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Anamosa Archive 3: Paul Rand

2013 June 2

A good deal of the stuff I went through, last weekend, was portfolios. How I ended up with so many portfolios, I have difficulty working out. I already had two here at my apartment: a huge portfolio that felt a bit like a sail on windy days at ISU, and a smaller, designer’s “book” portfolio. I’m pretty sure that I haven’t purchased a new portfolio since graduation, or soon thereafter, at any rate not in years; if I had any before going to college I doubt I would have had more than one at most.

And yet I believe there were four portfolios amongst my surplus belongings. Only one was a real formal, durable portfolio admittedly, the others were essentially some kind of heavy paper portfolios, but… 1) when and why did I acquire a third black formal portfolio, and 2) when and why did I acquire three large identical paper portfolios? I don’t know.

What I did with them, however, I can establish; apparently I stuffed each one with every large-format artwork I created since junior year of high school plus a number of smaller works and graphic design projects. Then shoved them into a closet and largely forgot about them.

In pulling them out to have a look, I was mildly astonished at how little of this stuff had been thrown away. I suppose that when it was shoved into storage, it was fresh enough that I felt some instinct to keep it around; as that instinct faded over the years I just never returned to re-evaluate my unintentional archive policy. Until just recently, when the great majority of that heap finally enjoyed its overdue introduction to the recycling stream.

I saved a few items largely for some or other novelty, like this panel from one of my first-year graphic design studios:

Student-work panel for a Paul Rand Retrospective

This may have been a real event, once…?

This is not really a bad student work at all, though I save it more for the peculiar story associated with it. Recall in an earlier post how I implied a measure of sadism on the ISU graphic design faculty? If anyone questions the plausibility of this, I would offer the following tale as further evidence…

I think the first thing that will strike most informed observers, about this work, is that “hey, that’s a decent pastiche of the Paul Rand style.” I tend to agree, now, but at the time I created it I didn’t really have any distinct knowledge of such style; I just took the copy provided by my professor and felt my way toward various type treatments using instinct, and trial-and-error; this happened to be one of the results I turned in.

And now one might think “well, that’s an interesting coincidence, then,” while perhaps also suspecting a combination of good fortune and intellectual negligence on my part; why hadn’t I done even basic research that could have permitted me to work out a design like this intentionally?

Once more the answer to a very good question is “because our professors expressly forbid it.” Which is to say, they didn’t actually forbid me from learning anything about Paul Rand, but they did explicitly frame this project as a formal exercise in “pure” typography; they were quite clear in their intention that we approached our assigned copy as essentially “greeking” text, rather than attempt any kind of conceptual references to its content.

Wait, it gets better.

At some point after this project was completed, my classmates and I went through a kind of open review of our design work to date where we received comments from faculty, primarily faculty we had not taken studios with yet. Unsurprisingly, the above project caught at least one eye when my turn came up, and elicited comments praising the design’s conceptual reference to its content.

Which might seem a bit odd, by this point, given that such an approach was as noted entirely outside of if not directly opposed to the object of the assignment… I must presume that either the other faculty were either unaware of this, or just speaking off the cuff and not giving thought to it… I or someone else might have raised the point except that our professors had also forbidden us from getting into details of how we were assigned to approach given works in class.

I’m not kidding. Thinking about it, I have to struggle with my own disbelief, but I’m really pretty sure that this is not a false memory. It’s just baffling and, y’know, borderline sadistic. I suppose that there may have been some notion on my professors’ part of exposing us to a “pure” design critique rather than simply having their colleagues basically re-grade our assignments… buuuut that doesn’t really go very far. If my professors were never genuinely consciously sadistic (and there are at least one or two cases of considerable doubt on that score), they had at very least a tendency toward non-sadistic but flimsy chains of reasoning leading to effectively sadistic results.

Had to love ’em.

Meanwhile, on reflection I have been at least as much of a pack-rat with electronic archives as I was, for so long, with physical archives; the former, fortunately, takes up negligible room (in any sense, in these days of cavernous hard drive capacities) so I’ve kept them close-at-hand unlike the latter. Still, pulling the above panel out prompted curiosity about an electronic counterpart. And indeed, as I suspected, I still have the Pagemaker file from which it was printed ~16 years ago. I can still open it, too; I have a different version of Futura than that installed on the lab computers at dear auld ISU, but I find that with very minor fussing, I could essentially print out a brand-new copy today.

I’ve settled for saving a PDF. Which I probably should have done with all my electronic work, long ago, except 1) as would probably astonish youth today, saving a PDF was a cumbersome process in the 1990s, and 2) at this point… who really cares?

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