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Paul Rand at Yale University, where he taught.

Paul Rand at Yale University, where he taught.

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 opens today and runs through July 19. I attended the opening reception last evening 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 8-bar logo

Paul Rand: IBM’s 8-bar logo

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.

Paul Rand's design for IBM paper packaging

Paul Rand: IBM paper brochure

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.

Paul Rand: Idea: International Advertising Art magazine, Volume 2, 1955/ Private Collection

Paul Rand: Idea: International Advertising Art magazine, Volume 2, 1955/ Private Collection

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, “Lets 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.

Randy Golden,  Independent Brand and Design Consultant

Randy Golden, Independent Brand and Design Consultant

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.

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July 26, 2016
3:47 am

IBM had great financial downturns during that year. They are lucky the investors kept their money there.

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Posted by: baraut baghpat
June 3, 2015
11:28 pm

Not everybody is fortunate to have learned, interacted and worked with a master directly.

You are fortunate and am sure, I will, someday read Paul’s books.

Posted by: David Straus
March 25, 2015
10:02 am

Very informative and personalized story, Randy. Thanks for sharing.

Posted by: Will Runyon
March 25, 2015
9:06 am

Nice Article, good information and thought process for IBMer. Statement is so true today’s word also:
“They did not hire me to give them something they like, they hired me to give them something that works,”

Posted by: Ravi
March 24, 2015
4:35 pm

I saw, with two IBM friends, what I suspect is a similar exhibit of Paul Rand’s work for IBM at the Museum of Design Atlanta early last year. It was fascinating to see the concept evolve to the finished design, the photographs, video clips and more. Based on packaging and other things on display, it’s clear he had a huge impact on IBM design. I would recommend the exhibit for those in NY with a design or marketing interest. More info on Atlanta exhibit:

Posted by: Elaine Pelaia
March 24, 2015
3:26 pm

I was fortunate enough to have met Paul Rand. I was only 6 months into my career with IBM, as a product planner for our diskette product line. He was designing our various diskette retail packaging options. Very much an honor to meet such a visionary. And I totally agree with Randy….you never said you didn’t like his work!

Posted by: Donnie Haye
March 24, 2015
8:49 am

Inspite of being with IBM more than a decade, I learn something new everyday about IBM. Interesting article.Thanks for sharing Steve.

Posted by: Sudhakar
March 24, 2015
8:10 am

Many thanks for this article which inspired me to learn more about Mr Rand. Finally buying one of the books written and designed by Mrs and Mr Rand.

Posted by: Markus Spieth
March 23, 2015
3:45 pm

This is a great story! I always appreciate great design, I felt like I am reading/watching on PBS

Posted by: Maggie Lee
March 23, 2015
10:46 am

Very interesting. Thank you for posting.

Posted by: Marcos D. Alves
March 23, 2015
9:29 am

Randy, I really enjoyed your piece on Paul Rand! His creativity and design direction for business set a standard that still stands today. I also recall meetings with Paul at his home studio in the early 90′s, for his critique of the IBM Credit Corp Annual Report, a project I managed at the time. I remember leaving those sessions feeling enlightened and a bit embarrassed that I hadn’t thought of making the common sense design changes he recommended during those critiques.

Posted by: John Woloson
March 22, 2015
3:45 pm

Thanks Randy for posting this, it’s very interesting.

Posted by: Dan Edwards
March 22, 2015
10:04 am

Such a beautifully-written article and video. Thank you for sharing your personal account. As a fan of mid-century modern design, it’s great to see that IBM has embodied much of its core principles, and that younger designers are acquiring a renewed appreciation for it.

Posted by: Sri Chawla
March 20, 2015
8:38 pm

So inspirational! As an IBM designer myself this gives me a lot of motivation and I look forward to learning more about Rand and his design that has defined and changed the IBM brand we know. Also very inspired to go to Japan and learn about their design principles and culture there!

Posted by: Camille Nicodemus
March 20, 2015
3:20 pm

enjoyed the article & video very much…thanks for posting

Posted by: Julie Ruston
March 20, 2015
11:07 am

“Two thumbs up” on the video.
The ability to put so much intellect into designs that appear whimsical is a science, and Paul Rand showed the mastery of his trade in his IBM work. Who’d have thought that the “eye” would convey our insight, the “bee” conveys our industrious nature, and the traditional M links it all back to the solid corporation? But…deep down, it has that effect…all the while, seeming like a simple, whimsical, play on the letters. Incredible creativity and intellect.

Posted by: Jeff Yolleck
March 20, 2015
5:55 am

Very precise connotation of graphic designing !

Posted by: Divya
March 20, 2015
2:39 am

Amazing to learn about the source of IBM Designs!!

Posted by: Bhawna Bhatia
March 19, 2015
6:17 pm

Good information. Now I will remember for long time the number of bars in IBM logo.

Posted by: Ravinder Singh
March 19, 2015
4:51 pm

Thanks for the interesting story Randy.

Posted by: Michael Reiter
March 19, 2015
9:02 am

My husband (a Graphic Designer and Professor of Graphic Design) had the honor of studying under Paul Rand at Yale University. He tells many stories of the students’ apprehension prior to their critiques with Paul. But, to a person, they grew immensely as designers thanks to Paul’s vision and method of challenging them. I had the privilege of meeting Paul and his wife during my husband’s Yale Master’s Program and cherish the signed rebus IBM poster from Paul. I’ll be certain to see the retrospective of Paul Rand’s work in NYC.

Posted by: Anne Sheridan
March 19, 2015
12:26 am

Not everybody is fortunate to have learned, interacted and worked with a master directly.

You are fortunate and am sure, I will, someday read Paul’s books. It was a very personal and very well-written article.

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