20 August 2019
Rand, Paul. Thoughts on Design. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2014.
First edition published in 1947 with several updates since.
In this short work, Paul Rand presents his philosophy of design as related to commercial advertising and graphic design. It is illustrated with examples of his own work, largely magazine advertisements and covers from the late ‘30s through the ‘60s. Some of the key features of his approach are an acknowledgement of the formal and psychological parameters of any design task, and an ability to “re-create or restate the problem.” Simply put, a clearly-stated question will result in good design. (This reminds me a bit of contemporary “Design Thinking.”) He looks to the art historian John Dewey for inspiration, and uses examples from non-Western cultures to make some of his points. He discusses symbols, balance, proportion, humor, contrast and engagement with an intended audience as part of his design approach.
I am struck by the boldness and simplicity of Rand’s work as presented in this book. It crosses my mind that this book would be most successful with readers who are aware of the cluttered advertising landscape against which Rand reacted (not presented in this book). Additionally, it seems to me that Rand’s work is one massive tutorial in the use of negative space in two-dimensional layouts. I am left with the feeling that Rand is far more important as a shower than as a teller.
How does this relate to scenography?
Although this work is limited to two-dimensional design, it does have some ideas that I believe would be useful to students of design for live performance. In particular, the foil of the physical parameters, or frame, of a magazine layout is a powerful notion when extrapolated to three dimensions. Rand sees the frame not only as a limitation but also an aperture to something bigger. It is a flat work on paper but also an idea with resonance greater than the sum of its parts. He asks designers to work with what they have, but to say more by, in essence, saying less. A god set design has discrete physical limitations, but also seeks to say more through simple and economical means. Also, Rand’s sensitivity to his intended audience – magazine readers – reminds me of a theatrical designers need to make work fit the needs of an actual audience, not his/her/their own personal desire.