Design to improve the general quality of life: exploring Paul Rand's IBM Graphic Standards Manual


In a televised interview with Paul Rand in 1991 the designer was asked, “What does the world need with graphic design, what does it do for us? To the average person it may seem a kind of… fussy little concern with moving words around, pictures around, what good does it do us?” Paul responds that he’s been thinking about this for many years: “Up to rather recently, I sort of concluded that we were not very important. Or you can put it another way – there used to be a guy in my agency days, he would say, ‘how is it possible to make so much and do so little?’”

Despite the designer’s own admittance that the industry can often seem a little trivial, Paul Rand is an exact example of how important it is. There is little need to succinctly describe the effect he had on the working practice of graphic design. Many others have done so in depth, not to mention the several books he wrote on the subject himself, or the countless others that reference his modernist mindset. It’s a point he goes on to articulate perfectly within the interview too: “A good designer who understands his business can make things memorable, make them easy to recall which is very important, and improve the general quality of life, which is the only reason for our existence.”

The most iconic and endlessly referenced example of Paul Rand’s portfolio is his work for IBM which began in 1956 and was the designer’s first ever entire visual identity. A graphic language for the company he implemented and improved over decades, it’s a longstanding piece of work that goes hand in hand with his name, so much so that if you Google the designer, an image of the IBM logo appears before a photo of himself. Paul’s last iteration of the logo, completed in 1972, sits on the walls of offices, letterheads and computer screens to this day. In the populated design climate we are currently experiencing, Paul’s work for IBM shows just how important one designer’s outlook can be.

A keen advocate of ensuring that graphic design is a communication tool to be understood by all concerned, each of Paul’s modifications to the IBM identity was communicated in a regularly updated IBM Graphic Standards Manual. Until 2017 it was a series of guideline documents held in library and museum archives, or on the shelves of former employees. Taking note of the graphic wealth of this archived work, Empire editions, a not-for-profit publishing house attached to design studio Syndicat, launched a Kickstarter campaign to reissue the manual to an overwhelming and target-exceeding response.

“What made us excited about reprinting the IBM Graphic Standards Manual was the fact that throughout 20 years Paul Rand updated it numerous times, making each still existing version different and unique,” Sacha Léopold and François Havegeer of Empire Editions tell It’s Nice That. “The process of editing and compiling the history of both the manual and IBM’s identity, either by underlining the smallest or biggest change, really made us enthusiastic to start this project.”

Detail is what sings on each page of Empire Editions’ reissue. Paul’s logo designs, attention to layout and written instructions are attentively combined to show his care. Beginning with logotypes, the designer’s tone of voice demonstrates the attention applied to the specifics of the identity, as much as the actual design. In several instances referring to the 1972 striped IBM logo, his remarks begin with “Note!” to grab your attention of the task at hand. “Note! The negative version is lighter in weight than the positive one,” or, “Note! These striped logos are new drawings. All serifs have been slightly extended and the space between letters decreased (in the eight-line version the distance between the I and B is equal to one stripe).”

These snippets are featured on page eight of the IBM Graphic Standards Manual and continue to be as in-depth across its hundreds of pages. Empire Editions’ collation of several iterations of the IBM Graphic Standards Manual include how to apply the logotype to envelopes both internally and externally, how it looks on digital screens and architectural applications, through to the overall visual quality in “The IBM Look chapters”. This later chapter specifically voices Paul’s view that an identity is far much more than a logo: “Whether the emphasis be on graphics, industrial design or architecture, what we are chiefly concerned with is the quality of company identification,” the tome states, “for this is essentially what the IBM look is about.”

By surveying alternate versions of the designer’s manual, Sacha and François’ research is evident from chapter to chapter. Visiting the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris to look at a copy, the pair also found a further two manuals in the States, “owned by Daniel Lewandowski and Megann Ney, who kindly gave us access to the scans of their manuals that ended up informing the final book.” In this sense the reissue doesn’t include absolutely everything, but it would have been impossible to do so. “Along the years different documents were created or updated, from the corporate identity to ways of production,” the pair point out. “During the entire process we re-organised and collated a few parts from the original manuals… The interesting thing is that you can understand the whole project reading the date written at the end of the page.”

The prospect of collating and designing a book based on one of the most iconic pieces of graphic design is a daunting task, and it’s fair to say that putting the IBM Graphics Standards Manual together was coupled with a few learning curves. On asking Sacha and François if there was anything they particularly learned during the process, they explain: “As designers, it was about looking at a large-scale design project, which is quite unusual in the cultural field we’re working in.” Nevertheless, “an ambitious global project like this is one of the goals of our studio,” and one that has been fully achieved. The finished book is conscious of both representing IBM and Paul Rand down to the tiny details. It is an example of how Paul’s work should be perceived as Stephen Heller points out in its introduction: "It’s a designer’s job to select and fit this material together — and make it interesting.”

From a logistical, publishing point of view, an appreciation of the global and graphics-focused book-buying public has been instilled. “As publishers we learned a lot about the worldwide network that Kickstarter can focus on,” says the pair. “After all, the project was only possible due to all the people that backed us during this process, whom we thank once again.”

Now with the book completed, published and posted out to its backers, for Empire Editions it’s still the substantial calibre of Paul Rand’s work that continues to ring true. In Sacha and François’ double lives as designers and publishers, leafing through their accumulated copies and collating it together helped them realise the importance of the document today, particularly noting the “quality of the project, the richness of rules used, the materials, the quality and obviously the influence this identity has had over the years.” The publishers’ reissue also marks the first time that the manual is “completely available at a 1:1 scale,” Sacha and François explain. “It will allow people not only to look at the famous identity, but also read the accompanying text written by Paul. It really makes you understand the whole project better and we believe it adds even more meaning to it.”

In many respects the most astonishing aspect of Empire Editions’ reissue is that it’s been allowed to happen. Made in collaboration with the IBM New York archive team, the Kandinsky Library of the Georges Pompidou Centre and undertaken with the approval of Paul Rand’s successors and IBM, the publishers have gone to a momentous effort just to share work it believes is worth sharing.

After all it’s an in-house document for a huge corporate company that could have hidden it away or reproduced it only for those who could afford it. Instead, Empire Editions have offered a unique opportunity. “Today this folder is an iconic, rare and little documented object and it seems important to us to render it accessible and distributable, to graphic designers, students and anyone interested in the adventure undertaken by this emblematic company.”

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About the Author

Lucy Bourton

Lucy (she/her) is the senior editor at Insights, a research-driven department with It's Nice That. Get in contact with her for potential Insights collaborations or to discuss Insights' fortnightly column, POV. Lucy has been a part of the team at It's Nice That since 2016, first joining as a staff writer after graduating from Chelsea College of Art with a degree in Graphic Design Communication.

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