20 August 2019

Work cited:

Rand, Paul. Thoughts on Design. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2014.

First edition published in 1947 with several updates since.


This short book presents graphic designer Paul Rand's approach to design as it relates to his work in commercial advertising. His ideas are expressed principally through text description,  but the book is also illustrated with many examples of his work,  mostly corporate advertisements and magazine covers from the late ‘30s through the ‘60s. Some of Rand's most important ideas are commonplace today but were groundbreaking at the time, such as beginning with an acknowledgement of the formal and psychological parameters of any design task, and the constant drive to “re-create or restate the problem.” One main idea throughout is that 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 reinforce his ideas. He discusses symbols, balance, proportion, humor, contrast and viewer engagement as part of his school of thought.

I am struck by the boldness and simplicity of Rand’s work as presented in the illustrated examples. On the page, it appears 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's visual examples are far more exciting than the written text.

How does this relate to scenography?

Although this work is limited to two-dimensional design, it does have some ideas that would be useful to students of design for live performance. In particular, the idea of a framed composition of a magazine layout is a powerful notion in relation to theater presented within a proscenium arch.  Rand sees the frame not only as a limitation but also an aperture to something bigger. 

Additionally, he asks designers to work with what they have, but to say more by, in essence, saying less. This can be applied to theatrical design. A god set design has discrete physical limitations, but also seeks to evoke a world through simple and economical means. 

Also, Rand’s sensitivity to his intended audience – magazine readers – reminds me of a theatrical designer's need to make work fit the needs of an actual audience, not his/her/their own personal desire.

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