Graphic designer Paula Scher has designed brand identities, signage, packaging, and publications for a diverse range of clients, creating iconic and epic designs with fearless simplicity. Since 1991, she has been a partner at the New York office of Pentagram and has redefined design rules and set standards with a fresh and unmistakable aesthetic. On the occasion of her award as Personality of the Year at the German Design Awards, we were able to talk to Paula Scher about her work.
You became director of the New York office of design consultancy Pentagram in 1991, making you the first woman to hold the post. What changes were at the top of your priority list?
When I joined Pentagram, I wanted to learn how to work with large scale corporate clients, or design bigger projects for New York City cultural institutions. When I began to succeed in those areas, I started to push for another woman partner in the US. Pentagram now has 5 women partners out of 19, and that’s still not enough.
Typography plays a central role in your work. When did you discover typography as an essential design element for yourself?
In college, at Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, I was a graphic design major and specialized in illustration. We would have assignments like designing a book cover or record cover or a poster, and we would have to create the image as well as the type. All of the students used press-type, which was the “current technology.” I really didn’t understand the point of it. Most of the students bought Helvetica and flushed the type left against an image. I always had trouble rubbing down the press-type and it always bubbled and cracked and the type didn’t line up properly.
My teacher was a Polish illustrator named Stanislaw Zagorski. He said, “illustrate with type.” He changed my life.
You are not only a designer, but also look back on an education as an art teacher and later taught at renowned art schools. What do you think is the most important thing you could pass on to your students?
I try to help my students learn how to see.
You continue to influence numerous designers with your work today. Is there a design personality that has particularly inspired you yourself?
I have been influenced by many designers over the years from all periods of design. The most influential for me have been my husband Seymour Chwast, and all of my Pentagram partners, past and present.
Your own design career began in the early 1970s in New York at Random House Publishing, designing layouts for the children’s book department. Can you still remember your first job?
I remember meeting the illustrator, Stan Mack, who came into my little cubby of an office because I let him smoke in there. I told him the idea I had for a children’s book about animals living in a Brownstone apartment building in New York and they all annoyed each other and changed apartments until they solved their problems. It was called “The Brownstone.” I made a diagram of the six apartments on 3 floors of the Brownstone.
Stan liked the idea and told me he would sell it to an editor at Pantheon Books (an imprint of Random House) if I would let him illustrate it. I did, and the book was published in 1973, and is still in print to this day. I never had another children’s book idea since.
From 23 June to 22 September 2023, the Neue Sammlung – The Design Museum in Munich will be showing Paula Scher’s comprehensive and diverse oeuvre in the newly developed space-based exhibition “Paula Scher: Type is Image”.
In the 1970s, you also worked for CBS Records for eight years, where you designed numerous covers for records. What music from that time inspired you the most when you were designing?
In the 70’s I still liked Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Elton John, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, all the normal stuff. I designed a lot of jazz albums that I didn’t appreciate until much later. The only person I mentioned who was on CBS Records was Bob Dylan.
The visual identities you have designed, for example for Microsoft or Citibank, are considered by many to be prime examples of contemporary regeneration of American brands. Why do you think your work in particular is perceived by the public as representative of modern design and aesthetics?
In both of those examples my solutions were much simpler than what preceded them, but equally, if not more, recognizable.
What authoritative criteria would you use to define your idea of “modern” or “contemporary”?
“Modern” in graphic design usually means simple or spare in form. “Contemporary’’ usually means that design is utilizing design conceits that are fairly popular at the moment.
In the more than forty years of your work, you have defined quite a few rules in the field of visual design. Many of them you have subsequently questioned and broken yourself. Is there one rule that has survived the decades? And if so, which one?
In all things, try not to be boring.
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