By Randy Golden
When I joined IBM’s corporate design department in 1992, I drew a dream assignment: to be the liaison with Paul Rand, the renowned graphic designer and IBM consultant. But before I started with him, I faced a high hurdle: he had to sign off on me getting the job.
So I was understandably nervous when I showed up at his home studio for our initial meeting–partly because he had asked to review my own design portfolio. Fortunately, he liked what I showed him. He even gave me a couple of pointers. Then he said: “Let’s go to lunch.”
Thus began a two-year assignment that shaped my professional career even while Rand reshaped IBM’s design practice. Paul had not only created much of the graphic design that had uniquely presented the IBM brand, including the logo, but he also created and taught a unique philosophy of corporate design that allowed for a range of creative expression presented in a system of consistent quality.
Paul’s genius is on display right now at the Museum of the City of New York, in an outstanding show: Everything is Design: The Work of Paul Rand. The show runs through July 19. I attended the opening reception and was impressed with the wide range of standout Rand material–from his days in the ad industry; to his work for brands such as IBM, Westinghouse and ABC; to his books on design. I have studied much of Paul’s work from books, but to see so many actual samples of originals in such a complete exhibit is incredibly powerful.
IBM’s commitment to superior design goes back to the 1950s, when Thomas J. Watson Jr. took over as CEO. He believed that “good design is good business” and hired architect and former museum curator Eliot Noyes to completely overhaul IBM’s approach to design and architecture. The idea was that IBM would embody the principles of modernism and progressivism in the face it showed to the world. Noyes engaged with some of the leading designers and architects of the day, including Rand, designers Ray and Charles Eames and architect Eero Saarinen.
IBM’s intense interest in design continues today. IBM Design, with more than 20 design studios around the world, applies the principles of IBM Design Thinking, which takes a rapid prototyping approach to user-centric product and experience development, as well as IBM Design Language, a framework to inspire bold and engaging experiences.
When I worked directly with Rand, he was in the final two years of his decades-long association with the company. He had already designed a wide range of materials for IBM, such as packaging, posters, annual reports and logos, including the iconic 8-bar design that remains the brand standard-bearer today.
Working with him was an intensely interactive process. At the time, IBM was planning on spinning off several subsidiary companies. Paul designed logos for some of the new organizations. Unlike a lot of other designers, Paul would only provide one design alternative for each organization, which we would review with the new subsidiary leaders. Often, he was frustrated with their feedback–especially when they would tell him what they liked about the designs, “They did not hire me to give them something they like, they hired me to give them something that works,” he told me more than once. It was my job to understand more deeply what the business leaders were looking for so I could convince Paul to make the needed adjustments to his original design recommendation.
The highlight of my time with Paul came in November of 1992, when he invited me to join him and his wife, Marion, on a trip to Japan. He was to be honored with a one-man show, sponsored by IBM, at the ggg Gallery in Tokyo. While there, Paul conducted a wonderful design review at IBM Japan headquarters. He had a great appreciation for traditional Japanese design and how it could be applied to modern graphic design. While there I had the opportunity to meet many of the great Japanese graphic designers of that time, including Yusaku Kamekura, Shigeo Fukuda, Ikko Tanaka and others.
During that same time period, Paul was writing one of his books, Design, Form and Chaos. I would drive to his house regularly to review his work for IBM, but, typically, when we were done with that, he’d pull out the latest pages of his manuscript and ask me to read them. Then he’d question me to make sure his messages were getting across. When I understood, I was “one smart guy,” but when I didn’t, I was “an idiot.” He’d go into his library bring out a rare book on design and tell me to read it and get educated. He’d then say, “Let’s go to lunch.”
I took no offense at his gruff style. Paul loved to teach, so it felt like I was receiving a master’s degree in design from the master himself.
Now, not a day goes by that I don’t think about something Paul said or wrote about design. And although his brand of mid-century modern design went out of style for a number of years, it seems now that young designers have rediscovered the beauty, simplicity and functional genius of Paul’s work. It’s a treat to talk with them about Paul and see the influence he is having on a new generation of designers. Paul’s legacy proves the adage that great design is timeless.