Jul 31 • 1HR 3M

Paul Rand’s Thoughts on Design: What was he thinking? (#3)

After reading the legendary graphic designer’s first book — published in 1947 when he was just 32 — I came away with more inquiries than inspiration.

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Appears in this episode

Philip Levy
Learn from history’s most influential product designers. Each episode, I will delve into the work of an impactful designer and share insights to inspire our work. Design is the fascinating intersection of productive function and emotional form. As thinking beings, we use products to get things done, but as feeling humans, we want to enjoy doing it. This podcast is about the designers who have come before us and wrangled form and function into something that is the essence of beauty. If you make things, this is for you. Even if you’re not a trained designer, you design something: a business, a service, an event, a message — something that can benefit from the accrued knowledge and experience of the history of design. As we embark on a new era in technology that will challenge our very notion of humanity, it is more important than ever to learn from the mistakes and mastery of previous designers.
Episode details
Representation of IBM logo with illustrations of an "eye" and a "bee" in place of those letters
IBM rebus logo, public domain

Paul Rand and his work have been much discussed and extolled: Thoughts on Design has been called “a manifesto” and “a bible on modern graphic design.” When Steve Jobs hired him to design the logo for NeXT Computer in 1986, he called him “the greatest living graphic designer.” In a speech honoring Rand (at which he was present), George Lois of Esquire magazine said, “Every art director and graphic designer in the world should kiss his ass.”

In the introduction to Thoughts on Design, Paul Rand acknowledges that “many writers and philosophers… have helped to crystalize my thinking.” He calls out John Dewey and Roger Fry in particular. He also refers to some characters from ancient Greece and Rome, including Polykleitos, Vitruvius, and Plato. Who were these Rand influencers? And what insights might they offer today’s designer?

As I re-read this exposition of Rand’s principles, I wasn’t finding a lot of relevance to my work today — but then, I’m not an art director or graphic designer — so I decided to go a level deeper, reading source material from Dewey and Fry and revisiting ancient works, to see what I could take away from these influencers. In doing so, I explore questions like: How far back does the idea of “form follows function” go? What do we find so fascinating and instructive about the proportions of the human body? How does Plato’s views on the early education of philosophers relate to the role of humor in design?

I hope you’ll join me on this alternative approach to learning from this towering figure of design history.


  • The Beautiful and the Useful (1:54)

  • Fascination with human proportion (18:03)

  • Confusing things (28:38)

  • Takeaways

    • Role of humor (48:37)

    • Tell the story of your solution (52:17)

    • Be present at the point of execution (58:36)

  • Conclusion (61:48)