Paul Rand was born Peretz Rosenbaum on August 15, 1914 in Brooklyn, New York. He embraced design at a very young age, painting signs for his father's grocery store as well as for school events at P.S. 109. Rand's Father did not believe art could provide his son with a sufficient livelihood, and so he required Paul to attend Manhattan's Haaren High School while taking night classes at the Pratt Institute. Rand was largely "self-taught" as a designer, learning about the works of Cassandre and Moholy-Nagy from European magazines such as Gebrauchsgraphik." Rand Also attended Parsons The New School for Design and the Art Students League of New York.
The cover art for Direction magazine proved to be an important step in the development of the "Paul Rand look" that was not as yet fully developed. The December 1940 cover, which uses barbed wire to present the magazine as both a war-torn gift and a crucifix, is indicative of the artistic freedom Rand enjoyed at Direction; in Thoughts on Design Rand notes that it "is significant that the crucifix, aside from its religious implications, is a demonstration of pure plastic form as well . . . a perfect union of the aggressive vertical (male) and the passive horizontal (female)."
Although Rand was most famous for the corporate logos he created in the 1950s and 1960s, his early work in page design was the initial source of his reputation. In 1936, Rand was given the job of setting the page layout for an Apparel Arts (now GQ) magazine anniversary issue. "His remarkable talent for transforming mundane photographs into dynamic compositions, which [. . .] gave editorial weight to the page" earned Rand a full-time job, as well as an offer to take over as art Director for the Esquire-Coronet magazines. Initially, Rand refused this offer, claiming that he was not yet at the level the job required, but a year later he decided to go ahead with it, taking over responsibility for Esquire's fashion pages at the young age of twenty-three.
Rand's defining corporate identity was his IBM logo in 1956, which as Mark Favermann notes "was not just an identity but a basic design philosophy which permeated corporate consciousness and public awareness." The logo was modified by Rand in 1960. The striped logo was created in 1972. The stripes were introduced as a half-toning technique to make the IBM mark slightly less heavy and more dynamic. Two variations of the "striped" logo were designed; one with eight stripes, one with thirteen stripes. The bolder mark with eight stripes was intended as the company's default logo, while the more delicate thirteen stripe version was used for situations where a more refined look was required, such as IBM executive stationery and Business cards. Rand also designed packaging, marketing materials and assorted communications for IBM from the late 1950s until the late 1990s, including the well known Eye-Bee-M poster. Ford appointed Rand in the 1960s to redesign their corporate logo, but afterwards chose not to use his modernized design.
Although the logos may be interpreted as simplistic, Rand was quick to point out in A Designer's Art that "ideas do not need to be esoteric to be original or exciting." His Westinghouse trademark, created in 1960, epitomizes that ideal of minimalism while proving Rand's point that a logo "cannot survive unless it is designed with the utmost simplicity and restraint." Rand remained vital as he aged, continuing to produce important corporate identities into the eighties and nineties with a rumored $100,000 price per single design. The most notable of his later works was his collaboration with Steve Jobs for the NeXT Computer corporate identity; Rand's simple black box breaks the company name into two lines, producing a visual harmony that endeared the logogram to Jobs. Steve Jobs was pleased: just prior to Rand's death in 1996, his former client labeled him "the greatest living graphic designer."
During Rand's later career, he became increasingly agitated about the rise of postmodernist theory and aesthetic in design. In 1992, Rand resigned his position at Yale in protest of the appointment of postmodern and feminist designer Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, and convinced his colleague Armin Hofmann to do the same. In justification of his resignation, Rand penned the article "Confusion and Chaos: The Seduction of Contemporary Graphic Design," in which he denounced the postmodern movement as "faddish and frivolous" and "harbor[ing] its own built-in boredom".
Though Rand was a recluse in his creative process, doing the vast majority of the design load despite having a large staff at varying points in his career, he was very interested in producing books of theory to Illuminate his philosophies. László Moholy-Nagy may have incited Rand's zeal for knowledge when he asked his colleague, at their first meeting, if he read art criticism. Rand said no, prompting Moholy-Nagy to reply "Pity." Heller elaborates on this meeting's impact, noting; "from that moment on, Rand devoured books by the leading Philosophers on art, including Roger Fry, Alfred North Whitehead, and John Dewey." These theoreticians would have a lasting impression on Rand's work; in a 1995 interview with Michael Kroeger discussing, among other topics, the importance of Dewey's Art as Experience, Rand elaborates on Dewey's appeal:
Despite the importance graphic designers place on his book Thoughts on Design, subsequent works such as From Lascaux to Brooklyn (1996), compounded accusations of Rand being "reactionary and hostile to new ideas about design." Steven Heller defends Rand's later ideas, calling the designer "an enemy of mediocrity, a radical modernist" while Favermann considers the period one of "a reactionary, angry old man." Regardless of this dispute, Rand's contribution to modern graphic design theory in total is widely considered intrinsic to the profession's development.