What is Design? Note on Poster for Paul Rand

This is from 2013:

This poster has hung on my wall for over fifteen years now. I designed it for Paul Rand’s last public talk just before he passed away, with a link to a Q&A I did with him (unfortunately there’s no video of the lecture) right here.

The thing about putting things in plain sight as a way to remember them … never quite works out as we just tune them out. Rand explained “what is design” many times over with a kind of eloquence that I simply forgot … luckily until now. Or for the moment until I tune the poster out again :-).

Graphic design
which fulfills aesthetic needs
complies with the laws
of form and the exigencies
of two dimensional space;
which speaks in semiotics,
sans-serifs, and geometrics;
which abstracts,
transforms, translates,
rotates, dilates, repeats.
mirrors, groups, and regroups
is not good design if it is

And he adds:

Graphic design
which evokes the symmetry of.
Vitruvius, the dynamic
symmetry of Hambidge, the
asymmetry of Mondrian;
which is a good gestalt,
generated by intuition or by
computer, by invention
or by system of coordinates
is not good design
if it does not communicate.

There’s a lot of art history, basic design, psychology, and mojo in these two little paragraphs. Rand’s core thesis was that visual design had to serve a purpose of communicating — what he emphasized at the end of his first paragraph as: achieving relevance. It’s important to consider how Rand built his career in the 50s and 60s when the idea of professionally drawing pictures could have easily been (and is still often) confused with making art for art’s sake. Because when we consider how today there are many data-oriented approaches to design where the results, or relevance, can be generally proven through focus groups or A/B testing or the likes, Rand operated in an era where his strength of opinion had to count for something.

Rand’s work and attitudes exemplify a classically grounded “big data” approach where art history, ancient and modern philosophy, and the emerging field of human psychology were the data sources he mined — as was exemplified by his massive library that I marveled at … long ago when I visited his studio in Connecticut.

It’s nice to have a piece of paper take you back to a day way back in 1996. I recall designing the poster and being hugely nervous about how Rand would perceive it. I had just shipped him a full-size A1 offset proof, and subsequently received a fax to call him immediately. I was sweating bullets. Rand was 82 at the time and said measuredly and slowly, “The poster has a spelling error in it. It says ‘Hambridge’ but it should read ‘Hambidge’ — but that’s probably because whoever pulled this quote (it was me!) had an older copy of one of my books.” He then said in a harsher tone, “Who designed this poster???”

I sheepishly responded, “Me.”

To which he responded, “This … is a good poster.”

That … was an especially good day for me considering how I was certain to be ripped to shreds. Oh … the sigh of relief that day. And now I finally remember why I keep this poster on my wall as I recall the relevance of that moment to this moment right now. To connect it with my past journey to understand “what is design” as I once remembered it, all the way to what I think it is now … thanks, Paul. And thanks to you for coming along this journey with me. -JM