiding the conversation towards the self-revealing truth — or at least for those who have eyes to see it.

Even though he did not see himself as a great teacher, his dedication to his students is obvious, guiding them, challenging them, trying to take them out of their comfort zone and force them towards the greater meaning of design itself. Talking about computers versus hand-made design, he acknowledges them as “astonishing machines”, yet fears that their speed in doing everything is also their biggest flaw, as “the Quark, [and] all that other stuff, it is very unimportant compared to the problem of understanding what you are doing as a designer”. For him, it is all about the process of design — the preparation (getting an idea, sketching, investigating all the aspects), the incubation (forgetting about the problem, letting it “simmer in your mind”) and the revelation, or illumination (getting the big idea, putting it down and evaluating it) — a process first described by Graham Wallas in Art of Thought, 1926.

Other interesting parts are his opinion on Müller-Brockmann, the ‘father’ of the grid and one of the key figures of The International Typographic Style, who  “falls in that rigid pattern of staying in the grid […] Not everyone can do that.“, or his take on the FedEx logo, [a] problem that is not resolved”.

«But I really think that unless you have read “Art as Experience”, you have not been educated in design.»

As always, Paul Rand mentions books as great teachers: «I always recommend that people read; very few people want to read». He says that «there is no book but Paul Klee’s Pedagogical Sketchbook, but that is very difficult. It is rooted in the Bauhaus.»Art as Experience” by John Dewey, Van Doren’s “A History of Knowledge” or Armin Hoffman’s “Graphic Design Manual (Principles and Practice)” are also among his recommendations. An avid book lover & collector, Rand had many of Jan Tschichold’s books, as you can read on James Phillips Williams’ blog, A Special Specimen — he was one of his close students as well. Rand’s extensive library was donated to Yale University after he passed away in 1996 (unfortunately, they thought some books were ‘less worthy’ than others and sold them — lucky guys stumble upon Rand-signed ones every now and then). You can read more about this on Design Observer’s Paul Rand: Bibliography as Biography, by William Drenttel.

Another fun story from Mr. Rand is the one about his logo presentation for Steve Jobs, CEO of NeXT at that time. At the end of it, Steve just got up and asked: “Can I hug you?” with a large smile on his face (you can also watch this interview of Steve taking about his experience with Paul Rand).

«Now this FedEx problem that is not resolved—so what s wrong with it?»"

The second part of the book contains “Thoughts on Paul Rand”, written by Phillip Burton, Steff Geissbuhler, Jessica Helfand, Armin Hoffman, Gordon Salchow — all knew Paul personally, either as students or collaborators. Phillip Burton remembers Paul as compassionate, mentioning his “Design and the Play Instinct“, published in Education of Vision (1965). Jessica Helfand’s story can be read on the Design Observer: Remembering Paul Rand. I especially enjoyed Steff Geissbuhler’s part — while he was partner at Chermayeff & Geismar (he now helms C&G Partners), he designed signage for IBM and had a quite fun encounter with Paul. He also remembers that “Rand had a great disdain for Pop Art and never acknowledged it as being a part of art or design history”— that made me grin, as I too think that the more recent, the more art is just contextual and less of any value in itself.

Jessica Helfand about Paul Rand.

The book ends with an extensive bibliography, books that Rand himself would’ve recommended, set in seven categories: Typography, Graphic Design, Graphic Design History, Graphic Design Production, Fine Arts / History, Information Theory / Philosophy / Critical Writings and Architecture.

Paul Rand referring to "A History of Knowledge" by Charles Van Doren.

Don’t be fooled by its small size, Paul Rand: Conversations with Students is a wonderful, inspiring book and a must-have for any serious designer, even if not a big fan of Paul Rand. It’s worth the measly price even if just for the back cover quote (should be read during any design project):

«Design is the manipulation of form and content… Content is the idea, or the subject matter. Form is what you do with this idea. How do I deal with it? Do I use color? Do I use black and white? Do I make it big? Do I make it small? Do I make it three-dimensional or two-dimensional? Do I use trendy stuff, or do I use more serious stuff? Do I use Bodoni or do I use Baskerville? These are all the questions you ask. This is part of the manipulative aspect of design.» — Paul Rand

The book is beautifully set in Akzidenz Grotesk, with Bodoni here and there — classic typefaces that Rand himself used a lot throughout his career. The whole book is printed in a duotone manner (blue and red), with the strong-contrast yellow cover. Another interesting thing is the two-column layout for the interviews, a newspaper-like approach meant to emphasise the idea of dialogue.

Title: Paul Rand: Conversations with Students
Author: Michael Kroeger
No. of pages: 94
Publisher: Princeton Architectural Press (1 April 2008)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1568987250
ISBN-13: 978-1568987255

Amazon US (cheapest) or Amazon UK (fast shipping if you’re in EU). I’d recommend The Book Depository from UK for their fast, free delivery worldwide. You could also search for a used copy on Alibris.

A Designer’s Art, by Paul Rand;
Lascaux to Brooklyn, by Paul Rand;
Paul Rand, by Steven Heller.





Like any book written on or by Paul Rand :)


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