Saul Bass, Milton Glaser and Paul Rand are something like the holy trinity of 20th century logo design; between them, they branded a staggering number of the world’s biggest companies, from AT&T to IBM.
Rand, the eldest of the three, was arguably the most influential. His principles continue to inspire today. Some of them may surprise you.
Like Bass and Glaser, Rand was born to Jewish immigrants in New York City between the World Wars. He was artistically inclined and studied design at three different institutions, though he never cared much for them and always considered himself self-taught. Soon he was earning praise for his magazine covers which he designed for free. Then, onward to logo.
Rand’s pro bono covers for Direction magazine; March 1939 (left), December 1940 (right)
Two of Rand’s earliest logos, for Esquire magazine 1938 (left) and Coronet Brandy 1941 (right)
A formative moment arrived when Rand met one of his idols, Hungarian Bauhaus artist László Moholy-Nagy. At their meeting, Moholy-Nagy asked if Rand read art criticism. When Rand said “no,” Moholy-Nagy reportedly replied “Pity.” From that point onward, Rand began reading art criticism and philosophy as much as he could.
After catching up on his art theory, Rand began to philosophize about his own work — what logos are, what they are not, what they are capable of being. We’ve summed up some of his biggest ideas into four major principles.
1. “A logo derives meaning from the quality of the thing it symbolizes, not the other way around.”
Designers sometimes talk about logos as if they were responsible for conveying meaning by themselves and, hence, the success or failure of a logo is a factor of the design.
Rand never assigned such importance or responsibility to a logo.
“It is only by association with a product, a service, a business, or a corporation that a logo takes on any real meaning,” he said. “If a company is second rate, the logo will eventually be perceived as second rate. It is foolhardy to believe that a logo will do its job immediately, before an audience has been properly conditioned.”
Logo for Borzoi Books, 1945
Logo for IBM 1956 (top) and the 1972 8-bar version 1972 (bottom)
This doesn’t mean that logos are insignificant — it means logos are free. They bear the burden only of marking, not meaning. This brings us to the second principle.
2. The subject matter of a logo need not match the subject matter of the business it represents. “The only mandate in logo design is that they be distinctive, memorable and clear.”
In other words, logos can look like whatever they want. They don’t have to directly depict anything about the company they represent. In fact, sometimes it’s better when they don’t! As Rand puts it,
Surprising to many, the subject matter of a logo is of relatively little importance, and even appropriateness of content does not always play a significant role.
This does not imply that appropriateness is undesirable. It merely indicates that a one-to-one relationship between a symbol and what it symbolized is very often impossible to achieve and, under certain conditions, objectionable. Ultimately, the only mandate in the design of logos, it seems, is that they be distinctive, memorable, and clear.
Logo for Westinghouse, 1960
Logo for UPS 1961
3. Presentation is key
Rand placed great importance on the act of presenting a design to a client. For each design, a designer must tell a unique story that is tailored to the client.
“How to present a new idea is, perhaps, one of the designer’s most difficult tasks,” Rand said. “Everything a designer does involves presentation of some kind–not only how to explain (present) a particular design to an interested listener (client, reader, spectator), but how the design may explain itself in the marketplace…”
Logo for ABC 1962
Logo re-design for Ford 1966. It was not used.
4. “Simplicity is not the goal. It is the by-product of a good idea and modest expectations.”
If you truly understand what a logo is and is not capable of doing, then your designs will always have the simplicity that we all celebrate. The following examples illustrate Rand’s success in this regard:
Rebus poster for IBM 1970
Logo for Yale University Press 1985 (this one’s a personal favorite of ours …)
Logo for Steve Jobs’ Next Computers 1986
Logo for Enron 1996