Steve Jobs once called Paul Rand, “the greatest living graphic designer.” Though no longer alive, Rand’s legend still thrives in his work and in his writings. With a body of work that includes logos for IBM, Westinghouse, ABC, UPS, and NeXT, he’s still someone you should listen to.
In Design, Form, and Chaos, Rand shares “some thoughts and despair about the design of a logo.”
First what is a logo? Rand says poetically:
A logo is a flag, a signature, an escutcheon, a street sign.
A logo does not sell (directly), it identifies.
A logo is rarely a description of a business.
A logo derives meaning from the quality of the thing it symbolizes,
not the other way around. A logo is less important than the product it signifies; what it represents is more
important than what it looks like.
The subject matter of a logo can be almost anything.
Rand then explains how the quality of logo is tied to the quality of the company it represents. If your company sucks, a pretty logo won’t save you:
Should a logo be self-explanatory? It is only by association with a product, a service, a business, or a corporation that a logo takes on any real meaning. It derives its meaning and usefulness from the quality of that which it symbolizes. If a company is second rate, the logo will eventually be perceived as second rate. It is foolhardy to believe that a logo will do its job immediately, before an audience has been properly conditioned.
Often, the subject of the logo doesn’t even matter:
Surprising to many, the subject matter of a logo is of relatively little importance, and even appropriateness of content does not always play a significant role.
This does not imply that appropriateness is undesirable. It merely indicates that a one-to-one relationship between a symbol and what it symbolized is very often impossible to achieve and, under certain conditions, objectionable. Ultimately, the only mandate in the design of logos, it seems, is that they be distinctive, memorable, and clear.
Finally, Rand stresses the importance of presenting design work. You must tell a unique story that’s catered to your audience:
Canned presentations have the ring of emptiness. The meaningful presentation is custom designed–for a particular purpose, for a particular person. How to present a new idea is, perhaps, one of the designer’s most difficult tasks. This how is not only a design problem, it also pleads for something novel. Everything a designer does involves presentation of some kind–not only how to explain (present) a particular design to an interested listener (client, reader, spectator), but how the design may explain itself in the marketplace… A presentation is the musical accompaniment of design. A presentation that lacks an idea cannot hide behind glamourous photos, pizzazz, or ballyhoo. If it is full of gibberish, it may fall on deaf ears; if too laid back, it may land a prospect in the arms of Morpheus.
To back up his words, Rand includes replicas of his own logo presentations for NeXt, IBM, AdStar, IDEO, and Morningstar. It’s my favorite part of the book and the most illuminating.
Years ago, I got lucky and found an unassuming copy of the book in a used bookstore. It was $30, then. It’s now going for $160 on Amazon. I ain’t ever selling mine, but here are some photos: