If you care about logos, the iconography of American business or the legacy of Steve Jobs, then you surely revere the art of designer Paul Rand.

Rand's designs--part of an ongoing exhibit (through September 7) at the Museum of the City of New York--include not only the famous IBM logo depicted above, but also logos for ABC, Westinghouse, UPS, and--tellingly--Jobs' NeXT computers

I type "tellingly" because you can find countless parallels in the personas and aesthetics of Jobs and Rand. In a 1993 video interview with Doug Evans and Alan Pottasch, Jobs explained what he admired about Rand's work. It could just as easily be a riff about Jobs himself or Apple products: 

Paul's a very interesting intertwining of a pure artist and somebody who is very astute about solving business problems....I actually think of Paul as much as a business problem-solver as I do an artist. And it's the marriage of those two things--the very, very practical and the artist--that is unique....His work for me is very emotional and yet when you study it it's very intellectual. If you scratch the surface you find out the depth of the problem-solving that's taking place. But when you first see it it's wonderfully emotional. 

Interestingly, the similarities don't stop there. Evans and Pottasch ask Jobs what it was like to work with Rand. Jobs' description of Rand is comparable to how many observers would later describe Jobs' persona and design ethos:

He personally works on perfecting the exterior of a curmudgeon. I think he's perfected it to new heights actually. It's his way of dealing with the part of the world he doesn't necessarily want to deal with....[For the design of the NeXT logo] I asked him if he would come up with a few options. And he said, No. I will solve your problem for you. And you will pay me....If you want options, go talk to other people. But I'll solve your problem for you the best way I know how. And you use it or not. 

In this answer, you can see traces of Jobs' immortal declaration: "You can't just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they'll want something new." His line is a kissing cousin to Henry Ford's famous quote: "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses."

A Delicate Balance

This topic--the extent to which designers should listen to customers--is both evergreen and ever-shifting. Whatever you're designing, you have to balance the extroverted act of learning about customer problems with the introverted act of concocting elegant solutions based on what you've learned. 

One recent example of a startup balancing these elements is Canva, an Australia-based maker of design software which reached 2.8 million users in the span of 20 months. Co-founder and CEO Melanie Perkins points out on OnStartups.com that Canva decidedly did not ask aspiring or actual designers what they wanted, in terms of designing Canva's software. "If I had asked these students (or professional designers) what they wanted, they would have asked for incremental improvements to the design software they were using," she writes. 

At the same time--while Perkins stopped short of asking--she relied on her longtime observations of non-designers and student designers. "It was the particular insight I gained from watching people who knew nothing about design, trying to use the design tools, that became the foundation for Canva," she notes.

In this regard, her journey to designing a solution mirrors that of Intuit founder Scott Cook. Cook developed QuickBooks, the accounting software used by many small companies, when he realized how many customers were using Quicken--a product geared for personal finances--to run businesses. The businesses used Quicken precisely because it was not like typical general ledger-based accounting software. It was "accounting software with no [traditional] accounting in it," Cook explained during his graduation speech to Harvard Business School's Class of 2015. In other words, it helped non-accountants do the work of accounting, in the same way Canva helps non-designers do the work of designing. 

Creative Constraints

For Christina Goldschmidt, director of user experience at Alexander Interactive, a $10-million digital agency based in Manhattan whose client list includes MetLife and Saks Fifth Avenue, the inputs she gets from users and customers provide a helpful set of design constraints. "The thing that, in my mind, separates designers from artists is the ability to work within, and in most cases be made better, by constraints," she says.

That doesn't mean she's hemmed in creatively, or without her own moments of Jobs-like, Rand-like independent thought. "People can't fully tell you exactly everything that they need. They can only talk to you in terms of how they think and what they currently know," she says. 

While Rand was superbly confident in his ability to solve client problems, that confidence stemmed from a mutual respect he aimed to foster between clients and designers. His approach may have been brusque and dictatorial, but that was was his way of making sure the client-designer relationship was symbiotic, rather than one-sided in favor of the client. In his essay, "Failure By Design," he wrote: 

Just as there are managements unwilling or enlightened enough to commission good designs, there are designers who are eager to accommodate their every whim. Moreover, good design cannot be dictated or willed; alas, it is not the product of market research but of natural talent, relevant ideas, and mutual respect, without which design programs eventually will unravel and good design wither away.

Randy Golden, former senior program manager at IBM, worked closely with Rand on several IBM projects in the early 90s. Golden was often in the unenviable position of delivering to Rand the feedback from IBM's executives. "Paul didn't want to hear you didn't like it," says Golden in an interview on SoundCloud.

Eventually, Golden learned to put the blame squarely on IBM, saying that the company did not properly frame or explain its challenge. "I'd say, 'I don't think we gave you the proper brief.' You could say that to him," says Golden.

Golden's story illustrates the fascinating duality of Rand: While dictatorial in his solutions, he was willing to change if the job required him to solve a different problem for the client. In many ways, that iterative problem-solving approach--now codified under the broad rubric of design thinking--has irrevocably altered the landscape of entrepreneurship. After all, entrepreneurship is all about solving problems for customers--even the problems they're not yet aware that they have.

Published on: Jun 9, 2015