How Paul Rand Made Companies Care About Design—And Influenced Steve Jobs

NeXT Poster by Paul Rand: Flickr, Graham Smith

It was the success of [Paul] Rand’s corporate communications for IBM in the ‘50s that inspired future businesses, including Steve Jobs’s NeXT, to put design first. When Thomas Watson Jr. took over IBM in 1956, he was struck by how poorly the company handled corporate design. The aesthetic was inconsistent across various platforms–for example, “branches in different regions would use different stationery,” Albrecht says… “Watson Jr. was one of the first to say ‘good design is good business,'” Albrecht says.

Led by design consultant Eliot Noyes, previously of the New York Museum of Modern Art, this program ultimately hired Charles and Ray Eames to do IBM’s exhibitions and books, architect Errol Saarinen to design buildings, and Paul Rand to design new logo and graphics. “Rand made everyone use his logo and branding,” Albrecht says. At the time, this sort of visually cohesive communication across all platforms of a brand was just gaining traction as a business strategy.

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In the ’80s, the power of IBM’s visual communications program inspired Steve Jobs, a longtime admirer of Rand’s work, to hire Rand as a designer for NeXT, his educational computer company. “Rand was the first and only designer Jobs looked to,” Albrecht says. One reason for Rand’s success with clients, aside from the sheer beauty of his visual work, was that he was “one of the guys,” Albrecht says. “He wasn’t coming into boardrooms acting like an artiste. He was very down-to-Earth, and fit into this Brooklyn boys’ world of corporate advertising in New York.”

“In a way, what Apple does today with design is what IBM was doing in ‘50s,” Albrecht says. “It was about simplification and cohesiveness across all platforms of the brand–products, ads, stores. These are all ideas in the modern vein that came about with Rand’s work with IBM. It set a precedent.”

Carey Dunne, writing for Fast Co.Design about how the legendary graphic designer Paul Rand pioneered the era of design-led business. Rand created some of the most iconic American corporate logos, many of which are still in use today. László Moholy-Nagy described him as “an idealist and a realist,” fluent in both “the language of the poet and the businessman.” There is currently an exhibit of Rand’s work at the Museum of the City of New York, and Dunne spoke with Donald Albrecht, the exhibit’s curator for her piece. As a side note, Rand’s seminal—and famously hard to find—book Thoughts on Design is back in print for the first time since the 1970’s.

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