agenda by Zosia Swidlicka

reading time 3 minutes

Have you ever wondered what lies within a graphic design master’s filing cabinet? A new book makes dozens of sketches, notes and doodles from one of the greatest minds of the past century public for the first time, and it’s a fascinating insight into the creative process.

Paul Rand (1914 – 1996) was the designer behind some of the world’s most recognisable logos: IBM, UPS, ABC and NeXT among them. His innate ability to use design as a tool for business introduced new ideas to the advertising industry and continues to educate creatives of all stripes today. Some of his inner workings are brought to light by Steven Heller – designer, author and academic, as well as a dear friend of Paul – in the book Paul Rand: Inspiration and Process in Design.

Born Peretz Rosenbaum in Brooklyn, New York, Rand was a compulsive doodler from a young age, and despite the disapproval of his Orthodox Jewish immigrant parents, he pursued a career as a commercial artist. One of his first works was developing his own corporate identity: the four letters of his adopted first name and surname balanced nicely.

He doodled on the phone to clients. Even whilst turning down an offer for work, he couldn’t help himself from sketching out a few solutions to the problem. He amassed whole filing cabinets stuffed with sketches, drawings and notes. Backs of envelopes, paper hand towels and whatever scrap of paper he happened upon would trigger the start of a process that would ultimately culminate in ‘the big idea’.

One file is titled ‘Monkeys and Elephants’. It contains, as you probably guessed, sketches of monkeys and elephants. Elephants often feature in Rand’s work, but monkeys less so. So why did he have a whole file dedicated to them? Heller speculates that they might have reminded him of certain clients. Most likely this was simply Rand monkeying around.

In all seriousness though, Rand kept all this stuff because he believed that an artist is “by necessity an explorer and a collector.” A forager of objects and influences that could then be transformed into art through the artist’s individual experience. And as Heller points out, “since, being an artist, he selects and collects in order to make art, these very acts become creative in themselves.”

His own work – even the most unassuming drawings he did for his own amusement – also entered his archive to be reinterpreted as an input for future work. For an Olivetti advertisement, which features a colourful still life alongside a photograph of the typewriter, he reappropriated a drawing he’d completed just for fun, long before the commission ever came in. Its lightness and domestic subject matter perfectly matched the brief of portability and accessibility. After that, “the ad created itself”.

Rand’s signature style was unpretentious and universal in its treatment of the subject. From playing with scale and perspective to pairing bold typefaces with delicate handwriting, he blended contrasting elements to arrive at some of his most striking images. What makes his work so compelling is the way it appears to come about by accident, not by design. His unpublished essay, Twenty Four Hours a Day, reproduced here in its original typewritten, hand-corrected form, tells us more.

It opens with a quote from Herbert Read, which perfectly encapsulates Rand’s own working method:

 “…before there can be art there must be memories and before there can be memories there must be experience.”

Rand goes on to argue that inspiration is “simply a flowery term for the peculiar way in which the artist gathers experience and reacts to it.” He doesn’t believe in ivory towers or muses, but rather in “unromantic, even unlikely sources,” which he calls stimulants. If the contents of his filing cabinet are anything to go by, this means that everything from a safety pin to a vase to buttons can be imbued with personality and meaning on the page in the hands of an artist.

Rand concludes that “the act of creativity is almost as much a mystery to the artist himself as to the layman.” While we may not have all the answers, these fragments of his personal history help to demystify the work of a true artist.

Inspiration and Process in Design is a Moleskine Books series published by Princeton Architectural Press since 2019

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