Match Prints: Barney Bubbles vs. Paula Scher


“I love rock and roll…I can’t get enough of it! But I’m really sad the way it’s gone. I find all the young designers…and I’ve talked to a lot of them…they think they’re doing Art, and they talk about record covers as Art. They do one sleeve and they are already talking about what they are going to do for the next album cover. All that to me is highly suspect because you’ve got to wait, hear the music and meet the guys, and they tell you what they want and then it’s up to you to deliver that.”—Barney Bubbles, The Face, November 1981

“I had begun to find it increasingly difficult to control the quality of my work and to develop as a designer unless I was working on a pro bono basis or for a minimal fee for a design organization or design-industry client. This was depressing because I believed that the whole point of graphic design was to bring intelligence, wit, and a higher level of aesthetics to everyday products, the articles of mass culture. I did not want to be an ivory tower designer; I had little interest in theoretical exploration. My goals were to design things that would get made, to elevate popular taste through practice, and to make graphic design breakthroughs on real projects.” —Paula Scher, Make It Bigger

What is certain is that Bubbles maintained a powerful working momentum in the circumstances—drunken visits from The Damned, Wreckless Eric and others, Riviera and Robinson roaring into telephones and the odd cider bottle flying across the office. Only once did he find the lively atmosphere intolerable. An over-refreshed executive—it may have been Robinson—failed to hit the target in the lavatory on the floor above Bubbles’ desk, and ruined artwork with splashes that rained down from the loose floorboards overhead. “Barney was absolutely hopping mad,” says Glen Colson…“He came out screaming and shouting about that, and quite right too. But it was very funny.”—Paul Gorman, Reasons to Be Cheerful: The Life and Work of Barney Bubbles


Barney Bubbles was a unique design talent in a discipline offering an array of singular practitioners. Placing him in context and characterizing his particular aptitude can be challenging. His specific practices—design of music industry artifacts, illustration, painting, video, furniture—weren’t exclusive. In this variety, he was representative of the classic Modern design sensibility of total design.

Coming of age in the early 1960s, Bubbles was representative of his generation in many of his pursuits and attitudes. He moved from the standard agency practice to design for and about the rising youth culture (translation: he became a hippy). Popular culture—music—was supplanting corporate identity as the young designer’s muse and preferred client.

Focusing in on Bubbles’ particular obsessions—and a serendipitous conjunction—reveals his affinity with a contemporary designer who shares a similar career path and sensibility. Not only does this comparison offer insight into both designers’ activity, it outlines wider import in how modern design tenets will diverge in application based on biography and geography.

Among American designers—if not overall—current Pentagram partner Paula Scher is Bubbles’ closest counterpart. Immediately, there’s a fundamental difference between the two: fame. Both do have one monograph apiece, though Bubbles’ is posthumous. Scher is an established, internationally-renown and extensively discussed (though hardly examined critically) figure in design. Though steadily gaining in recognition, Bubbles remains a discovery and reclamation project. During his career, he could only dream of a visibility that readily came for Scher. Some can be attributed to his idiosyncratic design agenda. More to the limited regard afforded at the time to sleeve designers in the broader field.

Bubbles designed for a variety of labels but worked primarily for small independents like Stiff Records and its offshoots. By contrast, Scher earned visibility while working exclusively for a major in her album design career. Their respective careers cross at Scher’s employer, Columbia Records, the U.S. licensee of Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe albums.

In salient aspects, Bubbles and Scher coincide. Both made their names in record album design in the 70s, their activity roughly contemporaneous. Where Scher went directly from art school into the CBS Records advertising and promotion department, Bubbles began his design career in agencies and freelance a decade earlier, with occasional (and award-winning) forays into poster design for musical events. Overall, their career paths were roughly inverted.

Bubbles’ first LP design was in 1969 (Quintessence’s In Blissful Company, Island); Scher began designing albums in 1973 at Atlantic Records, moving to Columbia in 1974 until her departure nine years later. Bubbles, tragically, committed suicide in 1984.

Most significantly, they shared fundamental creative influences and strategies. Each began their album design career emphasizing illustration. Bubbles was his own artist, while it was an opportunity for Scher to commission her preferred illustrators. Her concepts were fairly straightforward and “illustrative,” with a Big Idea verbal/visual twist—prevalent still in professional design. Heat Wave’s Too Hot to Handle (1977) features a Robert Grossman image of a giant Epic Records album melting on a scorching sidewalk; Yardbirds Favorites (1977) has a David Wilcox rendering of assorted birds on the front lawn of a suburban American home.

Due to servicing clients like Hawkwind and its offshoots, Bubbles’ illustrations could be more outré and reflective of the hippy lifestyle. Still, they were descriptive and products of the same general method. A sleeve such as Kursaal Flyers’ Chocs Away! (UK Records, 1975)—with a melting chocolate airplane soaring into the sun—fits easily alongside Scher’s projects.

Some Bubbles and Scher works appear that they might be in dialog across time. The cover of My Aim Is True and its Keith Morris photos seem to envisage Scher’s mid-1990s Public Theatre poster series. Both display black and white photographed figures silhouetted against bright flat colors. Costello, however, wasn’t dancing, but was being choreographed—by Bubbles. The designer stood behind the photographer, according to Paul Gorman, “throwing moves and poses behind the camera to inspire and animate the singer.”

Both displayed a fascination with and virtuosity at reworking historical and vernacular styles. While they grounded their work in their respective country’s graphic heritage, they readily and adeptly incorporated expressions beyond their indigenous borders.

Scher has consistently employed distinctly American type styles dating from the early years of the 20th century. Employing aspects of American Modern design was a hallmark of counter-cultural/contra-European Modern expressions championed in the 1960s. Push Pin Studios is the most notable example and influence cited by Scher. Her early work regularly employed Cheltenham as serif, Franklin and Trade Gothics for sans, slab serifs, or utilized typography derived from wood type.

Bubbles also drew upon American influences, though from later in the century, eventually favoring an active Reid Milestyled letterplay that expanded to conjure the pre-Beatles 50s and early 60s era of rock and roll. Otherwise, his type choices largely reflected his training at his first design job under Michael Tucker: “Very Swiss; very hard; unjustified; very grey.” However, as did Jan Tschichold, Bubbles leavened his copy with standards like Plantin and Garamond.

A disparity is that Scher will regularly pursue a wholly typographic approach. Though no less expert and inventive with type, examples of a Bubbles type-only treatment —such as the concrete poetry-inspired Xitintoday (Nik Turner’s Sphynx; Charisma, 1978)—are rare.

Bubbles and Scher’s confluence is at early European Modernism, particularly Russian Constructivism. The coloration and structure of Scher’s famed Columbia “Best of Jazz” promotion poster is the most renowned exponent of this influence, though eclectically fused with her favored wood type styles.

Bubbles referenced El Lissitzky’s “PROUN” paintings to churn out a sleeve overnight for Ian Dury’s 1978 Stiff single, “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick.” The Bubbles blender mixed in stamp kit typography and origami.

With the sleeve of Armed Forces (Radar, 1978), Bubbles manufactured a supercollider of high and low art allusions that condensed all his obsessions in one place. Scher has no comparable multiplex masterwork but, as with the “Best of Jazz” poster, produced tour de forces that drew upon single or fused references.

Foremost is her 1984 identity for Capitol subsidiary label Manhattan Records. Wisely steering her client away from representations of buildings, she intuited a flexible and practical identity based upon Piet Mondrian’s painting Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942–43). The artwork is composed of the familiar De Stijl primary colored squares but reduced in scale and lacking the framing black grid. According to the Museum of Modern Art gallery label, “These atomized bands of stuttering chromatic pulses, interrupted by light gray, create paths across the canvas suggesting the city’s grid, the movement of traffic, and blinking electric lights, as well as the rhythms of jazz.”

Among the brew of art samples Bubbles splashed on the inside of Armed Forces is a segment of the classic Mondrian composition. Scher focused entirely on a later manifestation of the approach. Her identity reverberates visually and conceptually across multiple levels. Dovetailing together is a visual reference of music that also symbolizes the streets of New York.

While the formal aspects of Constructivism were a mutual, predominant attraction, for Scher the choice was always “pragmatic.” The “vaguely constructivist look” of the “Best of Jazz” poster happened because she was “rediscovering El Lissitzky and Aleksander Rodchenko at that time.” She was (and is), however, far from apolitical, evidenced by examples of opinionated work on a range of topical issues throughout her career.

Bubbles engaged the political ideals on another, personal level. On his self-titled blog, artist and Bubbles schoolmate David Wills writes:The great Russian artist El Lissitski (sic) was a big influence on Barney’s work. … Barney later called El “a hack” – but as I said, I suspect that was because El later buckled under Jo Stalin and became another Social Realist doing what he was told, something Barney always fought against with all his might.”

Another shared feature is the use and treatment of information design and data visualization. Both conspicuously utilize charts and graphs set to serio-comic ends. The two designers have it both ways: the “neutral” design form conveying both rhetoric and fact. Absurdity, rather than clarity, is foremost in the content of the graphics and the decision to use the form. They become profoundly apt in exposing their often-farcical topics. The cool detachment heightens the irrationality.

With Bubbles, it’s another episode of drawing attention to and disrupting the tropes of graphic design. He exposes the ploys while indulging in them. This may derive from a vacillating view of the value of graphic design. Layered on top of this is his similarly conflicted view of popular music. Bubbles highlights both the romance and reality of the rock and roll life for performer and audience. His devotion to the ideal of the music goes hand in hand with disclosing its disposable artifice. Graphic design is correspondingly ephemeral and profound.

In his interview for The Face in 1983, Bubbles stated, “I find it’s a big racket. I think everybody should own up, first of all that they’re doing it for the money and the art definitely comes second. All it is is rock and roll and it’s no big shakes. But at the same time I think commercial design is the highest art form.”

The two sides of the inner sleeve of Nick Lowe’s first solo album, Jesus of Cool (Radar, 1978), expose these conflicts. One side offers a graph of “The Artiste At Work,” over a monotone image of meshing machine gears. The horizontal scale details a chronological listing of Lowe’s output as band member, producer, and solo performer. The left hand vertical legend captions a steadily rising numbered scale: “Creative productivity output extrapolated from estimated work hours against an inverse ratio of critical acclaim.”

This is countered by the right hand caption for a sharply downward trending segmented line: “Actual analysis of product showing negative sales potential allied to public avoidance factor.” The satirical take on the lingo of A&R men echo the narratives of album tracks like opener “Music for Money” and “Shake and Pop.”

On the reverse side, a photo of a gymnast, frozen mid-leap, head circled, is labeled “The Artiste At Play.” The completion of the work/play adage is the closet to sense the graphic makes, with its image a dubious representation of the “artiste” and the activity an improbable leisure pursuit for a refurbished pub rocker.

The inner sleeve of Johnny Moped’s Cycledelic (Chiswick, 1978) hews closest to the Modern intention of the information graphic form. Here he adopts the format of Peter Frame’s “Rock Family Trees” to detail the band’s lineage. However, though the graphic plays it straight (earning praise from Frame for improving on his concept) Bubbles sees fit to disturbingly set it over a photo of troops arrayed at a Nazi rally.

Other incidences result from an uncomplicated design ideation but with Bubbles’ inventiveness shaping the result. Following its technological source, Bubbles devised a graph graphic for the logo and label of Radar Records. Eschewing the obvious sound waves, he creates a ‘scope displaying signal pulses that spell out “radar.”

The graphics of the inner sleeve of Elvis Costello’s fourth album Get Happy!! (F-Beat, 1980) offer no edifying data. On the front, three ellipses represent “Big Man,” “Tall Man,” and “Extra Wide Short Man” with type scaled and weighted according to the description. The portrayal resembles a children’s book page, or a basic expressive typography demo. Tying into the album’s title, the obverse offers the “Happy Man,” intersecting ellipses arrayed in an “atom” shape.

Incidences of infographics tail off in Bubbles’ later years. The entirety of the front cover of Wang Chung’s Points On A Curve (Geffen, 1982) is given over to a graph in a rare example of literality (save for the enigmatic Brian Griffin cover photo). And for the back of Billy Bragg’s Life’s A Riot With Spy vs. Spy (Utility, 1982), Bubbles anthropomorphizes a graph that updates a World War II propaganda poster: “Beware the Squander Bug” (which on the record’s label, is captioned “A Ration of Passion.”)

Where Bubbles made information graphics an occasional element in his sleeves, Scher’s applications emerged after her album career. (Her current cartographic paintings extend this interest into another medium.) Even if absurd in content, her use is strategic, never wandering into the surrealism of Bubbles’ specimens. Her focus and wit are keenly fixed.

An early effort is the cover of the 1985 Print magazine parody issue: “The Complete Genealogy of Graphic Design.” More Monty Python than Phil Meggs, the chart rambles through a bizarre cataloging of historical figures, most unconnected to the field. Arrows and dashed, solid, or squiggly lines suggest connections or couplings between unlikely figures: Herbert Bayer and Queen Elizabeth II seem to gotten busy (or something). If there’s a commentary on graphic design history, it’s decidedly elusive: “The whole insane chart moved through history until it ultimately arrived at Milton Glaser.”

In Make it Bigger, Scher makes diagrams a central element of the text. She provides them throughout in a serial explication of her central thesis that “judgments made about graphic design…often have little to do with the effectiveness of a given design in the marketplace and more to do with how human beings naturally behave in complicated hierarchical social situations.”


At first, the diagrams are functional tinged with humor: illustrating the approval processes at her workplaces, or contrasting “power” and “peon” office set ups. She then proceeds into more subjective—and astringent—presentations such as “Diagram of a Meeting” and “Personality Types in Combination.”

Unlike Bubbles, Scher isn’t struggling with or exploiting any contradictory impulses in her design. Ambiguity is the enemy of effective design. With her no-nonsense manner, Scher debunks any romanticism in the creative process. Much of the book’s text describes how worthy design is prevented: conditions related to the thesis above. Eluding them is the key—either through haste (rush jobs that short circuit the process) or indulgent clients (jazzers, mostly).

“Bob James was my first ideal client,” writes Scher of the musician and founder of Tappan Zee Records, “His was the only approval necessary…” Bubbles couldn’t agree more: “It’s just fun working with Jake (Riviera), we’d just walk around the block—‘cause he was so busy—it would all be done in five minutes. I could actually do what I wanted to do without being told off by the record companies that say: ‘Fantastic, but don’t you think…?’ and then they fuck it up!”

Arguably, Bubbles was allowed greater creative latitude in his situations. Major labels are risk- and cost-averse while the upstarts trade on the novelty of exotic packaging. Even as the company that, with Alex Steinweiss, pioneered the idea of album cover graphics, Columbia was staid and corporate.

Bubbles’ inventions were regularly bowdlerized or replaced in the U.S. (as occasionally were the musical contents of the albums). That Columbia was the U.S. distributor of a number of Bubbles-designed albums amply demonstrates the reality. If Scher had any awareness of Barney Bubbles, he would have served as a cautionary tale.

Scher’s is dead on in her analysis that the true determinants of design results are interpersonal dynamics and individual personality. Pushing distinctive design through the Columbia bureaucracy was likely a chore. However, she extrapolates this to all labels and fails to turn her jaded eye on herself.

Understandably, she attributes herself only the purest motives: “Money was irrelevant. It was more important to make uncompromised work.” There’s no reason to doubt her. But other motives go unspoken that play into her experience. One is plainly stated at the outset of her book: “Designers want to make things, or make things up, and have those things that they’ve made up seen, used, and appreciated by lots of people.”

Scher omits an important diagram that would complete her presentation. It should describe the inverse relationship between “uncompromised” and “lots.” In choosing to work for Columbia, she made a priority of the latter, depressing the likelihood of the former. Other labels, even other majors, offered greater creative freedom. Warner Bros.’ catalog was home to a variety of offbeat and artistic sleeves. Even Atlantic, the label she left for Columbia, issued sleeves that boasted “intelligence, wit, and a higher level of aesthetics.” But, in another unstated but crucial factor of the equation, they might not be of Scher’s aesthetic.

Other indices on the missing diagram probably should include geographical preferences. Working for Warners would likely require Scher living in L.A., which may be akin to a matter/anti-matter collision. And—though she excoriates it—a taste for corporate life. Stuffy as it may be, the corporate workspace was comparably sedate and neat. Scher may wryly depict the “peon” office she sought to escape—as described above, Bubbles literally labored in a “pee on” space.

Life is a series of trade-offs or compromises. Scher’s determination to defy this actuality is her defining trait. But where her otherwise refreshingly sober view of design activity lapses into fantasy is neglecting to account for this reality: choices must be made. Everything Scher says about the stultifying nature of corporate design is irrefutable. But the ultimate barrier isn’t the system, it’s the designer’s—her—choice of where to labor.

Bubbles likely recognized the trade-off and struggled with it. The Wang Chung commission got him a visible (hit single) major label job. But Points On the Curve ranks as one of the least interesting works in his oeuvre. While still avoiding the default cliché of sleeves—the band portrait is relegated to the back—it’s a disappointing effort. But when he makes something distinctive for a major—like The Psychedelic Furs’ Forever Now (CBS, 1982)—he only sees it get replaced with a New Wave cliché in the States.

Logo design is another difference between the two. Logos seemed to flow effortlessly out of Bubbles, all equally ingenious, no matter how spontaneous (“I phoned him and said, ‘I want a logo. It’s got to be black and white and square,’ Dury told Will Birch. ‘Then I heard somebody in his office say, ‘Wow’ and he said, ‘I’ve done it!’”)

He also deliberately fashioned more marks than he needed to (and probably was paid for). For both Stiff and F-Beat, he bespoke an array of marks that suggest a restless imagination or an abhorrence of design doctrine. However, they were masterful components of the labels’ brands and players in the larger identity game Bubbles was playing.

Scher is brief and self-effacing on the subject of logos: “I appreciated clever marks that had strong, simple, positive and negative shapes…but was never capable of designing them.” She states her preference for typography-based marks, such as the Manhattan Records logo. And though she discusses her Tappan Zee Records identity, its logo is neither reproduced nor mentioned. If it was Scher’s creation, it contradicts her evaluation of her facility with form.


If Bubbles has an iconic cover image, one that transcends its specific usage, it may be Elvis Costello’s second album This Years Model (Radar, 1978). Costello’s confrontational, table-turning stance became a symbol of the post-punk era, which preserved the provocation of punk while broadening its sonic palette.

At its core, the image is a direct conception of the record’s title and its source songs, a contraction of “This Year’s Girl,” and the “she’s last year’s model” lyric from “(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea.” Putting the artist on the cover is the no-brainer design strategy. Bubbles complicates the reading by extending Costello’s aggressive, anti-rock star poses from My Aim Is True. The U.S. version goes all-in in defying expectation, with the artist largely obscured, crouched behind the camera, peering over it at the viewer.

Scher’s most recognized cover is one she regards mordantly: the mega-selling eponymous first album of the group Boston (1975). Its appearance in Make It Bigger has the flavor of a musician dutifully but reluctantly performing a throwaway track that became a novelty hit. Scher gamely relates the gestation of the Roger Huyssen cover painting, perplexed at its ultimate ascendance to iconic status.

Of both the music and sleeve, Scher is dismissive: “Musically Boston is not a great album. “More than a Feeling” is decidedly mediocre, and so is everything about the album package, but it struck a chord with sixteen year-old boys and their girlfriends in 1976.” Even were I not of that specific age group at the time, Scher’s trivializing of an audience sounds snobbish—and commercially antagonistic. Aren’t sixteen year old boys and their girlfriends deserving of attention? More importantly, isn’t that a substantive chunk of the popular music market?


Scher is too savvy to not recognize “the strange chemistry and karma of hit music. Hits don’t really have anything to do with qualitative decision-making or careful planning. Genius or originality don’t guarantee hits; you can’t even rely on predictable, salable mediocrity. Hits are happenings in a particular period of time that manages to capture the imagination of a large but specific audience in a specific and personal way that defies all logical explanation.”

The lesson to and frustration for the graphic designer is that you can replace “hits” with “great graphic design” and it’s just as accurate.

For that 16 year old me (and now, actually), Boston was an amusing trifle that I felt warmth for because of its hometown origin. And though musically it was the antithesis of the punk and new wave I was bonding with, it was a scrappy anti-corporate move. The record was a basement-made, against-the-odds triumph of Tom Scholz, a moon lighting Polaroid engineer. That is so rock and roll. The sleeve was silly but what do you want?


By all measures, Scher nailed it with Boston as she did with no other sleeve. Her account of the hushed awe that greets her introduction as its designer verifies its power. The sticking point is that in her greatest success as a cover designer, Scher was simply a facilitator of the client’s “idiotic” idea. And the client was right. That is not supposed to happen. I can only imagine Scher thinking, If only that blockbuster had my design instead of that “stupidity.”

Barney Bubbles, who mined kitsch without irony, would be at peace with such a notion. A fleet of city spaceships vaporizing planets would be another day at the office for the guy that illuminated his own zany Space Ritual. He got it: “All it is is rock and roll and it’s no big shakes.” Rather than dropping the quality of sleeves with this attitude, he elevated it.

The Bubbles/Scher Venn diagram overlaps at Elvis Costello. Two artifacts cross over and demonstrate the designers’ affinities and departures: the 1980 U.S. compilation album Taking Liberties, and a Trust promotion poster.

Taking Liberties was a compilation of tracks that hadn’t seen release in the U.S.: either U.K. single A and B sides, or album tracks deemed “too British” by Columbia and removed or substituted. Its release came on the heels of Get Happy!! and sought to capitalize on the proliferating import market. In a clever reference, its title comes a lyric on the included song “Crawling to the U.S.A,” which satires American cultural domination.

Compilations represented a rare opportunity for Scher: “Repackages were generally nonpolitical album covers,” she writes in Make it Bigger, “antidotes” to the wrangling that occurs over new releases—bones thrown to persecuted designers.

Beyond her position as art director, it’s unknown how involved Scher was with the design. The densely set Franklin Gothic text is a Scher hallmark, along with its unfussy layout. Rather than commission an illustration or craft a total departure, the covers seems a concerted attempt to relate to some of Costello’s previous releases. A 1979 Brian Griffin photograph of Costello in L.A. (which also yielded images that adorned Armed Forces and its attendant Live at Hollywood High EP) wraps around to the back of the sleeve. The picture has been inverted so Costello reaches to the left to grasp the noodly line spelling out the title.

In upper left hand corner of the cover, the artist’s name is spelled out all caps in a super bold sans serif face. The scale of the type and its tri-coloration are nods toward prevalent new wave stylings. Overall, the sleeve is tasteful, functional, and ordinary.

The lone gesture to the conceptual play of Bubbles’ sleeves is the disc label. Adapting a design from the 1920s, the word “Columbia” is replaced on one side with “Costello.” Though Bubbles regularly invoked and evoked period design styles, the impact here is blunted by the age of the sample. It predates the musical eras Costello channels in his music. Later designs would have been both conceptually and graphically more representative and interesting.

But the genuine Bubblesian meta-move doesn’t come from the designers or is part of the album package. For the print ads, the text “And the corporation logo is flashing on and off in the sky” is placed underneath the legal text at the bottom. The line is from “Night Rally,” a song excised from This Years Model and included on Taking Liberties. Was someone in PR hip to Barney?


The more prominent and telling intersection is a poster for Costello’s 1981 F-Beat album Trust. Scher features this work in her book, the result of successfully lobbying for oversized posters—an instance where she wants to make it bigger.

Source material and time are scant for the project. The Brits only provide a “grim” Photostat of an image intended to be the “back cover” (it’s actually the front). Scher remains incurious about the source of the image. No credit or attribution is provided. It’s a still from a Bubbles-directed video for album track “New Lace Sleeves,” with a closeup of Costello’s head and shoulders. Head tipped downward, Costello stares up over his horn rims. For the album’s cover, Bubbles cropped the image and placed a handwritten title in the upper right hand corner. It’s the shadow of Costello’s specs on his face that grabs Scher’s attention.

To mask the poor quality of the image, she pumps up the scale and the hue saturation. Perhaps as an unconscious gesture to the (musical) New Wave style of acid bright colors (Scher avers she can’t provide a specific rationale for the choice), she fills the lenses of Costello’s glasses with solid hues of red and blue. The portrait is bracketed top and bottom with the text TRUST ELVIS in the manner of a campaign poster. “Costello on Columbia” sprouts from Costello’s left ear. All type is in Scher’s preferred call-back slab serifs with the ear-emergent text set akin to a broadside.

Scher’s proof for the poster’s success is its subsequent widespread in-house theft when delivered fresh off the press. The volume of larceny executed by record company employees could be considered a measure of validation (where’s the diagram for that?) but is hardly authoritative. And fetching high prices as a collectable is similarly problematic. If sticky-fingered Columbia cogs snapped up the majority, scarcity could be the driving force. These rationales also don’t affirm of Scher’s original argument for the oversized poster: that shops would clear space for such a product. Did they? Maybe none were left.

As a Costello fan at the time, I was aware of the poster and didn’t care for it. It possessed none of the smart, feisty energy of the music or graphics of the U.K. releases. Its coloration seemed affected, a cynical designer’s sop to New Wave fashion. The typography was incongruously “American” and “soft”—it felt more suitable for label-mate Billy Joel. Altogether, it made a dynamic performer bland and routine. Then again, maybe my desire was sated because I possessed an Armed Forces promotion poster, gifted by the owner of my local record store.


I agree with Scher that the poster is “well designed.” Considering the standards of her work, that’s hardly a concession, more a recognition of the obvious. Today, it’s desirable to me, but because of its provenance. The poster is the same but I’ve changed; it’s acquired new meaning. But while I admire it, I don’t love it like practically anything Bubbles might have done.

Reflexively, I try to attribute this to something in the design and not in me. As always, I blame Modernism. Its intellectual framework still suffuses our minds and insists everything resides in the object. But sometimes that object stars metropolis-bearing guitar spacecraft and everything goes haywire.

Looking into the designer only gets us so far and isn’t definitive. Bubbles loved rock and roll, a capricious but potentially indulgent client. His designs aspired to rock and roll in form: resonant, indulgent, transgressive…and merchandise. Scher preferred jazz and other less commercial musics. The artists were less image-conscious and open to illustration. They got out of a designer’s way. Rock was messy.

For Scher, sleeves were just another “everyday product” to bring a “higher level of aesthetics to.” Bubbles also endeavored for the latter but the former would be a gross simplification. He had abandoned the everyday product to embrace, for him, a higher plane of product. Albums had a special meaning for him.

It’s a truism that a designer’s personal engagement with the subject can result in better design. Bubbles obviously was more invested in rock and roll than Scher (I can’t track her personal taste at all from Make It Bigger). But any attribution of that as a deciding factor is belied by all of Scher’s consummate work for a variety of other cultural clients. All seem to have as much of her attention as any other.

And while the music didn’t mean as much to her as it did Bubbles (who played in bands and issued his own album), album covers did. Intriguingly, Scher cites three successive Beatles albums—Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, The Beatles—as emblematizing all design: “Everything everyone ever needed to know about graphic design was in those three album covers.” As exquisite as her taste is, it’s ironic that none are the work of a graphic designer.

Two are famously by contemporary British fine artists—Peter Blake and Jann Haworth for Sgt. Pepper, Richard Hamilton for ‘The White Album,” and Klaus Voorman—long-time band friend, artist and bass player—illustrated the front cover of Revolver. None follow the deliberate design process Scher adheres to. (Though “The White Album” arguably might to a degree. Hamilton’s proposal for the stark white cover was in deliberate contrast to the florid psychedelic fashion of the day—a strategic design move displaying an awareness of the marketplace.) Even if the concept/sketch/execution stages were followed, the decision to turn to fine artists and not graphic designers set them apart from the norm.

In his process and product, Bubbles seems closer to the spirit of these iconic sleeves. His works could be startling blends of unexpected imagery and eccentric interpretations of commercial imperatives. The variable covers of My Aim Is True and Do It Yourself were Bubbles own skewed updates of the editioned “White Album.”

Scher’s covers are textbook examples of contemporary professional graphic design process at its best. Every step is exacting and the result highly polished and fluent. In her employ of top illustrators and photographers, Scher’s sleeves were like the many popular records they housed, featuring top session players recorded in the best studios. Results were consistent and flawless.

For some, this was something to rail at: “…all those other faceless LPs involving this floating crap game of technically impeccable hacks,” spat Lester Bangs in 1975. This attitude provoked another music, and another design, that valued spirit over proficiency. Or, more accurately, fostered a different definition of skill.

Scher was, and remains, an exemplary practitioner of the established conception of design. Bubbles expanded that model in every direction. They each served their clients well. And the audience? As John Lydon chanted, “This is what you want, this is what you get.”

Despite abundant and exemplary work in the area, Scher isn’t usually included in the roll call of major cover designers, not the way Bubbles is. The reason may be that it was a short prologue to a long and distinguished design career. She quit Columbia and seldom looked back (you should have kept the original, ladies).

Considering the wonders to come later, this stands a major what if. Sleeves designed by the creator of the Public Theatre posters or Ballet Tech would have been epic. However, reading Scher herself, they may not have been possible within the contexts she chose to work. Leaving album design apparently was required for Scher to fully realize her design vision.

Though Bubbles anticipated his departure from album design in his later years and expanding into new areas, it wasn’t by choice. He expressed regret about being supplanted by younger practitioners. “They’re so creative—the kids that do the sleeves—it makes me feel so staid and boring, and I think: I’ve got to get out, it’s time for me to go.”

This is another facet of attitude: Bubbles was reflecting his client industry, not his profession. Rock and roll was a young person’s game. At 39, he was a dinosaur. This could only be exacerbated going through the crucible of punk and it’s past-rejecting ethos. Only through ferocious talent had he escaped scorn for his hippy origins.

Of course, Bubbles’ potential beyond record covers will be the most profound what if. On his own, the early death makes the heart ache for what was never realized. For me, Paula Scher’s masterpieces come after the cover career, in a steady upward trajectory of achievement. Many can’t be predicted from what came before, which is only testament to her talent. Bubbles, despite his apprehension, showed no sign of his talent slacking. Comparing Bubbles and Scher heightened my appreciation of both. And sharped my sense of loss. Damn you, bless you both.

Note: This is the second part of my ongoing study “Barney Bubbles: Offset Identities,” the first part of which is the previous entry in the “Writing” section. Both of these essays (and those to follow) owe a debt to and draw from Paul Gorman’s book Reasons To Be Cheerful: The Life and Work of Barney Bubbles (Adelita, 2010) for details and quotes about Bubbles’ life and work.

Work in progress—Barney Bubbles: Offset Identities


“When I went to art school, we were trained to be designers—if you could draw you became an illustrator; if you could just about draw, you became a designer; if you were just hopeless they would put you into exhibition display.” —Barney Bubbles, The Face, November 1981

There’s an astonishing quote residing on page 136 of Paul Gorman’s monograph Reasons to Be Cheerful: The Life and Work of Barney Bubblesone that only graphic designers can fully appreciate. It’s in a brief anecdote that succinctly summarizes why the man born Colin Fulcher is the graphic designer sui generis. Non-designers reading the sentence would likely skim right over it, unaware of its import.

The subject is the proposed title for musician Elvis Costello’s third album; the speaker is Costello’s long time manager and label honcho Jake Riviera (once known as Andrew Jakeman). Bubbles had already designed Costello’s first two albums, as part of his role as lead designer at Stiff and then Radar Records. “Originally Elvis wanted to call it Emotional Fascism but Barney was totally against that, so it became Armed Forces.”

By this time in the book, Gorman has provided numerous examples of notoriously strong-willed reps and artists contentedly deferring to Bubbles’ judgment. That this instance stars the acid-tongued and headstrong former Declan MacManus is of no special import. (The degree of Bubbles’ disfavor, however, intensifies between editions of Gorman’s book; the first quoting Riviera that “Barney just didn’t like it”).

Costello himself relates a different, briefer account in his recent memoir, Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink, one that doesn’t necessarily contradict Riviera’s telling. “Accepting that no radio station would play a record called Emotional Fascism, the album was eventually titled Armed Forces,” writes Costello. While Bubbles isn’t explicitly given agency for the change (nor is anyone), the designer is immediately invoked in the next sentence: “It came wrapped in a folding envelope of Barney Bubbles’ pop art design.”

A simple swap of common for proper nouns illustrates what makes Riviera’s statement so astounding: “Originally the client wanted to call it X but the designer was totally against that, so it became Y.” That sentence, especially among designers, is unheard of. Usually, designers take what they get. At best, they might boast of swaying the client to a particular approach for the art. Even among designers famed for their association with particular labels, such as Reid Miles and Blue Note, Vaughn Oliver at 4AD, or Barbara Wojirsch of ECM, this type of influence is unprecedented. And for designers overall? That’s crazy talk.

In his book, Gorman’s fuzzy on exactly why Bubbles enjoys such favor. Multiple individuals who worked with the designer testify to his “genius.” It’s the last statement in the book, provided by Nick Lowe on why there’s a book in the first place: “Barney was the closest we’ll ever get to genius, we’ve got no choice.”

The constituents of Bubbles’ virtuosity, however, aren’t really articulated. This is unfortunately common with the majority of designer profiles. The subject’s superiority is regarded as self-evident—just look at the work. As rewarding as that is, the visual aspect is only one aspect of his facility. That Bubbles was provided unparalleled authority and latitude is established. However, what’s more significant and profound is what Bubbles did with his favor.

In terms of skill, he was virtuosic at everything he took on. Short of photography, he handled every possible aspect of realizing a graphic design piece. His illustrative proficiency in pen was matched by his painting, equaled with his collage. His typography was unerring and exacting in contemporary and historic styles, plus displaying a range of arresting emotions and evocations.

But it was in his conceptualizing, its acuity and comprehensiveness, that he remains unparalleled. In many instances, Bubbles went places with his work that designers—and definitely clients—wouldn’t think to go. Most wouldn’t recognize Bubbles’ endpoint as a potential destination. All the while, he was adhering to and espousing the fundamental, mundane commercial imperatives of graphic design and advertising. But rather than following the orthodox, predetermined route to a result, he truly started from zero, remaking design as he added on.


He was a riddler wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma slipped within a foot square cardboard folder. That’s the perception at the tone-arm’s-length distance between an LP sleeve designer and the record-buying audience. Though Bubbles had the freest of hands over content, he declined to draw attention to his role by setting it in type. Even though he sported an alias, Barney Bubbles eschewed a design credit, to this day making a full inventory of his work an ongoing venture.

It wasn’t, however, a striving for anonymity. It was a selective withholding that drew attention to itself. Bubbles toyed with ideas of identity and identification throughout his work. In this, as he was in all pursuits, Bubbles was fully invested. His design, his art, had no conceptual boundary. The design credit —and lack thereof—was an element of the design concept. That concept, and his art, extended outward and was ultimately his life.

As if one nom de design wasn’t enough, Bubbles inserted an additional layer of offset identity by employing an assortment of fanciful pseudonyms (“Big Jobs, Inc., Grove Lane, Sal Forlenza, Jacuzzi Stallion, Dag, Heeps Willard”) or cryptic designations (his VAT—tax identification—number on Get Happy!!) as identifiers. His mask donned masks; Bubbles existed as a Constructivist-decorated nesting doll.

The absent acknowledgements was another throwback move, much like the period styles and references Bubbles transmuted for his layouts. It was only in the late 60s, a few years before he began doing sleeve work, that it became customary for designers to be provided a credit. Skipping it was simply consistent on sleeves that graphically evoked the previous era.

By using alternate aliases, Bubbles showed his game wasn’t anonymity but evasiveness. Ironically, a further proof can be found in his use of “Barney Bubbles” in design credits. Prior to his joining the Stiff circus in 1977, spotting a variation of “Sleeve design: Barney Bubbles” wasn’t uncommon. While unusual in his graphics, he was conventional in noting his agency.
Personally and professionally, the punk era marked a transition for Bubbles. He pared down both his personal appearance—gone was the beard, long hair and wardrobe of his hippy days—and graphic approach (Gorman: “brutal cropping, stark isolation of images, gritty photo-play”).

However, while the “Barney Bubbles” moniker spanned these periods as his preferred personal identity (Gorman quotes Stiff staffer Suzanne Spiro: “As much as I got to know him, I never knew his real name and in a way I think it’s a shame it’s been revealed. If you asked him he would just shrug his shoulders and giggle”), its removal from the album credits was simply conceptual due diligence.

Even then, it was a porous barrier. Work outside the Stiff/Radar/F-Beat network might note: “Sleeve design: Barney Bubbles” (Clover, Unavailable, Polygram, 1977) or “Sleeve design and artwork: Barney Bubbles” (Dr. Feelgood, A Case of the Shakes, United Artists, 1980). Still, releases with Bubbles’ design such as Depeche Mode’s debut Speak and Spell (Mute, 1981), and The Psychedelic Furs Forever Now (CBS, 1982) only acknowledge their photographers.

When asked how he regarded his role in his lone published interview (The Face, November 1981) and why he shunned a credit, Bubbles’ answer would have made any old school Modernist design pro proud: “I feel really strongly about what I do, that it is for other people, that’s why I don’t really like crediting myself on people’s albums—like you’ve got a Nick Lowe album, it’s NICK LOWE’s album not a Barney Bubbles album!”

Practically, being dodgy about his credits had a deleterious impact on Bubbles’ professional career. As noted above, bands outside of his home base sought him out. This extended to superstar territory: in 1978, The Who’s management invited him to propose a design for Who Are You. (Bubbles’ concept of spelling the title out in power cables was rejected but adapted for the photo that was eventually used.) However, according to Paul Gorman, Bubbles shopped his portfolio in 1982 “to some of the bigger music labels, only to hear his unsigned work had already been claimed by others.”

Gorman documents other brushes with high-profile music-industry clients, showing Bubbles had visibility and credibility in the field. Aborted and unrealized projects go with the territory. Gorman also cites unnamed sources as speculating that Bubbles’ naming evasiveness was a tactic to avoid tax problems. If so, it was inconsistent—and ineffective.

That Bubbles’ was engaged in a comprehensive gaming of identity is affirmed by his extension of the play into the graphics. In at least two prominent instances, Bubbles inserted fanciful self-portraits onto album covers. Right away, this is the ultimate audacity for a designer. The first example, considered a definite representation of his profile, is on Armed Forces—the record that Bubbles demanded and received a title change. He can be found in the abstract shapes to the left of the yellow paint splattered title “Elvis Costello and the Attractions Armed Forces.”

af_mini_innerbag_open_01In its original U.K. incarnation, this graphic is within the package, after unfolding the back flaps. The designer is literally behind the scenes on the album, embodied at the center of a mélange of high and low historical graphic styles. In a delightful irony, Columbia, Costello’s U.S. label at the time, evidently finding the U.K. cover unacceptable (a deliberately-kitsch painting of stampeding elephants adorned with discreet typography) made the inner splatter graphic the front image. Having rejected the designer’s preferred layout—probably as too British and obscure with tiny type—the company punished Bubbles by putting his grinning face on its cover.

For the second—though Paul Gorman hedges that the image is possibly lead singer Lee Brilleaux—it would be in keeping if Barney Bubbles’ profile was again dead center on the illustrative cover of Dr. Feelgood’s 1982 album Fast Women & Slow Horses. Seeing stars after an implied punch from a buxom, boxing-gloved mare, the man’s face emerges from the top of a large black ampersand. If it’s Bubbles, he is again one with the artwork. He is (the) design. Another potentially sly reference is that as a designer, his role is an “&” to the musicians.


In adopting a creative guise—one evidently identical with his everyday semblance—he was in league with the musicians for whom he designed. Many adopted or were given stage names, especially at Stiff. Bubbles was back-stage named. Even if using their natal names, artists craft professional personas. These are carefully managed and strategically deployed. However genuine and real that singer seems, it’s a performance. Sincerity is how convincing you repeatedly enact intimacy with an audience.

Bubbles’ deep interest in the avant-garde art from the beginning of the 20th century also suggests a purpose. In her introduction of the catalog for National Gallery of Art’s 2006 exhibition Dada: Zurich, Berlin, Hannover, Cologne, New York, Paris, Leah Dickerman, Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the National Gallery, writes, “Artists within the movement gave birth to a striking number of alter egos, which served as parodic, at times debased, inversions of a rational and authoritative masculinity.” Dickerman points to Duchamp’s “Rrose Sélavy” as the ultimate reversal with the artist changing sex.

Bubbles never ventured into this realm of invention; his pseudonyms were all masculine. His life/design still adeptly illustrated how identity is mutable. Individuality is a postmodern playground, not a fixed state. He did this through the panoply of bespoke logos he generated for Stiff and F-Beat—and with himself. Bubbles formed an identity that was composed of its antithesis: flux. He grasped intuitively the elements that make up graphic identity and handled them effortlessly. Along the way, he effectively branded musicians and labels.

Note: This is the introductory section of what will be an extended essay on Barney Bubbles that will further discuss his identity play in his logos, the clues provided by his album as “The Imperial Pompadours,” his influence on contemporaries such as Malcolm Garrett and Peter Saville, a comparison/contrast with Paula Scher (who worked at Columbia designing albums at the same time as Bubbles was working), his unique status exploring and exploiting the physical aspects of commercial print production, his fascination with regal imagery (“King BB”), and more!

Conjure Man: The Evocations of Mark Andresen

Note: In 2008, Eye magazine published my profile of Mark Andresen, titled “Pesky Illustrator.” It was actually the second version I produced, after editor John Walters requested a different slant to the article. While I was content with the directive and the result, I remain fond of the original piece, which is reproduced below.) 


The VouDou practice of conjuring is an evocative metaphor for illustration. A conjurer employs common, native materials to “evoke Spirits for practical ends.” An illustrator crafts an image to summon awareness toward a worldly result. There’s also the magical, unpredictable, and somewhat spooky aura that surrounds conjuring—it’s otherworldly. And the most profound imagery is ultimately ineffable—affective beyond its constituent colors, forms, and materials.

This comparison is apt when applied to illustrator/graphic and type designer Mark Andresen, long-time New Orleans documenter, and now, exile. He fled an hour or two ahead of Hurricane Katrina, accompanied by his wife Paula and their cats. Among their few belongings were some notebooks Paula insisted on taking, and the computer hard-drive he grabbed. Nearly everything they left behind, including the bulk of his life’s work, was ruined. The hard-drive contained images of most of his work. But of the physical pieces, little more than a tenth was eventually saved from the subsequent storm damage and looting.

Now situated in Atlanta, Georgia, he simultaneously downplays his personal account while doing all he can to invoke the memory his former, adopted home. He’s determined not be defined solely by his personal tragedy, yet is resolute in keeping its spirit animate. Like a psychic medium, he’s conflicted: charged with giving voice while uncomfortable being the focus of attention. At the same time, Andresen’s voice is distinctive on its own.

That voice is a rough mix of channeled personalities. Andresen describes himself as a blend of Marcel Duchamp, the reincarnated White Russian spy Sidney Reilly (who’s still grudged about his Bolshevik murderers), and Klattu—the Michael Rennie character from the sci-fi film The Day the Earth Stood Still: “I’m a bit alien to what passes for normal and I think my karmic task is to wake up planet Earth to change.”

Andresen has strong opinions about art, design and politics—especially what he considers the corrupt and callous practices of the U.S’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)—and is unreserved when expressing them. During its heyday, few discussions on the Speak Up design blog lacked a demonstrative post from “Pesky Illustrator.” He’s keeping at it, rambling, determined, selfless, and sardonic.

The ideal of making something enduring and preserving the past was impressed upon Andresen early. He grew up in the New Jersey suburbs, where his parents were artists, but his father gave up art to work on the 1960s U.S. space program. His mother was an amateur Egyptologist, capable of writing hieroglyphics. On a trip to New York’s Metropolitan Museum, one image captivated him: “I saw the hand of some ancient Egyptian artist in the moment of putting quill to papyrus . . . it struck me what immortality is.”

He studied art at the Pratt Institute in New York from 1967–1969, but dropped out before graduating, and hitchhiked across the country. Back in New York he began work at an ad agency, “drawing things.” In the mid-80s, moved to Atlanta, to work as a designer on Atlanta magazine. Andresen enjoyed the work, and was successful at it, though he seldom lasted long in a job.

He moved to New Orleans in 1987 when he was offered a position redesigning New Orleans magazine. Andresen found the city to be an endless, vivid source of imagery-the people, the culture, the architecture — a “place of carefree joy and mysterious pleasure.” What isn’t outwardly flamboyant can contain wonders: “the front door is nothing to speak of but it’s lush on the inside.”

His fascination with VouDou led him to be initiated into the religion. VouDou isn’t a practice you can observe: you must be a “participant or nothing” to witness its activity. VouDou brought Andresen a new perspective on his creative activity. Illustration and VouDou are joined in “pulling out the hidden meanings of things.” The true essence of VouDou is service to others, as image making is also a revelatory act for its audience.

Andresen’s New Orleans job ended in a year, after a falling out with the editor, so he moved into freelance illustration, primarily for ad agencies. But Andresen’s mercurial nature extends to his illustration and complicates matters. He found illustration representatives befuddled by his responsive, chameleon changes of media in his work. One-trick ponies are easier to place (and show). But Andresen’s expressions go beyond pragmatically marketing himself. Ultimately, the demands of the project determine the illustration method.

When he was called on to create an image of the seventeen Mardi Gras Indian Chiefs, Andresen turned for the first time to realism. He wanted a recognizable, group portrait. Four hundred hours of study of gouache technique resulted in the final work, reproduced in a now rare poster.

Illustrators are proficient in a variety of methods, and Andresen, like a good conjurer, is adept with what’s on hand. He presses letterforms (in the form of rub-downs) into image service.

Andresen moves between illustration and design, sometimes combining the tasks on jobs, and regards himself as more the latter than the former. To any given project, his awareness of the entirety of the process brings ideas beyond the typical illustrator. He strives for literate graphics, responsive to the design situation and possessed of a depth of knowledge of the subject

Some jobs have paid long-term dividends, such as his on-going relationship with McIlhenny Tabasco Sauce. Andresen has crafted thousands of illustrations for the family-owned business over just a few years, from the de rigueur leprechauns for St. Patrick’s Day ads to dancing Cajuns adorning Tokyo subway cars. Andresen’s commissions from McIlhenny are now on hold, as the company recovers from being hit hard by both hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

In 2003, Andresen was contacted Monique McCall of the New Orleans mayor’s office to remake his city’s symbol. McCall, who handled graphics for the city, had begun restyling the iconic fleur-de-lis. Andresen investigated other symbols but was directed to return to McCall’s original drawing. By hand, he redrew the symbol, providing a symmetry that was missing from previous incarnations. Andresen considers himself a “co-creator” with McCall of the resultant mark, as she established the “essence” of what emerged.

Still in use, the logo was used broadly, from stationery to chocolates. This widespread treatment became another bittersweet aspect of Katrina. Normally, a designer would thrill to behold his logo on every city vehicle. However, not if those vehicles ended up on the TV screen—awash in floodwaters.

Merely observing has never satisfied Andresen: he remains an informal, often mordant commentator on design blogs. He’s likely to weigh in on anything: sexism in the field (“Must seem irritating to competent women designers to always be excluded or patronized, except for the anointed few. If it’s changed up in the star-celebrity designer Pentagramworld Pantheon someone tell me differently.”), the vulgarity of popular culture (“There will never be another Guernica because that requires a consensus of decency and outrage. I think the absence of both is a sign of a death culture in progress.”), and his choice to employ a pseudonym when posting comments (“I’m for anonymity whoever wants it. The reassurance of non-traceable identity in a world were real privacy issues are eroding seems like a subject worth studying. As Hakim Bey, author of The Temporary Autonomous Zone writes, in the future being anonymous will be a privilege.”)

His visual punditry went public in the early 1990s when he sent Emigre editor Rudy VanderLans “funny faxes” — some of which ended up in its pages — that commented wryly on the magazine’s obsessions. Such as Andresen’s conceptual “My New Typeface.” “The typeface consisted of only two characters,” VanderLans recalled, “one had all vowels placed on top of each other with the instruction ‘use for vowels.’” Consonants received a similar treatment. “This was during the days when we published a lot of experimental typefaces in Emigre. Mark has a way of bringing people down to earth. His tongue-in-cheek type submission made good fun of the absurdity of some of the so-called experimentation of the time.”


One of these whimsical submissions became an actual typeface. For the text on a early 80s music club poster, Andresen used fragments of Caslon swash italic press type. He repeated the process to expand on the few original letters. Zuzana Licko then tweaked Andresen’s creation, establishing a baseline, while Andresen expanded it to a full character set. Emigre released the font, appropriately dubbed “Not Caslon,” in 1995.

In the midst of a decade littered with extremist type fabrications, Not Caslon was a conspicuously sly creation. It transcended the timely and disposable faces that proliferated, being contemporary in conception and historic in reference. Not Caslon remains an eccentric and refreshingly unaffected typeface in name and form. Applications have ranged from Madonna and Lou Reed CD packages, to scarves, wine bottle labels, and Cirque du Soleil.

Andresen showcases the entirety of his talents in a 2001 specimen booklet for the typeface. He wrote, designed and illustrated an episode when his VouDou godmother, Reverend Lorita Honeycutt Gamble (“a decent lady working spiritually”) dispels a troublesome ghost, the former occupant of a coffin discovered buried in Andresen’s front yard. Through the Reverend’s ministrations (which include cigars, beans, rum and a rooster), the 200-year-old spirit is induced to return to his casket.


The sampler is just a taste of the visual flavors cataloged in Andresen’s 2006 book, New Orleans As It Was. It’s an elegy to the city that’s comprised of work scavenged from saved notebooks and what survived in the storm. Andresen’s original intent was to create a limited edition as a gift to people who had helped him after Katrina. Rudy VanderLans offered to help with the design, and suggested contacting Gingko Press for wider distribution. At his wife’s urging, Andresen proposed the book. Gingko agreed and put the project on a fast track to release.

The publisher took the book as submitted. For Andresen, the process of organizing the images was wrenching but therapeutic. To do the project helped him from “unraveling” in the year following the disaster. Portrayals of the after-Katrina destruction were set aside. The lone image related to the aftermath is on the book final page: a man, chest high in floodwater (his T-shirt sporting the fleur-de-lis symbol), balancing a box containing a child on his head. The sketch is made on a Red Cross info sheet for evacuees.

Images of New Orleans’ “fleeting moments” — musicians, preachers, chiefs, monuments, ‘absurdly comedic’ structures, the ‘walking, talking Surrealism of Mardi Gras — are interspaced with brief texts and captions by Andresen. While he apologetically terms his words “purple prose,” they are sentimental but never maudlin. “The population of this city always knew they shared the land with ghosts of the past. You can count among those spirits the pirate Jean Lafitte, Buddy Bolden and Louie Armstrong; the fancy ladies of Storyville; the countless drifters and adventurers who came down the Mississippi River looking for work or trouble; and the elegant Creole families who carved civilization out of the swampland; the French, Arcadians, Spanish, English, Germans, and later the Irish and Sicilians. And, of course, the slaves and Free People of Color who brought their own Afro-Caribbean secrets to this wild place.” When his relatives wonder why he didn’t draw “nice things” instead of “hookers, old buildings and winos”, Andresen dryly replies that “They stood still for me.”

VanderLans designed an all type cover for the book that resembles a placard, or historic marker. It also suggests those New Orleans houses with plain doors Andresen cherished. VanderLans’ own photographic explorations of Western landscapes make the book the product of two artists intimately engaged with place.

Katrina was a diving point for Andresen and the city, and ending that stretches on. He lives and works now in his wife’s hometown of Atlanta, still a struggling “working stiff,” who gives little thought to career building. Practically all the work he scrapes together comes, ironically, from New Orleans. Andresen remains a “sucker for pro bono.” He teaches occasionally, stays connected to the designers’ network. “Designers cluster,” he says. Illustrators are lone wolves, who, more than designers, regard their peers as competition.

Andresen’s house in Metairie section of New Orleans has since been repaired and sold. Work still comes from New Orleans but not enough to make a move back feasible. He doesn’t foresee returning—physically—anytime soon. New Orleans is a “cubist city now,” he says, “all angular and broken.” For the 2007 design annual issue of Print magazine, Andresen wrote a short piece on illustrators from New Orleans, that typically directed attention away from himself, and contained far less of the story he could write.

“I’m still feeling dislocated. I am now a man caught between two cities: one I remember and one that survived.” He’s adamant that Katrina will not dominate his life but sometimes he’s breached by the anger and sorrow of the loss. The sorrow is for the city, and a way of life. Andresen isn’t sentimental or despairing of the work that he had to dispose of after Katrina. “I can always draw again,” he says. He knows too many people who suffered greater losses.

Atlanta yields some subjects for his sketchbooks—“water and trees,” “outcroppings of weeds”—but nothing like New Orleans. There will be no more jubilant images of that city from Andresen. But there will be others. “I need more. I don’t think of myself as only an illustrator but some broader, designer sense . . . a conceptualist. A conjurer if you want…”

It is this broader sense that’s Andresen’s strength, and a rare example of his full potential and ability. As skilled and inventive as he is as an illustrator, it’s almost a disappointment that he represents other people’s words, and writes in blog posts. Andresen is a natural storyteller, possessed with a unique voice and the ability to wholly give the tale form, from the shape of the words’ characters, to the accompanying images. In this way, the Not Caslon type sampler stands as his most through and effecting work. An Andresen account of Katrina could be that tragedy’s In the Shadow of No Towers (presented with this proposal, Andresen demurs; he evacuated and didn’t experience the full calamity.).

However, though he’ll always, by choice, be associated with New Orleans, his stories could be about anything. The stories would likely be lush, discomforting and very real.

Paul Rand: From Abacus to Zeus


1: The occasion determines the type

It was Paul Rand’s 100th birthday in August. I thought I should send a card and, finally, express my feelings about the famed designer. Really, if you’re going to write about design, how can you not consider its most storied practitioner? Not to would just be bad form (ha ha). Sure, I cast him in cameo appearances for an essay here and there. Often, I admit, in an unflattering light. It was time to give him his full due.

I intended something short and sweet—but not sloppy. Something along the lines of “Hey! I get it! ♥ KFG.” It seemed appropriate under the circumstances, Rand not being much for sentimentality, despite all the ♥’s that dot his work. But soon I was scribbling thoughts all across the card’s inside, down the back, and over the front, obliterating the picture and the printed message. I ended with a cluttered, unstructured mess. Mr. Rand might regard it as a deliberate provocation—an in your face on his big day. Worse still, I ended up expressing my love for someone else.

2: The birth of a new package

On the occasion of Rand’s centenary, Chronicle Books brought out a new edition of Thoughts on Design, the legend’s first book. Here was the primary document of graphic design, available again in paperback and for your Kindle. I first wrote “modern graphic design” in that last sentence but realized the modifier was unnecessary, redundant. By design’s accounts, this is where it all began.

As moderately priced as the new edition is, I wasn’t tempted to pick one up. That’s because I’m fortunate to own a copy of the 1951 Wittenborn & Company second edition (purchased at a library remainder sale for $1—a steal from its previous owner, who had to fork over $5, according to the penciled notation on the title page). Since this was billed as the return of the landmark tome, I could just consult my find to opine on the Master’s masterwork.

I expeditiously navigated the book’s 136 main text pages: 97 of them entirely composed of reproductions of Rand’s work or containing no more than a paragraph of text, another 16 either totally blank or having just a caption for the facing page reproduction of a design piece. But I quickly became disoriented when I perused on line commentaries on what I’d just encountered.

The first perplexing instance was reading Michael Bierut’s introduction for the reprint, posted at Design Observer. The subtitle for the article on the site’s home page immediately didn’t jibe: “On Paul Rand’s 96-page masterpiece.” 96? What was he counting? Reading the article, I was confronted with other disparities.

“This, perhaps, has never been said better than in the book’s most quoted passage,” Bierut wrote, “the graceful free verse that begins Rand’s essay ‘The Beautiful and the Useful.’ Graphic design, he says, no matter what else it achieves, ‘is not good design if it is irrelevant.’”

I had just read the book and couldn’t recall such a passage. And it wasn’t as if the text was that long to slip my mind. You could possibly commit the entirety—captions too—to memory and recite it verbatim in short order. “Graceful free verse”? That described nothing in my copy, all straight prose paragraphs. Were we reading the same book?

It turned out we weren’t. When I scanned the blurb on the Chronicle Books web page for the book, the discrepancy became clear:

“One of the seminal texts of graphic design, Paul Rand’s Thoughts on Design is now back in print for the first time since the 1970s. Writing at the height of his career, Rand articulated in his slender volume the pioneering vision that all design should seamlessly integrate form and function. This facsimile edition preserves Rand’s original 1947 essay with the adjustments he made to its text and imagery for a revised printing in 1970, and adds only an informative and inspiring new foreword by Pentagram partner Michael Bierut. As relevant today as it was when first published, this classic treatise is an indispensable addition to the library of every designer.”

What is being advertised as “seminal” is actually supplanted. The 1970 version removed earlier examples of work, added new ones, and substantially reworked—and abbreviated—the text. For example, these are the words being quoted as opening the first essay:

“Graphic design—
which fulfills esthetic needs,
complies with the laws of form
and the exigencies of two-dimensional space;
which speaks in semiotics, sans-serifs,
and geometrics;
which abstracts, transforms, translates,
rotates, dilates, repeats, mirrors,
groups, and regroups—
is not good design
if it is irrelevant.”

Rand actually began his first book this way:

“To interpret the modern approach to visual communication as mere sensationalism is to misunderstand the very spirit of our time. In advertising, the contemporary approach to art is based on a simple concept, a concept of the advertisement as an organic and functional unit, each element of which is integrally related to the others, in harmony with the whole, and essential to the execution of the idea. From this standpoint, copy, art, and typography are indissoluble. Editorial layout, promotional matter, direct mail, packaging, book designing, and industrial design are governed by the same considerations: function…form…production process…integrated product. Such an evolution logically precludes extraneous trimmings and ‘streamlined’ affectations.”

Not as uplifting. What was terse to begin with becomes practically telegraphic. “Adjustments” glosses over a substantial elision of the book’s look and meaning. While not exactly misleading, the publisher’s blurb—and Bierut’s introduction—vaults in its claims between decidedly different books. The 33-year-old Rand is given credit for what the 56-year-old wrote. In his new introduction, Bierut states that despite his age, the younger Rand “was ready” to compose his first book. By his subsequent actions, he plainly wasn’t.

Matters grew more complicated when I consulted my copy of what is said to be Rand’s second book—1985’s A Designer’s Art. This “revised and updated” volume incorporated and adapted much of Thoughts on Design’s content, with further rewriting, substitution, and addition of imagery. This book saw reprint by his estate in 2000 (the edition I have) and is now, itself, out of print.

That Thoughts on Design has been technically unavailable for 44 years is then doubly immaterial. Rand’s original conception is long gone—by the author’s choice.

So what is being cast as an event really isn’t one at all. The blurbs properly note that this new book is the 1970 version. However, they do so without noting how different it is from the first. And if, as claimed by its publisher and its forward (then parroted by many design outlets), its message is “as relevant today as when first published,” shouldn’t we see and read precisely what was first published?

3: Why make changes?

Whatever one thinks of Paul Rand and his ideas, the book is a classic: a landmark artifact of graphic design history. I’m usually not much for shoulds, but it’s a book that should stay available. Without an awareness of the concepts identified with Paul Rand, you can’t understand much of graphic design activity globally over the past 60+ years—either production by Rand’s disciples or his detractors. And I’d readily grant Rand and his estate purer motives than, say, David Carson’s attempt to nullify critics by rushing out—after only five years—a revised The End of Print with fresh editorial dissembling.

In spirit, the Thoughts are the same. Rand abandons none of his core principles. This isn’t a Tschichold-like renunciation. But in many details, the doctrines are shaded and lessened. In the first of the three-paragraph preface to the 1970 third edition, Rand points out the changes:

“In this edition of Thoughts on Design, the writer has made certain emendations. However, these do not materially alter his thoughts or intentions. It is for the purpose of clarifying some of the ideas and enriching the visual material that a portion of the text has been revised and a number of illustrations have been replaced.”

(The second paragraph becomes the core of the even shorter preface to A Designer’s Art.)

More is going on than Rand honing his arguments and writing skills. His use of the term “emendation” displays an erudite self-deprecation. Supposedly, Rand was insecure about his writing ability throughout his life. But while he didn’t perform a large-scale retreat from his essential positions between editions, corners are rounded off and edges trimmed.

Rand also simply needed to have the book live up to its title. A suitable name for the original would have been Thoughts on Design of Advertisements (and Application to Select Book and Magazine Covers). It was a narrowly focused study that neglected a broad swath of commonplace design activity. The 1970 edition expanded the circle of artifacts only slightly. The important additions—ones that likely necessitated the book’s overhaul—were corporate trademarks. In the years between editions, the logo became the locus of Rand’s practice, renown, and theory. Corporate identity was key in every way—and nowhere to be found in Thoughts on Design.

This absence is a case for the creation of A Designer’s Art. But why gut the first book in between? The omission of logo and corporate identity work created a yawning chasm in that first book, one that Rand elected to backfill. The 1970 edition papers over the gap: See? I knew it all along. Simply put, it’s revisionist history. If anything, Rand was behind the curve in directly addressing the rise and eventual dominance of corporate identity in design activity. To be fair, he was busy driving the development in his own work.

So, to talk as if the reissue is the work of the young wunderkind is to misrepresent the reality. For instance, in Fast Company’s “5 Timeless Marketing Lessons for Today’s Brands from Visionary Designer Paul Rand,” by-liner Hugh Hart approving quotes the Master “in his remarkably prescient 1947 book Thoughts on Design about the value of surprise in marketing”:

“For an advertisement to hold its own in the competitive race, the designer must steer clear of visual clichés by some unexpected interpretation of the commonplace.”

The problem is, again, that Rand did not write that in 1947. Instead, he wrote this:

“However, for the advertisement to ‘hold its own’ in a competitive race, it must be off the beaten path by some more interesting device: the abstract symbol.”

These two statements are distinctly different. The original instruction calls for a specific formal device in any and all instances, regardless of subject or situation. A modifying directive—“If this symbol is too obscure in itself, it should be balanced with universally recognized forms”—is as demonstrative, and intellectually suspect.

Though common Modernist design dogma at the time—and is still quite detectible today—a belief in the actuality of “universally recognized forms” has (to be charitable) not worn well. Tellingly, Rand saw fit to completely remove this chapter altogether; “Individuality and Abstract Forms” is retired for the new “Imagination and the Image.”

The replacement text is less prophetic than anodyne. It took Paul Rand nearly four decades in the design profession to counsel against cliché? How influential was that 1947 book if it made this decree necessary? Meanwhile, the remedy (“some unexpected interpretation of the commonplace”) could possibly be less specific—but only with some effort.

However, as with many of Rand’s pronouncements, his writing skill lies more in making vague hand-waving sound authoritative. Overall, rather than giving assertive testimonies, Rand seems to be struggling to find things to say. The obvious evidently ranks high. To deliver these basic instructions constitutes an unkind indictment of his profession. It’s a wonder Rand is so revered by his fellow practitioners. No enemy has depicted designers as so clueless.

4: Terra nova

In assessing Paul Rand’s seerage, we must recognize that neither the content nor the context for the 1970 book was the same as the 1947 original. The intervening 23 years, with Rand’s accretion of accolades, the climb to exalted stature within his field, all played a substantial role in how that 1970 edition was received.

That the edition being considered is not the original doesn’t automatically negate the claims. And it’s just as possible that appreciation for the book’s achievements might increase were we to evaluate that 1947 edition. But, on the whole, the design profession doesn’t really care to know. 1947, 1970, 1985, 2014—what’s the difference?

To argue that these variances are irrelevant is to assert that words don’t matter, that specific meanings are unimportant. This goes against Rand’s own clearly articulated belief. Why make these changes unless words, and meanings, are significant?

Of the qualities that Rand is honored for, high amongst them is precision. If it is to be said that he was “prescient,” we must alter the start date on his clairvoyance by over two decades. We must also say that, in a number of subtle yet profound ways, he got it wrong. He also clung to problematic opinions throughout revisions.

For instance, in “The Symbol in Advertising,” the crucifix is claimed to be “a perfect union of the aggressive male (vertical) and the passive horizontal (female). And it is not too far-fetched to infer that these formal relations have at least something to do with its enduring quality.” The passage remains in the 2000 edition of A Design’s Art and the current Thoughts.

Is it not too far-fetched to catch at least a whiff of misogyny here? Rand’s reading of the crucifix is utterly cultural. It may also be a concept borrowed from Adolf Loos’ influential 1908 essay “Ornament and Crime”: “The first ornament that came into being, the cross, had an erotic origin. The first work of art, the first artistic action of the first artist daubing on the wall, was in order to rid himself of his natural excesses. A horizontal line: the reclining woman. A vertical line: the man who penetrates her. The man who created it felt the same urge as Beethoven, he experienced the same joy that Beethoven felt when he created the Ninth Symphony.”

As a foundational document of Modern design thought, it’s in keeping that Rand might incorporate a Loos reading of form, acknowledged or not. It’s an open question if Rand even knew Loos to be the source. But Rand wasn’t reticent to footnote. Might it be that the full quote was deemed too risqué by a genteel practitioner?

(A further, peculiar aspect of the Loos reference is that there are at least two similar but different versions of the “Ornament and Crime” article in circulation in print and on line. Most feature the crucifix reference, while others—notably the current book collection of Loos essays—do not.)*

That Rand then wanders into the “Oriental and Occidental thought” of the Book of Changes to provide corroboration can’t salvage a maladroit rationale. Again, Rand seems to be casting about for “objective” reasons for what were intuitive choices. He’s trying too hard.

It’s readily acknowledged that advertising copy was the template for Rand’s writing. Short and snappy, ad copy is all about assertion with minimal (if any) evidence. It trades on received wisdom, brooks no ambivalence nor admits to nuance. All of these are hallmarks of Rand’s text. The copy within the ads he designed for Benzedrine Inhalers blends perfectly with the surrounding heady theory he produces. Product and process; it’s all the same.

Another noteworthy aspect of the original Thoughts redacted in later editions is the citation of sales figures for advertising campaigns. In three instances (Dubonnet, Coronet, Air-Wick), Rand footnotes his text on specific projects to flourish hard, high numbers:

“After the introduction of Dubonnet advertising in March, 1941, when manufacture of the product was started in the United States, sales increased more than 1000%. Yet the retail price of Dubonnet ‘made in U.S.A.’ was $1.49 against a previous import price of $1.59…a differential certainly not great enough to account for the tenfold advance in sales.”

While taking care to dispense disclaimers that his design might be exclusively responsible for the sales increase (“It would be impossible, of course, to prove that this popularity is due entirely to Coronet advertising”), Rand’s proffering of such statistics was plainly meant as affirmation of his craft’s ability to boost bottom-lines. (It also suggests we could read the book’s cover as more than an engaging photogram pattern—might it be a sly reference to calculating revenues?)

Now, and for many years previously, such bold reference to gelt appears crass. It sets up an awkward straddle: design has to proclaim its practical, economic viability while eschewing quoting actual earnings. The door can be opened to a dangerous conclusion: the most effective design is that which sells the most. This places too much power in the hands of the consumer, who has historically been portrayed by designers as, by turns, intuitively discriminating and damnably philistine. Design’s policy is to move the goalposts. Precise evidence of sales of specific products is dropped for a corporation’s overall prominence in its field (see: IBM).

Design continues to have an ambivalent—if not inconsistent—affiliation with evidence for its effective power. The recent uproar over AIGA’s restructured “Justified” competitions is a case in point. The core scorn was for the requirement that applicants provide some objective measure of the design’s success. For many practitioners, it’s vulgar to tout a design’s “Return on Investment” as an aspect of determining its quality.

That said, it’s to Rand’s credit that he wasn’t above hitting the spreadsheets to prove his dedication to advertising’s raison d’etre—profit. “Accessible…aesthetic development” is all well and good but not on the company’s dime. And had Rand continued the practice, we might salute him as intellectually daring and progressive.

A few years ago, an art history panel at the College Art Association annual conference featured a unique and controversial paper. Instead of turning to critical opinion of the time, the researcher actually investigated gallery sales figures to determine what the influential art of a particular era actually was. What might seem commonsensical was, in this context, radical. Art’s own connection to sales is no more purer or less tangled that that of design.

A service that Thoughts on Design provided was to emphatically situate graphic design activity in relation to fine art, while performing a deft—if ultimately unsuccessful—two-step that supplied design with its own discreet identity. While Rand’s intended end was visionary—to consider graphic design in a contemporary art context—his route there is unconvincing. In terms of locating graphic design in culture, Thoughts on Design was a major missed opportunity. Rand simply didn’t have the intellectual chops (note: this is not to say that Rand was at all unintelligent, just unversed in art discourse). An unfortunate legacy of the book is design’s ongoing cramped and retrograde view of art, one that squelches any substantive discussion.

Were Rand truly aware of and comfortable with his times, he might have articulated a progressive, coherent position for himself and his activity. He could reasonably claim a status as the most influential artist of his day. Unfortunately, in his ruminations, Rand stays within the realm of an outmoded aesthetics, leaping over the immediate European Moderns—and most importantly, American—to those of a recent, but superseded group.

Rand chooses a flavor of Modern more to his taste. By the calendar, Roger Fry’s musings are nearly contemporaneous with Rand’s activity. However, the people chosen to quote are backwards looking. They describe art that, however meritorious, was no longer the leading cultural edge. Just as soon as graphic design establishes a Modern identity, it is shackled to the past.

Of course, discussing the art portions of Thoughts on Design is arguably moot. Except for the most artistically naïve graphic designers (which actually encompasses the majority of practitioners), Rand’s art philosophizing is considered pretty duff stuff. Those bits get skipped. However, his meditations continued throughout his writing career and were part and parcel of his total ethos. Cutting out the art aspects of Thoughts—focusing only on his direct design theorizing—excises the book’s heart.

Publication of Thoughts on Design fired a starter’s pistol for a race between Rand’s reputation and developments in art. Rand’s stature easily outpaced the latter. His fame quickly grew to proportions that, in design, made the accuracy or relevance of his theorizing beside the point. Rand created his own reality.

5: Terra incognito

By summoning only select critics to support his “functional-aesthetic perfection” Rand skirted the prominent art thinkers of the immediate day to find succor from early 20th century British critics—such as Bloomsbury Grouper Roger Fry—who valued aesthetics and scorned social utility. Notable by their absence are any contemporary art critics, of about the time of the original book or later. In his thinking about art, Rand was decidedly retro and Anglophilic his entire life, steering clear of our country’s pioneering Modern art theorists. Foremost amongst them is Clement Greenberg, whose view of art was antithetical to Rand’s ambitions.

Passages like this from the 1939 essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” wouldn’t sit well:

“A society, as it becomes less and less able, in the course of its development, to justify the inevitability of its particular forms, breaks up the accepted notions upon which artists and writers must depend in large part for communication with their audiences. It becomes difficult to assume anything. All the verities involved by religion, authority, tradition, style, are thrown into question, and the writer or artist is no longer to estimate the response of his audience to the symbols and references with which he works.”

Greenberg demolishes the idea of sureties and verities, while almost a decade later Rand proclaims them. Throughout his writing career, Rand posits a near-monolithic culture that could be entertained and commanded through the application of carefully crafted “symbols and references.”

The capitalism system that nurtures Rand—with Rand reciprocating the love—and is his vehicle for bettering society, is for Greenberg “in decline” and “finds whatever of quality it is still capable of producing becomes almost invariably a threat to its own existence…Today we look to socialism simply for the preservation of whatever living culture we have right now.”

Worse still is where Greenberg would place graphic design and advertising. It’s the “kitsch” of the essay’s title.

“Where there is an avant-garde, generally we find a rearguard. True enough—simultaneously with the entrance of the avant-garde, a second cultural phenomenon appeared in the industrial West: that thing to which the Germans give the wonderful name of Kitsch: popular, commercial art and their chromotypes, magazine covers, illustrations, ads….”

As you might expect, Greenberg doesn’t have kind words for kitsch:

“Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas. Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations. Kitsch changes according to style, but remains always the same. Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times. Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money—not even their time.”

Rand could legitimately counter that he also rejects formula and stylistic volatility. If Rand’s critical lights traded in an early Modern highbrow snobbery, Greenberg was exhibiting his own singular brand of snooty with his remarks on designed artifacts.

Greenberg at least addresses what was in formation and, for good and ill, what he played a key role in forming. What would have made Thoughts on Design truly perceptive would have been to engage the avant-garde art of his day, and the thinking behind it. In many ways, the world in which Rand’s work was experienced was more in line with the tastes of Roger Fry. Culture didn’t change course so abruptly.

But if Thoughts on Design fit the prevalent aesthetic context in which it appeared, said context was rapidly being ousted. I quote Greenberg not to certify his views—he’s had a legion of legitimate opponents—but to illustrate where progressive Modern thought traveled in art. But yet again, it may all be extraneous. In the end, it’s unlikely that even Rand’s preferred culture experts would embrace advertising.

6: A rough test of quality

This level of analysis may be heavy-handed. It’s widely accepted that Rand’s book are essentially portfolios, not objective explorations or expansions of ideas. They are polemics, repeatedly underscoring of one word writ large: Modernism. If played properly, in its time and ours, repetition can be moving. Most artists delineate an aesthetic space and draw upon and over it for the entirety of their careers. This is merely to affirm what Thoughts is—a personal/professional validation—and what it isn’t—an open investigation of creative possibilities.

Monograph or manifesto, to properly assess Thoughts on Design and its relevance, critics and commentators need to contemplate the original artifact within its historical moment. It’s more than a scholarly interest. Creators can’t be trusted to interpret and preserve their own visions, or to understand the implications that “emendations” can have on their art and image.

While Rand pointed out his textual modifications and the substitutions of images in his 1970 edition, he made no mention of his layout changes. Apart from the cover image, the later book sports an entirely different look. His desire to rework his words, an area not to his expertise, is reasonable. Design is another matter. Substantial revisions here should garner some attention.

With Paul Rand, even minor formal moves are significant. For him to embark on a wholescale reimaging of a book is conspicuous. For it to go unmentioned by the designer, and unnoticed by its audience, is noteworthy at least. Even if benign, the scale of this particular change begs explanation.

Rand didn’t consider his creations inviolate. Reportedly, he offered, at his own expense, to tweak his iconic UPS logo and resolve a formal irregularity. If there’s an aspect to the redesign that smells suspicious, it’s that the design audience pays it no mind.

Though the abacus photogram remains as the cover graphic, we immediately see a typeface substitution that carries over to the interior pages on the revised editions. The original titling Futura Bold font is swapped out for Rand’s beloved Bodoni (“an example of a basic design that never goes out of style and a reminder of Dewey’s ‘a work of art is recreated every time it is esthetically experienced’”). The terminal colon after “Thoughts on Design” is also excised.

The original interior layout is an airy, straightforward asymmetric presentation with touches of Rand “sparkle” to enliven the structure. Generous margins surround ragged-right blocks of Baskerville, which dresses all interior text, save for the book title on the title page. An eccentric setting choice is to disdain hyphenation, leading to some gawky line-ends. Still, it’s a less egregious typographic flaw than the double spaces after punctuation (!) found in his type a year previous for Modern Art in Advertising.

Footnotes are set at the bottom of text columns, with captions usually aligning to the left edge of images or occasionally floating independently, if not placed on a facing, otherwise blank page. Images of Rand’s design work and the main text largely occupy separate pages. However, in chapter 4, “Versatility of the Symbol,” he places a perfume bottle tight to the base of the text block to the right, energizing that page. Another arrangement that could count as fanciful is the title page. A thin-ruled flag-like frame of six sections holds the majority of text, set opposite the book title.

All told, the original book has 159 numbered pages, plus ten Roman-numbered introductory pages. Another feature that did not survive emendation is French and Spanish translations of the text, set in the back of the book (save for the introductory material) in two narrow justified columns of smaller type.

The entirety of this scheme is junked in favor of a layout that graces all successive Rand pamphlets and books. The “Transitional” Baskerville is, perhaps, deemed (literally) insufficiently Modern and replaced with the favored Bodoni—whose high contrast makes it a dubious (though classic in appearance) text face.

While the body copy remains in ragged right settings, the point size jumps to an over-standard scale. The look is reminiscent of Large Print editions or a children’s book. Combining the latter with the pedantic tone of much of the text conveys a patronizing air to the affair. The text columns now reach to the top of pages, filling more of the vertical space. The narrower left measure opposite the main text columns now contain chapter heads and footnotes, set across from the referring copy. Though now hyphenated, the shorter-measured lines still sport an inelegant rag.

This schema was evidently introduced with the 1970 edition of Thoughts. Another curiosity of Rand’s overall handling of his books was that he then strayed from this layout—which was to become the template—taking a slight detour for A Designer’s Art (Univers! Helvetica!). Was it a stutter?

It’s the norm for designers to tinker with their approaches across incidences of the same artifacts. A new book is an opportunity to reconsider its form and function ad infinitum. It’s what designers do. Even if—probably especially if—you’re Paul Rand. What’s at issue isn’t the simple fact of Rand directing changes in his work. It’s the inconsistent inquiry afforded his products in comparison to his outsized reputation. Paul Rand is simultaneously the most and least scrutinized practitioner.

7: House-organ

Self-scrutiny is also notoriously unreliable. Artists aren’t trustworthy analysts of their motivations or perceptive of the actual reasons for their accomplishments. If an artist meets with success when wielding a specific creative program then it’s natural to attribute said triumph to the system.

Rand deftly described his philosophy and its application—and how it influenced clients and audiences. But as was observed in his later years, when corporations turned to design Rand regarded as inferior, he was at a loss to explain it—other than to declare said companies’ CEOs foolhardy. A faulty diagnosis on his part didn’t occur to him.

Just as designers themselves are unreliable witnesses to their work and times, so are the profession-centric authors to which the field entrusts its history. Though Steven Heller dedicates an entire chapter to “Paul Rand: Author” in his lauded 1999 monograph, he makes no mention of the second, substantially reworked edition of Thoughts on Design, skipping to A Designer’s Art. As is often the case in design field, Heller’s bio emphasizes celebration over scholarship.

Celebration is the order of the day with Thoughts on Design’s reappearance. From the varied commentary in its wake, there seems little in contemporary graphic design that the book didn’t foresee or for which it isn’t responsible. It’s incontestable that the author was a profound influence on a generation of designers. And it was Paul Rand’s first book. However, this doesn’t necessarily add up to Thoughts on Design warranting regard as the prescient, pioneering article that’s claimed.

As we’ve seen, today’s commentators are describing a simulacrum. And trying to locate the source of proof for the various distinctions conferred upon the book—or, for that matter, most praises bestowed within the design profession—is often frustrating. The mainstream design press is a round robin of opinion, each bird re-tweeting the previous with no checking or sure derivation. In other words, says who? Answer: someone (else) famous.

Assessing the legacy of Thoughts on Design is therefore more complicated than allowed. After the fact that many commentators haven’t even read the true 1947 version (unaware that it’s a dissimilar book), or even the reissue (and are depending on someone else having read it and knowing what they’re talking about), there’s the actuality that said pundits likely haven’t bothered to investigate the possibility of other claimants.

8: Novel. But how novel?

The picture of early 20th century design painted by Thoughts—new or classic—and its present-day devotees is that of a fusty, dour expanse of feeble hoopla. Into this turgid marketing hackscape swoops Paul Rand, brandishing the liberating power of (bowdlerized) European Modern formalism. This one-man funnel cloud of fresh air disperses the stale stench of business bromides, transforming design into an edifying and lucrative dynamo.

As origin stories go, this is fairly archetypical—particularly for artists (except the lucre part, we look away from that)—and plays well in an individualistic culture. But when isn’t this derivative scenario of lackeys and lacklustery mapped onto the present day? And we’ve been enjoying an extended golden age of invention and prosperity since 1947, right?

Paul Rand’s is an inspiring, hardscrabble tale of attainment through prodigious talent and effort. It’s no less momentous for its applicability, with differing degrees of fortune, to other design figures in history. And the “hotshot young ad exec on the make” is an established, stock character.

In many cases, categories must be sliced molecule thin to dispense credit to Rand for being the trailblazer. Other designers of his time were producing effective and engaging ads, book and magazine covers, logos, identities, and posters. Placing Rand amongst the preeminent practitioners is fitting. But giving him primary positioning requires distinctions that distort rather than refine meaning.

The design stage of the time boasted a number of gifted actors alongside Rand in channeling European Modern style. Alvin “Born Modern” Lustig and Lester “Thrust and counter-thrust” Beall are just two conspicuous names we might conjure. What puts Rand on the top rung? First with a book wins design? Thoughts on Design certainly can’t claim that distinction. In fact, there was an eminent book on design that saw its reissue the year after Rand puts out his first.

William Addison Dwiggins’ Layout in Advertising, first published in 1928, “was considered the standard text on the subject,” according to his bio for Art Directors Club Hall of Fame. Dwiggins is legendarily recognized—or should be—for coining the term “graphic design” in 1922. His book was just one publication in a wide-ranging and extensive writing career that included fiction and non-design-related topics. Rand was well aware of Dwiggins’ text, including it in the “Select Bibilography” of his final book From Lascaux to Brooklyn.

Dwiggins was also an advertising designer, book designer, type designer, typographer, letterer, calligrapher, illustrator, theorist, historian, playwright, master marionettist, and more. In its existence as a discreet discipline, graphic design hasn’t produced a figure that comes closer to being its Renaissance man.

Ironically, between the respective books, each man’s label is more suitable for the other’s. Where Rand speaks almost exclusively of the graphic arrangement of advertisements, Dwiggins examines a variety of products, from “blotters” to billboards. “This book discusses the operation of putting an advertising project into graphic form,” begins the Preface, “For the purposes of the argument ‘advertising’ means every conceivable printed means for selling anything.”

In 200 pages (including index), Dwiggins crafts an authentic how-to guide that is detailed, specific, clear, and clear-headed. He first discusses the physical components of design pieces, and the process of printing and constructing them. His presentation of design is holistic, confronting the individual concerns of doing design along with the practical. Instead of offering his own work or that of others to elucidate his principles, he fashions speculative sketches.

Dwiggins is opinionated yet aspirational, refusing to lecture or impose his particularized vision. Readers are encouraged to develop their own critical sensibilities and personal voices:

“…the writer has not assumed to give directions. He has aimed, rather, to help the practitioner compile his own book of directions. The help that the text may be expected to provide, then, will be along the lines of evocation—or education in the root meaning of the word—drawing out of the receptacle what was already there. If it succeeds in enlightening the student of graphic advertising as to methods of attack and analysis it will have done one good thing. If it then inspires him to build up his own structure of judgments and standards, based upon the exercise of his own faculty of criticism, it will have accomplished its aim.”

This promotion of diverse approaches, balanced with an unwavering commitment to craft and a critical component in making is thoroughly contemporary and far-sighted. Layout in Advertising’s instructions on organization, ideation, layout, and typography are as applicable today as they were in 1928. Only an updating of its visuals—and some period idioms and references—would be required to put the book back on the shelves.

In comparison, Thoughts on Design is vague, officious, and disinterested in the actuality of design practice—its process and physicality. Rand’s design is about the surface. His prose is stiff and struggling, reliant in large part upon the words of other, non-design writers to elucidate his notions. Dwiggins is smooth, conversational, playful and confident.

9: Logical import shapes the map

Articles promoting the reissue of Thoughts on Design haven’t stinted on the praise. By all accounts, Rand is responsible for initiating most everything he deigned to mention. However, there’s little that Layout in Advertising didn’t get to first. Rand’s original first paragraph quoted above sounds as if he was reporting on Dwiggins’ main points.

What about “the role of typography in terms of both amplifying and complementing a message?” Dwiggins has you covered:

“Printers who advertise indulge in a great deal of talk about the expressiveness of this type and that, about making typography fit the crime….One is inclined to doubt the truth of these arguments….it isn’t so much the types that give expression to a mood as it is the way they are put together….In the pursuit of novelty it is probably wiser to depend for that quality upon a way a normal type is handled rather than upon an eccentric type. It is dangerous to play pranks with the actual reading process itself—with legibility….”

The almighty logo? On it. Dwiggins opens with a jaundiced eye on the marks of his time: “A trade-mark—the usual trade-mark—is a necessary evil. It is utterly indigestible.” He then zeroes in on the essentials:

“A proper trade-mark needs to mean something. At its best it is an epigram—a tense and pungent summary of some significant fact about the business. The words to be stressed are ‘epigram’ and ‘summary.’ A trade-mark that attempts to illustrate a process in detail, for example, fails on both accounts.”

Missing from Layout in Advertising is the European Modern-inspired fetish about the abstract symbol and Gestalt principles. Again, spurning trendiness, Dwiggins offers timeless advice that doesn’t require multiple modifications.

Another aspect of design where Rand is bestowed a foundational role is validating humor throughout the profession. According to Michael Bierut, “Rand’s essay on humor…really had a lot to do with setting the tone for a whole school of design and the tone of advertising that would follow.” If tightly aimed on advertising (“advertisements were dominated by exclamation points and all these explicit overwritten evocations of convenience, modernity, product performance”), Bierut’s assessment may be sound. However, a few sentences later, Rand has suddenly “introduced humanity” to design.

Though evidence of Rand’s humor continues to elude me (if present, it’s so dry as to be dessicated, and a far cry from wit), advocating in favor of drollery is always welcome. But it’s a stretch to stand Rand above all comers in using a light touch, to say nothing of “introducing humanity.”

In Thoughts, Rand himself cites another effectual use of humor, and in an arena less expected to display it than advertising: “…as an aid to understanding serious problems in war training, as an effective weapon in safety posters, war bond selling, morale building, humor was neglected neither by government nor civilian agencies during the war.”

Before getting carried away with Rand’s supposed instillment of humor or humanity into design, we must keep in mind that it was all strategic: “Readership surveys prove the magnetic force of humor as applied to visual presentation, whether in advertising, editorial matter, or miscellaneous design problems.” It wasn’t comicality or personality for its own sake. It was just another powerful tool of persuasion—just like the abstract symbol—to sell goods.

By contrast, humor suffuses all of Dwiggins’ work and is ever-present in his writing. In 1941, he self-published the pamphlet A Technique for Dealing with Artists, a tongue-in-cheek manual advising businessmen how to manage designers (sample chapter: “How to Lower the Conceit of an Artist”). In Layout in Advertising, his prose displays his typical spritely tone that doesn’t need to explicitly instruct designers to lighten up. (Although, a subheading in the “Technique” sections asks “Why so serious?”) In humor, Rand was playing comic catch-up.

In “humanity,” Dwiggins promoted a plurality of approaches and self-empowerment that was alien to Rand:

“It must be pointed out again that the method of design indicated by these expressions is only one of a number of methods successfully used in advertising layout. The procedure advocated is not unique. The methods are almost as many as the practitioners. There is no established and standard practice that can be quoted to aid the student of layout—he will need to evolve his own method of design under the tutelage of his own convictions, his taste, and his experience.”

People came first for Dwiggins. And he allowed for Rand, but not vice versa.

This statement about the basic principles of graphic design would comfortably fit into either book:

“If the reader of this text should be inspired to make a statistical analysis of it, he would find certain words used over and over again: logical, simple, simplicity, pleasing pattern, controlling line, blank space, space design, unity…”

Layout in Advertising also stands out for concluding with a ringing declaration of personal ethics:

“…there are projects that undertake to exploit the meaner side of the human animal—that make their appeal to social snobbishness, shame, fear, envy, greed. The advertising leverage that these campaigns use is a leverage that no person with a rudimentary sense of social values is willing to help apply….”

Repeatedly, tenets commonly identified with Paul Rand are found in Dwiggins’ book. Foremost is the big M:

“’Modernism’ is not a system of design—it is a state of mind. It is a natural and wholesome reaction against an overdose of traditionalism. The average citizen calls it “futurist” or “cubist” or just plain crazy—and doesn’t understand it, or doesn’t want to; but notices it, nevertheless.”

The two designer’s respective Modernisms diverge. Rand’s creative gaze is fixated eastward, drawing his immediate inspiration from the European Modern strain, then of that continent’s artistic and intellectual histories. At times, the only American Rand seems able to abide is someone like expatriate E. McKnight Kauffer, who wrote the introduction to Thoughts. No such limitation is displayed by Dwiggins, whose internationalism included identifying with his home country’s creative legacy.

As he danced around “advertising art” and it being an “easily accessible means of aesthetic enjoyment,” Paul Rand’s goal was to elevate design and the public. The unfortunate result was to fashion Thoughts into an ersatz art history text, adopting the form of such books while misapprehending their substance. He then compounded the error by refashioning the book (and all that followed) into a self-declared “primer,” complete with the condescending manner it entailed.

Another sad legacy of Thoughts is that with the veneration of Rand’s epigrammatic prose, graphic design snuffed out a nascent critical sensibility. Design might have built a distinctive literature upon Dwiggins’ varied and engaging writings, one that invited deep and diverse investigations. Today, that kind of writing is fugitive and dismissed in the field.

Instead, design prizes short, subjective bursts of assertions whose authority largely rests not with the cogency of argument, but the author’s level of professional achievement. Rand surely hoped that his books would garner respect for design activity from thinking, visually perceptive people. By hewing to his example, design ensures it won’t be taken seriously outside its boundaries.

Bill Dwiggins related to his audience as an expert but still a fellow traveler. He confronted design as design, a uniquely Modern mode of representation. Dwiggins’ work embodied the formal ideas Rand wore on his sleeve. Were we to draw a Venn diagram of the two designers’ books, there would be substantial overlap. But Layout in Advertising would almost entirely consume Thoughts on Design. The difference is what happened after, and where we are now.

How Dwiggins was shunted aside and largely forgotten by a profession that should (still) extol him was bluntly articulated by Jeffery Keedy in his 1997 essay “Greasing the Wheels of Capitalism with Style and Taste or the ‘Professionalization’ of Graphic Design in America” (also available in Looking Closer 4). Corporate design and its enablers were elevated to the pinnacle of design activity and activism. There was no higher calling—than to be able to call the head honcho direct. In short, money talked—loud and about logos…and still does. Real designers shill for moneyed interests. Everyone else is walking.

Having turned his back on commercial striving, the career path of W. A. Dwiggins—though rich with formally accomplished, effective design—didn’t fit the new mold. (Hingham, Massachusetts? Please.) It didn’t help that he declined to adopt the European style of Modernism—and referred to designers like Paul Rand as “Bauhaus boys.”

A simpler reason for Dwiggins’ stock drop and Rand’s rise is that many contemporary, prominent designers had personal contact with the latter. If not a former student, lecture attendee, or occasional lunch date, Rand was an immediate, living role model. Dwiggins is a dated, distant abstraction.

However, it’s now a categorically “eclectic” era where varied models of design practice and performance are expressed and applauded. For instance, individuals can again combine ingenious decoration with idiosyncratic writing—and be praised for it. WAD stands as a predictive figure that designers didn’t know they had…and needed. We’ll always have Paul Rand.

10: What we choose to see

In its concision, Thoughts on Design continues to act as both perfect mirror and blank slate. On Rand’s sparse surface, designers perceive their reflected aspirations and project their desires. Meaning isn’t found between Rand’s lines; sparsely set, meaning is to be imposed upon them. For my money, Michael Bierut’s homilies on Rand’s writing are far more affecting and lyrical than anything his hero generated. I just eliminate the front man.

For untold designers, the actual Thoughts on Design is literally and figuratively ideal. Were this new edition a faithful reproduction of that 1947 volume, they would probably impose the same lessons on that text and declare it equally portentous. Provenance and chronology are transcended: only Paul Rand could write the hallowed words and he always wrote them.

I realize my mistake about the book was more profound. I wasn’t consulting the wrong text so much as using it incorrectly. The cadence, the short verses, the avowals, the rote repetition: now I really get it. Thoughts on Design is the design profession’s liturgy.

So, having revealed its true nature to us, there’s only one suitable response: Amen.


*My thanks to Marian Bantjes for alerting me to the likely Adolph Loos reference after the initial posting of the essay.

More images of the 1951 second edition of Thoughts on Design and other examples of Paul Rand’s work mentioned can be found on Pinterest here.
More images of the 1928 Layout and Advertising are here.
More W. A. Dwiggins work is here.