Design is a humanist discipline
September 6, 2014 § Leave a comment
Excerpts from Logocentrism
Originally published in The New Republic, December 29, 1997
Graphic design is easily the most ubiquitous of all the arts. It is everywhere, touching everything we do, everything we see, everything we buy: on billboards and in Bibles, on taxi receipts and on web sites, on birth certificates and on gift certificates, on the folded circulars tucked inside jars of aspirin and on the thick pages of children’s chubby board books. It is the boldly directional arrows on street signs and the blurred, frenetic typography on the title sequence to E.R. It is the bright green logo for the New York Giants and the staid front page of The New York Times. It is hang-tags in clothing stores, playbills in theaters, timetables in train stations, postage stamps and cereal box packaging, fascist propaganda posters and junk mail. It is complex combinations of words and pictures, numbers and charts, photographs and illustrations that, in order to succeed, demand the clear thinking of a thoughtful individual who can orchestrate these elements so that they all add up to something distinctive, or useful, or beautiful, or playful, or subversive, or in some way truly memorable. It is a popular art, a practical art, an applied art, an ancient art. It is informed by numerous disciplines, including art and architecture, philosophy and literature, politics and performance.
Simply put, graphic design is the art of visualizing ideas.
More than any other designer of this century, Rand is credited with bringing the modernist design aesthetic to postwar America. Highly influenced by the European modernists — Klee and Picasso, Calder and Miro — Rand’s formal vocabulary signaled the advent of a new era. Using photography and montage, cut paper and what would later become known as “The New Typography” — asymmetrical typography that engaged the eye and activated the page — Rand rallied against the sentimentality of stolid, commercial layouts and introduced a new, sharper, cleaner, and forward-looking vocabulary of the kind that he had observed in such European design magazines as the German Gebrauchsgraphik and the English Commercial Art. To look at Rand’s work today — work that dates from half a century ago — is to see how an idea can be distilled to its most concentrated and salient form. The style is playful, the message immediate, the communication undeniably direct.
Rand was a modernist not only in the reductive vocabularies of his design, but also in the intellectual curiosity of his writing. His books typically consist of short, staccato-like essays in which he considers the fundamental factors that shape our understanding of visual communication. In each of his books, he scrutinizes the relationship between art and design, between design and aesthetics, between aesthetics and experience. At length, he examines the role of intuition and ideas, the balance between form and function, and the universal language of geometry. He believed these topics to be timeless. “My interest has always been in restating the validity of those ideas which, by and large, have guided artists since the time of Polyclitus,” he wrote. “It is the continuing relevance of these ideals that I mean to emphasize, especially to those who have grown up in a world of punk and graffiti.” There is a personal, almost spiritual quality to Rand’s work. The promises of modernism, in which the harmony of formal relationships gesture to a higher order, and seek to embrace a purist ideal, must have held, for Rand, a kind of divine appeal.
A lifelong advocate of the axiom “less is more,” he was often criticized for his rejection of a more contemporary design idiom. Rand scorned what he saw in his later years as a postmodern free-for-all, in which sentiment and subjectivity supplanted logic and clarity. The teacher in him saw an opportunity to redefine and to restate the great lessons of the modernist legacy; his writing is tireless in this regard. And the artist in him saw the necessity of promoting the same exacting standards that he used not only to evaluate his own work, but to assess the quality of any great work of art. “The quality of the work always precedes everything else,” he explained in an interview not long before his death. “And the quality, of course, is my standard.”
Throughout his books, Rand sustained his arguments through repetition that sometimes verged on dogma. He wrote in the rhetoric of the manifesto. Written primer-style on such topics as “The Beautiful and the Useful,” “Design and the Play Instinct,” and “Intuition and Ideas,” his essays were extensively illustrated by visual examples from his own portfolio, and footnoted with citations from his equally extensive library. In Rand’s writings, design became a humanist discipline; and his insistence was amplified not only by references to, say, Leger and Albers, but also to Kant, Hegel, Dewey, Whitehead, Bergson, James, and others.
“To design,” Rand writes in Design, Form and Chaos, “is much more than simply to assemble, to order or even to edit: it is to add value and meaning, to illuminate, to simplify, to clarify, to modify, to dignify, to dramatize, to persuade, and perhaps even to amuse. To design is to transform prose into poetry.” For Rand, design was an orchestration of rhythm, contrast, balance, proportion, repetition, harmony, and scale — a philosophically sophisticated vocabulary of simple form, specific function, and symbolic content. In his vision, a circle could be a globe, an apple, a face, a stop sign; a square became a gift-wrapped box (the UPS trademark), an Egyptian frieze (the IDEO trademark), or a child’s toy (the Colorforms trademark). Over the course of a career that spanned more than six decades, Rand produced a prolific body of work that included advertising and posters, books and magazines, illustration and — perhaps most important — a host of extraordinary trademarks for such corporations as ABC, IBM, UPS, and Westinghouse. It is for these ubiquitous icons that he is best remembered.
A trademark is a company’s signature, an emblematic stamp that establishes its name, and firmly communicates the qualities with which it seeks to identify itself publicly. Its ends, of course, are very concrete: it must furnish a company — and its public — with a visual, material presence in a culture. It is the principal task of the designer to mediate the relationship between the practical demands of the corporation and the formal requirements of its trademark. For Rand, it was an ideal task, which showcased his greatest strengths. It demanded a serious faith in intuition (visualizing the logo that must be recognized instantly by millions of people) and an equal faith in analysis (isolating the idea that must be distilled into its most salient, germane form) .
By Jessica Helfand