My Paul Rand Interview
May 23, 1996; The University of Michigan
May 23, 1996; The University of Michigan
On May 23, 1996, I had the opportunity to interview Paul Rand for my spring semester class, 'The Business of Being an Artist', at the University of Michigan. The following content showcases this important interview with Paul Rand, an iconic and legendary graphic designer and professor. He created compelling corporate identity graphic design logo work for many great American corporations and companies over the years. Mr. Rand was very kind to spend some time with me over the phone for the interview (which I also recorded). I learned more from him in that 15 minutes than any graphic design class could have taught me about graphic design back in the day. Sadly, later that year on November 26, 1996, he passed away. He will be missed by many around the world.
Paul Rand was known to many as the 'father of graphic design'. Since 1965, he had been a consultant to IBM, Cummins Engine Company, and for many years, Westinghouse Electric Corporation. Since 1956, he taught at the Yale University School of Art, where he was the leading professor in graphic design. His works have earned him innumerable awards, and he published and designed books on graphic design: Thoughts on Design, Design Form and Chaos, and From Lascaux to Brooklyn, which was his most recent book. Paul Rand also designed the IBM, UPS, ABC, Cummins Engine Company, Westinghouse Electric Corporation, NeXT Computer, and Morningstar logos, as well as designed stunning work for Direction Magazine and Weintraub Advertising. You can read more about Paul Rand here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Rand
The most notable of his later works was his collaboration with Steve Jobs for the NeXT Computer corporate identity; Rand's simple black box breaks the company name into two lines, producing a visual harmony that endeared the logogram to Jobs. Jobs was pleased; just prior to Rand's death in 1996, his former client labeled him 'the greatest living graphic designer'. Here is an interview with Steve Jobs on Paul Rand's corporate identity logo design for Steve's company, NeXT – 1993: https://youtu.be/qw7VrZSAUEU
Here is my interview with Paul Rand from May 23, 1996:
William: "My first question is: Where did you go to school for formal training?"
Rand: Pratt Institute of Brooklyn, Art Students League in New York, the Parsons School of Design in New York.
William: "Did you feel that your art school training prepared you for the real world?"
William: "No? In what way?"
Rand: It just didn't.
William: Laughs. "Well, why didn't it though? Was it —"
Rand: Well, they didn't teach anything. You just went in, made drawings of nudes, that was it. No theories, no discussions, NOTHING.
William: "Ok. Ummm..."
Rand: Not much different from what's going on now.
William: "Uh-huh. Ok."
Rand: Now they have a lot of theories, but they're all wrong.
Rand: Well, most of them at least. Basically it takes great prestige to teach...
Rand: ...You should always be prepared.
William: "What was your first job like as a graphic designer?"
Rand: Worked at a newspaper. Made drawings, lettering, illustrations, re-touched photography, everything.
William: "How much input do you allow a client to have when working?"
Rand: I allow as much as I can. If it's bad, I don't allow anything.
William: "Do you pretty much do what you want to do?"
Rand: Well, I do what's necessary.
William: "Do you have any mentors (designers that you respect or respected when you were young?)"
William: "Who would that be?"
Rand: Mostly Europeans. You wouldn't know the names. Do you want the names?
Rand: That way you could find out who these people are.
William: "Yeah, I could do it."
Rand: Hadnak, H-A-D-N-A-K. Defke, D-E-F-K-E. Sahlau, S-A-H-L-A-U...
Rand: That's it. Many others. Of course the ol' Bauhaus.
William: "Yeah, the Bauhaus." "What in your opinion, is the best logo today?"
Rand: I couldn't tell you that. The question...is much too...much too broad...There is no such thing as one best ANYTHING. There's a thing that's best for certain reasons, but not just everything. Right?
William: "Yes." "If you were to pick a really good logo, what would you pick as being a good logo? Something — easily recognizable?"
Rand: Oh I guess CBS. William: "Ok." Rand: That's a good logo isn't it?
William: "Yeah. I think so too." "What was it like working for Weintraub advertising in the 1940s and early '50s?"
Rand: Well, it was tough, but I was the chief art director, though. I wrote my own tickets as far as I could do.
Rand: Do you understand?
Rand: I did what I thought was right, and if they didn't let me do what I thought was right, I'd quit.
William: Laughs. "I like that attitude."
Rand: Well, what other attitude is there?
William: "That's a pretty good one, I have to admit." "How did you become involved with IBM?"
Rand: They called me in.
William: "Did they know of your work?"
Rand: Obviously. If they didn't know of my work, how would they call me in?
William: "Yeah. That's true." Laughs. "How do you feel about Andy Warhol, and how he used corporate identity (such as the Campbell's Soup logo) as fine art?"
Rand: ...Seems like a totally different question...
William: "Yeah. This is a question that I threw in."
Rand: ...Well Andy Warhol I knew long before he was famous. He was a very good illustrator, very good designer. He did beautiful work. He did much better work when he was an art designer than a 'so-called' painter.
William: "Who do you think is doing the best work today in graphic design?"
Rand: No response to that...
William: "No response?"
Rand: It just goes to say who is the 'best in WHAT?' There's no such thing as anybody doing the best. You know, a guy is very good at this or at that, or at dancing, or singing; but he's not good at everything. If not good at dancing or singing, he's good at playing the trombone. Right?
William: "Right." Laughs.
Rand: You like that answer?
William: "Yeah. I do."
Rand: Especially the trombone part...
William: "Yeah." "Do you feel like there is a city that the best work is being done in, or the same answer?"
Rand: Well...I guess New York City. Certainly not California or anything western.
William: "These next questions have to do with integrity..." "Have you ever been put into a position as a designer when you felt your integrity was on the line?"
Rand: I don't really have anything to say about that, because if I was aware of it, I would remember it.
William: "Do you feel that there is a high level of integrity demonstrated in graphic design?"
Rand: Either it's integrity or not integrity. I don't think that there are levels of integrity. Integrity is integrity. Integrity means doing the right thing honestly without any nonsense.
William: "Do you think a lot of graphic designers do that?"
Rand: Some do. I don't know. I know a few...
William: "What are the most common weaknesses you see in young graphic designers today?"
Rand: Well, they're not educated. They're not informed.
William: "Not informed about...?"
Rand: About society. About art. Tell 'em to read my book. William: "Design, Form and Chaos, or...?"
Rand: No. My new one (From Lascaux to Brooklyn).
William: "Oh. I looked that over; it's a really good book. I like that."
Rand: It makes life much more easier because you understand. It doesn't make you any better, but it gives you an idea of what you're doing. You understand?
Rand: It tells you the difference between form and content. There's a big difference between form and content, and not many people know the difference; and I think it is necessary to know the difference. Most things that you look at are the product of form, not of content. In other words, the things that you see have to do with appearance. Appearance is form, and it's form that manipulates content. For example, if you decide to wear a blue suit instead of a white suit, you have content but you also have the choice of making it blue or white, which is a big difference. So form is very important. You can't say that form is form more so than content... because... because you can't have form without content. On the other hand, in a certain sense form is more important, because if you take two people with the same jobs, with the same content, one does a very good job and the other one does a lousy job. So, form is more important to have than content. You understand?
Rand: You do?
William: "Yeah. Is that pretty much —"
Rand: So read my book.
William: "Ok, I will definitely. It's pretty expensive, though. It's forty-five dollars."
Rand: Yeah, I know. It's a hell of a lot more expensive for me to do it.
William: Laughs. "What have you not yet accomplished as a designer that you would like to?"
Rand: What have I not accomplished?
William: "I know that you've accomplished lots, but besides..."
Rand: Well, the sky is the limit. Right? That's what I've not accomplished... the sky.
William: "Are there any more goals that you would like to set for yourself?"
Rand: No. I just do whatever I feel like doing. If I feel like doing another book, I'll just do it. I don't have any goals.
William: "What is the entry-level pay for graphic designers today?"
Rand: You'd probably know better than I do.
Rand: That's one of the problems. Money is not the goal, money is the reward. There's a big difference. Right?
William: "Yeah, I agree." Rand: In other words, if you're just interested in making money, STOP asking me questions.
William: "No —"
Rand: ...Because I can't tell you how.
William: "My next question is: What doesn't art school teach that it should be teaching?"
Rand: Well, most teachers are not prepared — they're not competent. Many teachers teach because they can't do anything else. They certainly can't teach. But it's much more difficult for the fact that somebody can't teach than somebody to do a bad letterhead. Right?
Rand: So they should teach, instead of doing letterheads. Right?
William: "Yeah, I agree." "How much do you think a logo has to do with a company's success? (That you're designing for?)"
Rand: Well, I can answer that in two ways: I can say everything and nothing.
Rand: A logo's success depends on the company, not on the logo. The logo can be ordinary, and ugly, and most of them are, but that doesn't mean the company is going out of business. The company could be doing very well...
William: "Do you think that a logo —"
Rand: I think that most logos are bad, and I think that in a certain sense they're getting worse. I saw some today, you know, where they're getting very fancy; things going through them, lines...they look very mysterious and you don't know WHAT'S going on. They don't explain anything... On the other hand, there are logos like the automobiles, you know, which are just designs, and they're very nice; they have a certain mystery about them. You know, the function of a logo is that you remember what it looks like. That's its function. The function has nothing else to do — The function of a logo is like a sign — MAIN STREET. It does the same thing that a street sign does. It tells you what — you know, WHO IT IS, WHAT IT IS. You understand?
Rand: So if a company is successful, the logo is part of that success, but the logo is not going to make that company successful. NO WAY.
William: "Are there any logos involved with a specific company that you think are just... crap?"
Rand: Most of them. I think the logo, for example, the American Telephone Company. You know that? Do you think that's a good logo?
William: "The American Telephone Company?"
Rand: You know what it is?
William: "No I don't. I can't think of it offhand."
Rand: It's the world.
William: "It's the world?"
Rand: It's a picture of the world. Many lines...
William: "Oh, is that AT&T?"
Rand: AT&T. American Telephone Company.
William: "Wasn't that designed by Saul Bass?"
Rand: Somebody in a studio. He just died.
William: "Saul Bass did?"
William: "Oh God. Hmmm."
Rand: Do you understand the function of a logo now?
Rand: A logo doesn't make a company. A logo contributes to it. The logo is a product of a company's success, and a logo identifies a company.
Rand: You know, look at the flag of Japan. You know what it is?
William: "Yeah. It's that red dot."
Rand: Yeah. Do you think it's a nice flag?
William: "I think it's ok."
Rand: What do you mean, you think it's ok? Could you design one better?
William: "Um...there could probably be a better design — maybe."
Rand: Oh really?
William: "I like the simplicity of it, though."
Rand: Well that's pretty good. You show me a better one and I'll give you a job.
Rand: You don't even have to work. I'll just pay ya.
William: "I don't know. That'd be pretty difficult."
William: "I could find a better one for Canada, maybe." Rand: Canada, yeah. You could find a better one for Canada, you could find a better one for Argentina, South American countries, some of the — Zimbabwe, African flag, Israel (doesn't have a beautiful flag — it could have). There are a lot of beautiful flags. The French flag is one of the most beautiful. It's also one of the more simple. But simplicity is not the goal, it's very difficult to do. Very difficult. Right?
Rand: So characteristically, all of these are very simple flags. The American flag is a good flag too, although I wouldn't call it simple...
William: "Yeah. Yeah, that's true."
Rand: ...But it's not complicated either, you know, it's just a bunch of stripes. It's not complicated like Argentina, or some of these other flags that have dots in it, lines, angles, all kinds of crap.
William: "Ok. My next question is: 'I noticed in your latest book that you talk a lot about the history of art and fine art, as well as architecture, and I was wondering if you create any fine art besides designing?'"
Rand: Well, I consider everything I do fine art.
Rand: Whatever that means. If you define art as the resolution of form and content — the problems of form and content — then it is always the same problem. Whether you paint or whether you clean your ears, or whatever you do. It's not a goal but an accomplishment. It's very simple. You know, art is not complicated. The only thing complicated about art is doing it. It's not complicated, if you understand it. I think the way most art books are written are badly complicated, because they are badly written.
William: "Have you read Gardner's Art Through the Ages?"
Rand: Oh yeah. That was my first book.
William: "Do you think that was a badly written book?"
Rand: Some of the editions that were published by Yale after Gardner died, are very good.
William: "How does it feel seeing your designs representing these huge companies and just seeing them day by day on TV?"
Rand: Nothing. When you get used to it, everything fits. I don't feel anything special. (Mrs. Rand seems to disagree in the background of the conversation). That was my wife. If you want to know any of the real answers, interview her.
William: "My last question is —"
Rand: You're running out of money.
William: "... Well, I could stay on the phone longer than this, but I don't want to take up any more of your time. My last question is: 'Is there a particular quality of work amongst the best designers that you know?'"
Rand: Yes. Clear. Clarity. Honesty. Sticking to the problem, supplying the solution, answering the question, and clarity and understanding, getting it clear. But at the same time it has to have a certain artistic factor, not just clarity. It has to have something inventive about it, something novel, something new, something different, something out of the ordinary. Something that is also appealing. Sex appeal in a certain sense...
William: "Ok. That about concludes my interview. I just want to thank you very much. I really respect your work and admire you."
Rand: What class are you in?
William: "It's called, The Business of Being an Artist."
Rand: Who teaches it?
William: "Nancy Thayer."
Rand: Did I meet her last time I was there?
William: "I don't know. I don't think so."
Rand: Ok. Are you sending some kind of note?
William: "Yeah, sure."
Rand: You got my address?
Rand: 87 Goodhill Road, USA-Weston, CN 06883
William: "OK. Thank you very much, Mr. Rand."
Rand: Do you ever see Allen Samuels? (Dean of the School of Art & Design from 1993 –1999: https://stamps.umich.edu/people/detail/allen_samuels)
Rand: Give him my regards. Thank you.
William: "Thank you."
© William Watson, 2020.
*I went on to receive a 4.0 in my 'Business of Being an Artist' class at the University of Michigan in 1996.
Official site of Graphic Designer Paul Rand: https://www.paulrand.design