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10 Design Career Lessons From Paul Rand

Here's our rundown of the top 10 lessons from famed graphic designer Paul Rand, which you can easily implement in your own career.

Marc Schenker April 29, 2021 · 14 min read

Paul Rand is known around the world for creating some of the most enduring graphic designs of the past century, including the iconic IBM logo.
In a storied career that spanned decades, Paul Rand immersed himself in corporate logo design, ventured into then-little known design trends with his embrace of the Swiss Style, and taught students about the finer points of graphic design as Yale University’s Professor Emeritus of graphic design.
From such a larger-than-life figure in design, you can easily learn a lot of actionable takeaways that will help your own career in graphic design. After all, as Rand was fond of saying, “Everything is design! Everything.”
We combed through Rand’s impressive contributions to the industry, and these are the 10 most important design career lessons he has to teach us.

1. Embrace Design Trends That Are Revolutionary

If you’ve been reading our blog for any length of time, you’ll notice that we’re big fans of various design trends. We’ve covered everything from highly impactful trends like Art Deco design to more unorthodox ones like mail art design, as well as yearly trends in graphic design.
Being aware of trends and appreciating what they can do for your craft has a long history in graphic design. Rand himself became a fan of the Swiss Style relatively early on in his career, which led to his unique interpretation of design, stateside.

Via Wikimedia Commons

You have to remember that the Swiss Style—in spite of its somewhat misleading name—actually originated in Russia, Germany, and Holland in the 1920s. The Swiss refined its basic design elements in the 1950s and made it their own.
But in America during Rand’s early career (the 1940s and 1950s), this approach to design, with its focus on using mathematical grids to organize visual information and sans serif fonts to promote minimalism, was not very well-known. By immersing himself in the works of Swiss designers like Paul Klee, Rand was able to incorporate the Swiss Style into his own artworks.
It just goes to show you that adopting a design trend, and then putting your own spin on it, is a recipe for success. Rand understood this better than anyone when he said, “Don’t try to be original; just try to be good.”

2. Learn How to Design Minimalist Logos

Logo design is perhaps one of the most popular areas of graphic design. It combines vibrant colors, memorable shapes, and corporate messaging to create entire brand identities that have remained unchanged for decades and decades.
To say that Rand excelled at logo design would be an understatement! Corporate logo creation was his signature practice. Think of it like the graphic-design equivalent of the signature song for your favorite band.
Some of the brands for which he designed logos include:

  • IBM
  • UPS
  • ABC
  • Westinghouse
  • Morningstar, Inc.
  • NeXT
  • Enron

If you take a deeper look at these logos, you’ll begin to notice a pattern relatively quickly, due to Rand’s devotion to the Swiss Style: They’re all quite minimalist, with an emphasis on simple shapes and typography.

Via Wikimedia Commons

The IBM logo is merely a series of horizontal, blue bars against a white background, spelling out the company’s acronym. Similarly, the earliest iteration of the ABC television network’s logo, debuting in 1962, was another wordmark logo (this time in multiple colors) inside of a circle. Both of these designs have absolutely no excesses; you could even say that they’re bare-bones. However, what makes them visually attractive, more so than, say, brutalist designs, is their dedication to visual harmony.
In fact, Rand’s own belief was that a logo wouldn’t endure the test of time unless it was specifically designed with both simplicity and restraint.
As he pointed out in his seminal book, A Designer’s Art: “…ideas do not need to be esoteric to be original or exciting.”

3. Understand the Value of Being Self-Taught

It’s true that there are many talented and successful designers who obtain a formal education in graphic design. It’s equally true that you can be successful in the design industry even if you’re self-taught. Rand is an interesting case because he’s equal parts of both.
He went to three art schools as a young man:

  • The New York School for Design
  • The Arts Students League of New York
  • Yale University

However, Rand always considered himself mainly self-taught when it came to graphic design. His interest in and love for graphic design was born out of self-education by reading many German and British art and design magazines, which his formal education didn’t provide.

Via Wikimedia Commons

Through this activity, he became familiar with Klee and graphic designers such as A.M. Cassandre. Through this self-directed study, he started learning about modernist design philosophy, Swiss typographic sensibilities, and the function-over-form approach of Bauhaus design. The tools he picked up through this self-education formed the basis for his skillful and innovative use of the Swiss Style in his corporate logo designs.
One of the more famous Rand quotes is: “Design can be art. Design can be aesthetics. Design is so simple, that’s why it is so complicated.”
You can bet that this way that he viewed graphic design was only opened up to him after he went beyond his formal education and augmented it with all of his self-study.

4. Practice Humility

You may be the most educated graphic designer, whether from formal education or self-study, but the fact remains that experience is still the single-biggest way to advance career. Rand understood this well.
In spite of his considerable formal education, he started at the bottom, working a part-time job creating stock pictures for a syndicate that provided graphic designs to the media. Now, some may have balked at this, but Rand realized that he had to start humbly in order to make it in this industry.

Via Wikimedia Commons

He also put this opportunity to good use since working these low-paid, early assignments at least helped him build an increasingly impressive portfolio. Interestingly, the portfolio he assembled was unique in its own right: It was influenced by the German ad aesthetic called “Sackplakat.” This was essentially an early type of poster art that the Germans came up with in the early 1900s. Here, too, note the influence of European sensibilities on Rand, even when it came to his portfolio style.
We’ve also covered the importance of a portfolio to graphic design numerous times on the blog.
So if you’re just starting out in your design career, don’t look at your initial, inevitably humble projects as something to discourage you. Instead, look to the masters in your industry like Paul Rand. Realize that they, too, had to start somewhere. Understand that this is the process of gaining experience and building your own portfolio, which will be the basis for your own future success at your craft.

5. Brand Yourself

Branding and graphic design go together hand in hand. Successful graphic design will help a brand tell its story and carve out a unique niche in its industry. Rand was a student of branding, and he took this to an entirely new level when he decided, early in his career, to make himself into a brand.
How did he do this?
Well, for starters, Paul Rand was actually born Peretz Rosenbaum in Brooklyn, New York, to Jewish parents. Dreaming of making it big on Madison Avenue—which was synonymous with the American ad industry in the 1920s and for many decades thereafter—Rand changed his name to make it sound slicker, like someone who was already working in a big ad agency in New York City.
Note that he also changed his name so it featured an equal number of characters in the first name and surname. In his mind, having this balance in his name would be symbolic of the kind of simplicity his design would convey.

Via Wikimedia Commons

With a simple name change, Rand made himself into his first project on corporate identity. It told potential clients and partners that he was a sharp up-and-comer who understood the messaging and communication dynamics of the ad industry at that time.
Rand put it best himself when he stated, “Design is the silent ambassador of your brand.”

6. Truly Excel at What You Do

At the end of the day, there’s no substitute for sheer talent and producing high-quality work. It’s what will get you noticed and make you stand out from all your competitors in a crowded field.
Excelling at his craft through hard work and applying himself well, Rand caught the eye of the higher-ups at Esquire Magazine due to the work he did in page design, or typesetting, for then-Apparel Arts (now GQ) Magazine. Long story short, Rand distinguished himself with his immensely creative page layouts that took everyday pictures and turned them into amazing compositions. This wound up giving a page a lot of editorial importance and helped it to stand out.

Via Wikimedia Commons

His success at page design won him a full-time job, not long after he had begun as a part-time creator of stock images. It also opened up another door for him: Esquire Magazine offered to make him their art director for all their Esquire-Coronet publications. What’s really staggering here is that Rand was only 22 years old at the time he was offered this prestigious position.
Experiencing self-doubt, he initially rejected the offer, but, just a year later, he took the magazine up on it and became Esquire Magazine’s art director at the ripe old age of 23.

7. Share Your Knowledge With Others

As you make your way through your graphic design career, you’ll eventually amass a lot of knowledge. While this will naturally help you land bigger and better clients and projects, as well as more money, it’s also an opportunity to shape and influence others in your industry via teaching.
Rand became Yale University’s professor emeritus of graphic design; he spent a couple of decades there in two stints. First, from 1956 to 1969 and then again from 1974 to 1985.
You obviously don’t have to become a tenured professor to share what you’ve learned with others. Thanks to the interconnectivity of the Internet, you can begin teaching in your own right with the tools you have right now at your disposal.

Via Wikimedia Commons

A lesson on a specific aspect of graphic design can be presented in an explainer video, whether you make it short and to the point or an in-depth walkthrough or tutorial. Similarly, you can use Facebook posts to share your graphic-design knowledge. If you have your own website, even something as basic as having a newsletter means you can educate your followers in the finer points of design as well—while building your own brand and becoming a thought leader in the industry.
So take some inspiration from Rand when it comes to teaching. It can do wonders for your own career, too.
As Rand put it: “Everything is design. Everything!” This includes teaching it to others.

8. Get Influential Creatives to See Your Work

No matter what industry you’re in, your career will be helped when influencers in your industry start talking you up. This applies to graphic design as well. This social proof is priceless, and testimonials in the form of endorsements from authority figures are a surefire way to increase your own reputation.
While it may not always be easy to land these great endorsements, they’re sure worth striving for. One of the most surefire ways you, too, can receive influencer praise is by being very, very good at your craft.
In Rand’s case, he received good press early on from the likes of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, a Bauhaus school professor and artist in his own right. Referring to Rand in Rand’s early career, Moholy-Nagy called him among the best and most capable of his new generation…someone able to design from the standpoint of utility and necessity while still retaining unlimited creativity.

Via Wikimedia Commons

Influencers talked him up right up to Rand’s final moments of life.
The late Steve Jobs, of Apple fame, founded a lesser-known computer and software company by the name of NeXT in 1985, after he was forced out of Apple. Yes, Jobs was actually forced out of Apple in its early years before coming back to the company he originally founded in the late 1990s (when Apple ended up purchasing NeXT). During his exile from Apple, Jobs commissioned Rand to design the corporate identity for—you guessed it—NeXT. The logo Rand created emphasized his trademark simplicity.
In 1996, Jobs would refer to Rand as the greatest living graphic designer, shortly before Rand’s death from cancer in the same year.

9. Develop Your Own Design Theory

This lesson may be the most challenging of all, but it proved to be what made Rand stand out from his peers and become an influencer in his field. As you progress in your graphic design career, you’ll be exposed to new ideas, various workflows and processes, and, ultimately, what works for you and what doesn’t, around which you’ll build your own design value system.
It was Rand’s insatiable appetite for reading that helped to shape his design ideology. In particular, he devoured books by art philosophers like:

  • John Dewey
  • Alfred North Whitehead
  • Roger Fry

He applied these philosophers’ belief systems into his work as a designer, creating something new entirely, such as his belief that a design should be able to withstand blurring or distortion and still retain its recognizable identity.

Via Wikimedia Commons

Rand was also fond of the modernist approach to philosophy. He studied works by artists like Paul Cezanne, famous for his contributions to both Impressionism and Cubism, and Jan Tschichold. As a result, he was able to see common themes between their artworks and his 20th-century graphic design.
Read a lot of material on design and books, from luminaries in the industry, and you’ll eventually develop your own theories.
Rand meant it when he said, “You will learn most things by looking, but reading gives understanding. Reading will make you free.”

10. Don’t Confuse Radically Different With Being Original

One of the gravest mistakes that designers make is to believe that they have to come up with something drastically “new” to be original or somehow make an impact on their works. Nothing could be farther from reality, at least not where Rand was concerned.
It was tempting for Rand’s critics to dismiss his designs as being overly simplistic. Though they were all studies in minimalism, that didn’t hold the designs back. Just the opposite, Rand excelled at mixing and matching simple shapes and colors in completely new ways.

Via Wikimedia Commons

This was seen in the literal translation of the IBM wordmark, such as his 1981 poster art for the company. It was also on display in the 1960 Westinghouse logo that relied on simple shapes like circles, line segments, and ovals to create a new brand identity for this company.
In both cases, Rand went with the familiar—with elements audiences around the world already understood. It was the execution that made these designs unique and memorable for decades to come.

Via Wikimedia Commons

Apply this to your own career and projects. If you’re faced with a client wanting a bold, new logo that captures the audience’s attention, don’t swing for the fences by incorporating excess and maximalism in your design. That’ll just clutter your composition. Instead, work with less, but make it a point to use this minimalism in clever ways, just like Rand did.

Lessons From the Master

It’s a pretty big consensus that graphic design wouldn’t exist today as an industry if Paul Rand didn’t revolutionize it with the way he looked at aesthetics. By broadening his horizons and soaking up (at the time) esoteric knowledge from Europe, he succeeded in setting the course for how American and worldwide graphic design took shape.

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About the Author
Marc Schenker

Marc is a copywriter and marketer who runs The Glorious Company, a marketing agency. An expert in business and marketing, he helps businesses and companies of all sizes get the most bang for their ad bucks.

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  • Thanks Marc for the insightful tips, I will surely use them in my web design services to add value to their businesses. Keep up the good work. 2 years ago