REVIEW: Paul Rand: The Designer’s Task (UMMA Exhibition)

I’ve had a sort of casual interest in graphic design for a while, and so naturally, I was interested in the University of Michigan Museum of Art’s (UMMA) exhibition featuring graphic designer Paul Rand, entitled Paul Rand: The Designer’s Task.

If you’re anything like me, however, you probably have never heard of Paul Rand before. With a small amount of research, though, you’ll likely find that you’ve encountered his designs many times in the form of the logos of companies like the American Broadcasting Company (ABC), UPS, or IBM. Furthermore, you’ve probably seen these logos a hundred times without giving them a second thought, but you could probably also recognize them instantly. I know this is true for me. However, The Designer’s Task offers a window into intentional graphic design, and how Paul Rand came to create his clean, minimalist, and recognizable designs.

On the introductory sign for the exhibition, it is noted that for Rand, “visual communication of any kind…should be seen as the embodiment of form and function: the integration of the beautiful and the useful.” Additionally, he is credited with bringing “the concept of corporate identity into the mainstream during a period of rapid economic expansion in the United States after World War II.” As I took in Paul Rand’s work, these words made me think about, as is appropriate given the exhibition’s title, the task of a designer. Although you probably don’t have the ABC logo framed on your wall, graphic design is functional art with a very specific purpose. Perhaps it is a sign of excellent graphic design that the mention of UPS will subconsciously bring the company’s logo to mind, even though we don’t usually think about it overtly.

As a musician, one of my favorite pieces of Rand’s work featured in the exhibition was his portrait of 20th century Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, “designed for a 1956 edition of the composer’s critical test Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons.” When I first looked at the portrait, before I had read the accompanying description of it, I saw black dots arranged in the shape of a face. Looking at it further, I noticed that the dots were superimposed on the repeated five-line pattern of music staff paper (something I have spent a lot of time looking at and writing on in my own music theory classes!). Finally, I realized that the black dots were on the staff such that they resembled musical notes! The design was simple, but somehow it occurred to me as genius. All the layers of meaning emphasizing the design’s purpose (the cover of a famous composer’s writings on music) in a way that had to have been meticulously planned.

The exhibition, although relatively small, featured various posters, book covers, and corporate booklets showcasing Paul Rand’s designs. Perhaps most interesting were the few scraps of paper with sketches of the initial stages of some of his designs. It did not disappoint, and I would recommend it if you are interested in learning more about graphic design and this form of functional and ultimately accessible art that we encounter every day!

JM

JM is a dual degree student in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance and the College of Engineering. Some of her favorite things include running, reading, all things creative, purple, and zebras.

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