Paul Rand

A spotlight on the iconic work of Paul Rand; the ‘father of the modern graphic design industry’.

Paul Rand in front of his 1950 movie poster for “No Way Out”
Paul Rand in front of his 1950 movie poster for “No Way Out”

In graphic design, there are few names as revered as that of Paul Rand. He is often called the “father of the modern design industry” and with a career spanning more than six decades, he was instrumental in revolutionising the field of visual communications and corporate identity, perhaps more than any other graphic designer in history.

Rand pioneered a visionary approach to design and with a keen eye for simplicity, style and iconic ideas, he left an indelible mark and an enduring legacy for how we think about communication and design. His work helped to transform graphic design from an arts based craft into the powerful corporate communications tool we see today. Throughout his career, Rand created a vast portfolio of groundbreaking work, demonstrating a unique ability to distill complex ideas into powerful and evocative images which set him apart from his contemporaries and set the stage for how we work today.

Everything is design. Everything!

The early years

Paul Rand was born Peretz Rosenbaum on 15 August, 1914, in Brooklyn, New York. He was the son of Itzhak Yehuda Rosenbaum, a grocer, and Leah Rosenbaum who were émigrés from Poland. From a very young age Rand displayed an early passion for art and design, often drawing and painting in his spare time.

In 1930, Rand convinced his father to give him $25 so he could enrol in night classes at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn where he could develop his artistic skills. In 1932, after receiving his high school degree and a certificate from Pratt he enrolled in the Parsons School of Design in Manhattan where he studied under leading designers including George Grosz and the renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright. It was around this time he changed his name to Paul Rand to eliminate confusion and misspellings of his given name. He immersed himself in the principles of design, developing his skills and learning to communicate his ideas effectively through visual means.

The commercial artist

His career began in 1932 as an assistant designer at the small firm of George Switzer where he created lettering and packaging design for clients such as the Squibb Pharmaceutical Company. Leaving Switzer in 1935 he decided to launch his own design studio in Manhattan so he could be free to explore his personal approach to design. Then in 1937 at the age of 23 he was hired by Apparel Arts Magazine to create covers and editorial spreads. This assignment quickly brought him to the attention of the magazine’s parent company, Esquire-Coronet where he designed many iconic covers and editorial spreads.

A selection of Rand’s earlier advertising work
A selection of Rand’s earlier advertising work

Visionary style

Rand was at the forefront of a ‘new wave’ marked by straightforward, provocative design. Rand brought his own personal vision and style to these publications, pioneering an approach built on what he called ‘dynamic equilibrium’ often using collage and montage in his work to convey concepts. Rand believed design should be both aesthetically pleasing and functionally effective, communicating a clear message and idea to the audience.

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

His early influences included the European modernist art movements, such as cubism, constructivism, the Bauhaus and Swiss Style (also known as the International Typographic Style), which emphasised simplicity, functionality, and the use of geometric shapes combined with modern typography. He developed a unique style which blended these modernist principles with wit and a profoundly human touch.

He found inspiration in European design magazines, such as the German language Gebrauchsgraphik and was a great admirer of the work of European artist Paul Klee whose use of colour, symbols, and iconography Rand grafted into his own work. He dispensed with the traditional, narrative driven design of his contemporaries, which relied heavily on graphic gimmicks; such as bullet points, arrows, dingbats, ornate initials and superficial ornamentation. Instead, he preferred bold, concise typography and his work was frequently cited as “what’s new” by the Type Director’s Club of New York amongst others.

Rand’s classic 1940s Christmas cover for Direction magazine
Rand’s classic 1940s Christmas cover for Direction magazine

One might argue that Rand found his graphic voice in the early 1940s, designing iconic covers and editorial layouts for Direction, an arts and culture magazine. His work was striking, but one December cover in particular stood out. It was the early years of World War II and he depicted a photograph of a barbed wire cross (suggesting a gift ribbon), set against a plain background speckled with red spots resembling drops of blood. A simple gift-tag wished readers a “Merry Christmas” written in Rand’s casual, yet distinctive handwriting.

Direction art and culture magazine covers by Paul Rand
Direction magazine covers by Paul Rand

Advertising and art direction

In 1941 William H. Weintraub (a partner at Esquire-Coronet) founded William H. Weintraub Advertising. Rand became its Art Director (a title which he disliked) working with Bill Bernbach (who later formed the famous advertising agency Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB). Rand created distinctive adverts for clients including Dubonnet, Lee Hats, Disney Hats, El-Producto cigars, Kaiser-Frazer cars and Orbach’s department store.

Paul Rand’s playful designs for Orbach’s Department Store
Rand’s playful designs for Orbach’s

His work for Orbach’s displayed a playful, witty charm through the conversion of familiar objects into unexpected and commanding symbols. To keep his restless superstar on his staff, Weintraub agreed to let Rand work three days a week so that he could freelance, illustrate and design book covers for Knopf and other publishing houses.

A pioneer of corporate identity

Design is the silent ambassador of your brand. Good design is good business.

As a freelance designer through the late 1950s and 1960s he attracted showcase clients such as UPS, IBM, Westinghouse, the ABC television network, and Cummins Engine, amongst others. In this fruitful period he created some of his most enduring and memorable work. One of the most remarkable and enduring things about his logos is just how fresh they appear today, in some cases decades after they were launched. For example, his 1945 logo for Alfred A. Knopf, an American publishing house appears as if it could have been designed yesterday.

A selection of logos designed by Paul Rand
A selection of logos designed by Paul Rand

Rand’s logos have provided inspiration to many designers and (whether intentionally or not) his influence can be seen throughout the landscape of modern design — just look at the similarity of the Google logo to Rand’s 1993 Gentry Living Colour logo.

A coincidence, probably, but often a designer’s mind unconsciously ‘stores’ away things we have seen, and when we are solving design challenges they can be regurgitated into the work without our knowing.

Did Paul Rand’s work influence the Google branding? Paul Rand’s logo for Gentry Living Colour in 1993 has a striking resemblance to that of Google in 2015.
Did Paul Rand’s work influence the Google branding?


The iconic nature of Rand’s work is perfectly illustrated with his 1956 trademark design for IBM which has been considered a seminal influence on the evolution of corporate communications. Under Rand’s direction the company’s logo moved away from the slab serif block letters to the familiar striped IBM letters with Rand extending and coordinating the idea through worldwide implementation of the design.

Paul Rand had a long association with IBM designing across the entire organisation
Rand had a long association with IBM designing across the entire organisation


It was Rand’s design for UPS in 1961 which put the three letters inside a shield motif topped by a rectangular package tied with a string. It is probably the best example of Rand’s ability to distill the essence of an amorphous, sprawling corporation into a strong, memorable, unique, disarmingly simple graphic.

The parcel may seem an obvious symbol, but when one considers equivalent logos in the industry (e.g. the US Postal Service heraldic eagle) it offers a deeply human touch. The little bow tied on the string serves to emphasise this quality. Rand also had unorthodox methods for testing his designs, such as asked for the opinion of his eight-year old daughter. According to Rand: “when I did UPS… I said, ‘Catherine, what’s this?’ and she said, ‘That’s a present, Daddy’ – which was perfect. You couldn’t have rehearsed it any better.”

The UPS logo, with application and rough concepts
The UPS logo, with application and rough concepts

Whilst elements of Rand’s logo remain in use today (the shield, colour palette, sans serif font), the parcel and string device was replaced by a generic swoosh created by Future Brand in 2003. It is easy to understand the move to reflect the changing nature of the business, which embraced financial services and supply chain management. UPS noted that for several decades they had rejected parcels tied up with string as they jammed the sorting machines. Research would have indicated too that parcels tied up with string were “old fashioned” and inappropriate for the business, with strategy dictating that UPS had to appear more “dynamic”.

It could be argued that by removing this symbol, UPS lost something important – a charming sense of nostalgia and simplicity which conveyed a human touch. Considering the reverence for the work of Rand the change (predictably) provoked much controversy and negativity. The debate proved the strong emotional bond that people have to trademarks and Rand’s work in particular. When launching the 2003 rebrand, the speech given by UPS chairman Mike Eskew was more akin to an eulogy: “The time has come to move on. After more than 40 years of honourable service, it’s time for this old friend to retire with the grace and dignity it deserves. So, today, we’re saying goodbye. But unlike most goodbyes, this is not an ending. Rather, this is a new beginning.”

Perhaps, in the next iteration of the logo UPS may return to this equity in some more appropriate fashion which considers both the past and the future of UPS

Paul Rand’s 1961 UPS logo alongside Future Brand’s updated version in 2003
Paul Rand’s 1961 UPS logo alongside Future Brand’s updated version in 2003


Rand’s work frequently went far beyond the confines of a mere logo. Rand was amongst the first designers to propose that an abstract and universal language created around a logo could support a company’s growth and could even restore a bad image. But many of the business leaders he addressed did not always understand, or thought that a new logo by itself would be enough to make people change their minds about a company. Rand would point out, “the trademark is created by the graphic designer, but it is the company that makes it”. A good brand image does not stand alone! It was Rand’s approach to developing a broader brand expression has given the world of graphic design far more credibility and the founding principles on which most modern corporate identities are now created.

The trademark is created by the graphic designer, but it is the company that makes it.

Rand was not afraid to challenge conventions and this can clearly be seen in his work for Westinghouse. The logo, designed in 1959 neatly embodies the idea of a harmonious integration of technology and power to suggest innovation. The logo icon is used (for the most part) independently of a word mark (a revolutionary approach, even today).

This suggests Rand’s confidence and belief and that of Westinghouse in the power of his symbols. The icon is clean, symmetrical and balanced. It features an underlined “W” made up of intersecting lines and circular “nodes” which convey a ‘flow of connective energy’. Rand designed the logo to have ‘built in flexibility’ and could be purposely deconstructed in playful and dynamic expressions. In many respects Rand’s Westinghouse identity can be viewed as a precursor (and perhaps an inspiration) to the brand identities we see brought to life today and visualised with motion graphics.

Paul Rand’s Westinghouse logo broke the rule book, shown with rough sketches and a deconstructed poster design
Paul Rand’s Westinghouse logo broke the rule book
Westinghouse Annual Reports and printed material by Paul Rand
Westinghouse Annual Reports and printed material by Paul Rand

His legacy and influence

Paul Rand’s legacy can be seen throughout the world of graphic design. His work laid the foundational principles on which modern design operates today. An avid champion of big ideas, which would not only be aesthetically pleasing but would solve problems and communicate effectively, Rand’s work has become synonymous with effective branding and communication. The approach he developed, known as “functional minimalism” continues to guide designers to this day and his influence can be seen in the work of countless companies and creatives.

However, the impact of Paul Rand’s work extends far beyond graphic design.

Paul Rand, Steve Jobs and NeXT

Steve Jobs (the famous co-founder of Apple) was heavily influenced by Rand’s design philosophy when he first encountered his work in a copy of Rand’s book, “Thoughts on Design” in the early 1980s. Jobs was captivated by Rand’s principles outlining the power of simple and elegant design to communicate a brand’s essence.

He was one of the most thoughtful people I have ever met.
Paul Rand and Steve Jobs pictured alongside the NeXT identity
Paul Rand and Steve Jobs pictured alongside the NeXT identity

When Jobs was forced out of Apple, he sought Rand’s expertise to create an identity for his new venture, NeXT which would produce next generation workstations intended for higher education and business. After many decades of work as a creative, Rand had very clear ‘conclusions’ about how the relationship between client and designer should be conducted. On meeting Rand, Jobs recalls the conversation:

I asked him if he would come up with a few options, and he said, “No, I will solve your problem and you will pay me. You don’t have to use the solution! If you want options, go talk to other people!”

Though taken aback, it is clear Jobs came to respect Rand and rely on his creative decisions, speaking of his process as having a “clarity that was refreshing”. Rand’s minimalistic design captured Jobs’ imagination and even though NeXT did not succeed as a business, it got noticed and was acquired by Apple in 1997 which paved the way for Jobs to return to the helm of the company he co-founded.

The experience of working with Rand had a profound impact on Jobs, who stated, “He was one of the most thoughtful people I have ever met”. It is hard not to wonder if this experience stayed with Jobs and the role it may have played in influencing the trajectory of one of the most influential companies in history.

What we do know is that Jobs recognised great talent when he saw it and he had a deep appreciation for graphic design and typography. Shortly before Rand’s death in 1996 Jobs called him “the greatest living graphic designer”.

The impact Rand had on Jobs only serves to solidify Paul Rand as a design luminary and deserving of the title “the father of the modern design industry”. His enduring legacy serves as a testament to the power of design and its ability to shape the world we live in today. In 1941 the famous Bauhaus designer Laszlo Moholy Nagy wrote in PM magazine, “Among… young Americans it seems to me that Paul Rand is one of the best and most capable… He is an idealist and a realist, using the language of the poet and the business man. He thinks in terms of need and function. He is able to analyse his problems but his fantasy is boundless.”

Don’t try to be original, just try to be good.
Book cover designs by Rand display characteristic use of type and colour
Book cover designs by Rand display characteristic use of type and colour

A distinctive signature

Paul Rand’s work played an enormous role in helping to change the landscape of business in America. He was a key player in the post-war economic transition throughout the 1940s and 50s, and his work (alongside others) created an air of opportunity and creativity which put America centre stage when it came to design. Perhaps, this is why (as early as 1936) he included his signature to almost everything he created. He remains one of the few graphic designers who has ever done so. His reasons for doing this are unclear, however we suspect he wished to elevate his designs beyond the confines of corporate communications and be considered as works of art. Whatever his reason, it certainly suggests his artistic authority and confidence with creative decision-making to a client.

Paul Rand’s distinctive signature features across much of his work
Paul Rand’s distinctive signature features across much of his work

Further reading

Paul Rand has been a tremendous influence on the work we do at Propella and we encourage you to explore his work further. You will find many books and articles about Rand and his work, but some of the best are written in his own words. These are our top three:

"Thoughts on Design" by Paul Rand. Foreword by Michael Bierut

At the height of his career, Rand articulated his pioneering vision that all design should seamlessly integrate form and function. As relevant today as it was when first published, this classic essay is an indispensable addition to the library of every designer.

“Paul Rand” by Steven Heller

This great book by Steven Heller chronicles the career of Paul Rand and is illustrated beautifully with his work throughout.

"Paul Rand: A Designer’s Art” by Paul Rand

A provocative and enlightening read, perfect design students, teachers, professional designers, or anyone interested in the creative communication of ideas.

Online resources

A quick search on Google will reveal many websites and images which also explore the life and work of Paul Rand.

Paul Rand 1914-1996

Paul Rand on Wikipedia

Paul Rand on Graphéine

Photographic portrait of Paul Rand in his design studio
Paul Rand 1914-1996

Thank you!

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