{lesson} What is Graphic Design?

Thank you Jessica Helfand and John Stossel for clearing up this important question.
And for those of you who do not know Paul Rand….

Paul Rand Retrospective from Jeremy Cox on Vimeo.

The Language of Art

by Paul Rand
A miscellany of archeology, history, biography, geography, political science, psychology, sociology, technology, entertainment, economics, marketing, and merchandising comprises the subject matter of most art talk. But this does not constitute the language of art.
Art is primarily a question of form, not of content. This explains Clive Bell’s “significant form,” often maligned and misunderstood by practitioners, philosophers, dabblers, and connoisseurs. Content is a passive and subordinate yet important partner in this relationship, which is fundamental to an understanding of the language of plastic art.
To discuss the appearance of things is to deal with matters of aesthetics. Aesthetics is the language of appearances — of art, design, the beautiful, and the ugly. Without aesthetics, talk about art is not about art. To talk about, study, teach, or criticize a work of art focus must always be on problems of form in relation, of course, to a particular content.
An artifact is transformed into a work of art only when the conflict between form and content is resolved. The term art, has been bandied about so carelessly that it has almost lost its meaning. For example, it seems that one of the ways a painting earns its place in the pantheon of art is by being rendered in a particular medium: oil on canvas. The so called lesser arts — prints, etchings, graphic design, photography, etc. — are confined to this status by virtue of the mechanical means of their making. Consequently, the medium in which a work is rendered can become as important as its message or meaning. Symbolism has become the measure of value. The recent auction of Jacqueline Onassis’s possessions is a prime example of the power of false values.
Form and content are assymetric. Formal values are very often independent of content. Time can, and does, erase meaning of once familiar artifacts, but time can never erase form. Spontaneity, fantasy, intuition, invention, and revelation also play an important part in the language of art.
Among the many aspects of form, problems pertaining to the principles of proportion, for example, are significant. The rules of proportion apply equally well to the Parthenon or to a can of Campbells soup. The same is true for all formal relationships: contrast, scale, balance, rhythm, rhyme, texture, repetition, etc…
In spite of the fact that aesthetics is the only language of art, the subject has been greeted with indifference and sometimes irreverence. For example, Gwilt’s Encyclopedia of Architecture (1842) describes aesthetics as “silly, pedantic term, and one of the useless additions to nomenclature in the arts.” These and other unflattering references have caused this subject to be brushed aside. On the other hand, such definitions as “aesthetics is the philosophy or theory of taste,” or “of the perception of the beautiful in nature and art” (Oxford English Dictionary) are too passive, to be really useful.
The Greeks considered all subjects a form of discourse, and therefore almost all education is a form of language education. Knowledge of a subject means knowledge of the language of that subject. Biology, after all, is not plants and animals, it is a special language employed to speak about plants and animals.” Similarly aesthetics is not painting, design, or architecture; it is a special language designed to speak about these subjects, namely the language of interaction between form and content.
Confusion and misunderstanding is the result of the absence of a common language. In dealing with the subject of design, knowledge of the history of art and design is just as indispensable as the language of art. “Any subject,” said William James, “becomes humanistic when seen from the stand point of history.” Since both the history and language of art are not part of our common understanding, political, social and technological issues that may have only a remote connection to art arc usually substituted for discussions about the real thing — aesthetics — the language of art.

“When you talk about design, everybody has a definition that doesn’t correspond with yours. There are many good definitions. One is the synthesis of form and content. In other words, without content there is no form, and without form there is no content.

A work of art is realised when form and content are indistinguishable. When form predominates meaning is blunted. But when content predominates interest lags. But the genius comes in when both of these things fuse.

‘Without the aesthetic’ means what is not done with love – that it is done for some … some alterative motive: Because it sells, because it popular, because it’s crazy, you know all this stuff.

Graphic design is one of these phrases that doesn’t mean anything. Because anything that’s graphic is graphic. Painting, dancing – if you see it, writing – I you see it – it’s graphic. The genre of art, of graphic design, of painting, is art. That’s the genre. It’s all art.

The vocabulary of a language of art, or of aesthetics:

order, variety, contrasts, symmetry, tension, balance, scale, texture, space, shape, light, shade and color.

This is the language of form.

Don’t try to be original, just try to be good. That sounds sorta naïve, but it’s true.

Without aesthetics, you can’t find the truth – to do things with quality. I think this is in a big sense what aesthetics means.

Art is an idea that has found its perfect form. There are too many possibilities. No matter how perfectly you do something, it can still be improved.”


this is excerpted from FastCompany: from this link.


Rand’s most enduring contribution to IBM came in 1962, when he introduced the slated IBM logo still in use today. Rand had been chewing on the problem for years, and the horizontal stripes of the final design solved two problems. Aesthetically, they unified the letters, whose disparate shapes Rand thought made for an awkward visual rhythm. The stripes also had the effect of making the company name feel lighter and less monolithic—something useful to a multinational giant whose products loomed over the business world.

Rand's logo for Next.Click to Open Overlay Gallery

Identities and logos for Westinghouse, UPS, ABC and others followed. Rand’s work for these companies helped show the business the value of identity systems and consistent branding—again, something that’s completely obvious today.

Where can we see Rand’s influence today? “You see it in what Apple does,” Albrecht says. “You see it in the idea that design is an important part of your business plan. That design is not something you add on but is part and parcel of your business. That it’sgood for business. And that it’s not just window dressing.”

Rand was 72 when he designed the logo for Next. He billed Jobs $100,000. In return, he produced a single, finished logo, along with an elaborate book explaining the rationale behind it. Jobs was delighted with the work.

Link to What is Graphic Design Part II

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