Paul Rand, the Culture Wars and Feminism

Today, I read another raving article about Paul Rand. I like his designs, but I cannot enjoy the hagiographical little stories that people tell about him.

His text, Good Design is Goodwill, is still passed around by teachers to students without much commentary as if Rand had written it yesterday. In this essay, Rand explains what it takes for design to be taken seriously as a profession. Among other things, it had to be less associated with women:

«In some circles art and design were, and still are, considered effeminate, something “removed from the common affairs of men.” Others saw all artists “performing no useful function they could understand.” At one time, design was even considered a woman’s job. “Let men construct and woman decorate,” said Ben Pitman, the man who brought new ideas about the arts from England to the United States in the 1850s.»

Rand wrote this in 1987. It is impossible not to relate this passage to his quitting from Yale three years later over hiring Feminist designer Sheila Levrant de Bretteville. On “Confusion and Chaos: the Seduction of Contemporary Graphic Design,” a text that is widely regarded as a commentary on this event, he famously objected to politics in the classroom:

«Both in education and in business, graphic design is often a case of the blind leading the blind. To make the classroom a perpetual forum for political and social issues for instance is wrong; and to see aesthetics as sociology is grossly misleading. A student whose mind is cluttered with matters which have nothing directly to do with design; whose goal is to learn doing and making; who is thrown into the fray between learning how to use a computer at the same time that he or she is learning design basics and being overwhelmed with social problems and political issues is a bewildered student. This is not what he or she bargained for, nor, indeed paid for.»

In 1992, when Rand wrote this, the so-called Culture Wars were being fought on campuses across the United States of America. Ostensibly, Rand aligned with the conservative side, quoting extensively from Tenured Radicals, Roger Kimball’s 1990 screed:

«It is no secret […] that the academic study of the humanities in this country is in a state of crisis… Every special interest—women’s studies, black studies, gay studies, and the like—and every modish interpretive gambit—deconstructivism, post structuralism, new historicism, postmodernism… has found a welcome roost in the academy and in many studios, while the traditional curriculum and modes of intellectual inquiry are excoriated as sexist, racist, or just plain reactionary.»

The Culture Wars are, by and large, ignored by design’s history. Critics and historians talk about this period as the Style Wars – emphasizing squabbles over kerning, trendy fonts, and New Wave graphics over the underlying politics of the discussion. 

In his essay mentioned above, “Confusion and Chaos,” Rand explicitly connects style and politics. Still, graphic design’s histories largely ignore Rand’s opinions that constitute proof that the Culture Wars also happened inside design’s oblivious confines.

2 responses to “Paul Rand, the Culture Wars and Feminism”

  1. Unfortunately, the role of women has always been undervalued in the world of design, whether in the era of Paul Rand or in the Bauhaus itself. Anyway, it is true that the Style Wars, nowadays we also see that kind of confusion, of banal design against functional-aesthetic design, in the case of brand building, such as Blanding vs Branding.
    I think that since these are “subjective” aspects it is more complicated to find an agreement or “rules”, I am not in favor of creating “indestructible universal design rules” but I do support the thought that “you must learn the rules in order to know how to break them” as the late Bob Gill said in his book Forget All the Rules You Ever Learned About Graphic Design. However, I do wish there was a certain functional design ethic. Very interesting article Mário. Do you have a newsletter for me to subscribe to?
    Thank you very much.
    Best regards.

    Translated with (free version)


    1. Thank you! I haven’t got a newsletter yet, but I’m working on it. I’m just starting to build this site.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: