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Designer Paul Rand Speaks at Media Lab

By Saul Blumenthal
Managing editor

"I try to make art out of commercial stuff," Paul Rand responded when he was asked to describe what he does. And when this "commercial stuff" includes companies like IBM, Westinghouse, Next, and The Limited, it is readily obvious that we're not dealing with just any artist.

It would probably be hard to find someone who is not familiar with the works of Rand, one of the most influential contemporary graphic designers. His designs have defined the corporate identities of countless companies throughout the world, and yesterday morning, a standing-only crowd at the Media Laboratory got an opportunity to learn more about the individual behind the art.

The talk, entitled "The Language of Art," was sponsored by the Aesthetics and Computation Group of the Media Lab. It was moderated by Assistant Professor of Media Arts and Sciences John Maeda, who heads up the group.

The audience, which consisted of a mix of MIT students and faculty and design students from as far away as Rhode Island and New Hampshire, laughed when the octogenarian Rand started his talk with the observation that he's "waited 82 years to get to this place." Rand used to be a professor at Yale University and currently teaches summer classes there.

The first portion of the talk dealt with the issue of what constitutes design and how it relates to art. "There is fundamentally no difference between the designer and the artist. In dealing with the subject of design, knowledge of the history of art and design is just as indispensable as the language of art."

Maeda then asked Rand what he considered design. Rand said that it is very difficult to give a concrete definition. "Design is a method of putting form and content together," though form is more of a determining factor than content, he said. In a handout accompanying the lecture, Rand explained that "form and content are assymetric Time can, and does, erase meaning of once familiar artifacts, but time can never erase form."

"It is very difficult to talk about art. We talk about rhythm, proportion, etc., but these are subjective," Rand said. In his handout, Rand described how "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 Campbell's soup."

Maeda then asked Rand how he got started in design work. The audience chuckled when he paused for a few seconds and then said, "I just designed. [It is] something you do intuitively. You just do it."

The rest of the talk was a narrated slide show, which drew heavily from two books by Rand that were on sale outside the theater - Design Form and Chaos and From Lascaux to Brooklyn. The first set of slides concerned art and design in general, with examples ranging from the Leaning Tower of Pisa to still lifes by Cezanne.

Rand then proceeded to describe the process of developing logos and corporate identities for companies, the work which has contributed most to his fame. He explained how it is critical to have a "client who is receptive." Rand spent a considerable amount of time chronicling the development of the logo for Next and how he worked closely with Steve Jobs during the process.

He characterized the logo finally decided upon as "complete abstraction," and he expressed his amazement at how it appealed to people. In Design Form and Chaos he says, "a black cube has a certain visual presence and is easy to remember."

Other companies whose logos Rand discussed were those for IBM (perhaps his most famous design), UPS, and The Limited, for which he observed that it is important to recognize that every letter but the last consists only of straight segments.

The talk ended at about 11:30 a.m. with an extended round of applause. Rand then held a book signing session in the lobby of the Media Lab. Copies of the poster that was hung throughout campus over the last week were also offered free of charge.

Rand delights audience

Reaction to Rand's talk was overwhelmingly enthusiastic. "Paul Rand is a great inspiration, especially with the design process," said Peter S. Cho '97, one of Maeda's students.

Reed Kram G, one of the members of the Aesthetics and Computation Group, said that the talk was "very informative. It is great to see designers come to MIT." He said that he hoped for more such lectures in the future.

The talk was well attended by students from outside MIT. Brandon Miller, a student at the Rhode Island School of Design, described Rand as a genius and said that the talk was "an incredible opportunity" to hear him talk.

Mensah Moody, a design student from New Hampshire, said Rand "was funny for 82 years and was very inspiring."

Kram said that yesterday's talk was a first step in increasing the prominence of graphic arts and design at MIT. The Aesthetics and Computation Group, which replaced the Visual and Language Workshop, is a relatively new division of the Media Lab.

Kram said that the group "abused the infinite corridor" with posters in an attempt to bring in as many MIT students as possible and that they did not intentionally target students from outside MIT. Many of the oversized posters hung throughout campus were deliberately strategically torn.

This was the first lecture in the new Misawa Lecture Series. More speakers from prominent designers are planned for the future, but Rand said that no specific lectures have been organized yet.