Read Time: 17 minutes
Paula Scher needs no introduction—she’s a megawatt luminary in graphic design, an accomplished artist, a longtime Pentagram partner and the creative source of many beloved and inspiring environments.
In early June, at the 2019 SEGD Conference Experience Austin, Paula Scher joined the list of SEGD Fellows alongside legendary experiential graphic design catalysts that include names such as: Jane Davis Doggett, Massimo Vignelli, Lance Wyman, Wayne Hunt, Robert Venturi, Sue Gould, David Gibson, Donald Meeker and Jan Lorenc.
To say Paula Scher’s work is part of our visual culture is an understatement. She has made a career of cleverly combining art, culture and her singular approach typography into influential identities, images and environments.
Scher joined New York design consultancy Pentagram as a partner in 1991, as a successful art director. In the years since, she has developed identity and branding systems, promotional materials, environmental graphics, packaging and publication designs for a broad range of clients that includes but is not limited to: Microsoft, Bloomberg, Coca-Cola, Shake Shack, Bausch + Lomb, Perry Ellis, The Public Theater, the Museum of Modern Art, the Sundance Institute, the High Line, the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Ballet, the New York Philharmonic, the New York Botanical Garden, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.
Scher has taught over two decades at the School of Visual Arts, along with positions at the Cooper Union, Yale University and her alma mater the Tyler School of Art—in addition to serving on the national board of AIGA and AGI as president. She also served on the Public Design Commission of the City of New York from 2006 to 2015 and the board of directors of The Public Theater.
She’s the author of “Make It Bigger” and “MAPS,” published by Princeton Architectural Press, and the subject of “Paula Scher: Works,” published by Unit Editions as well as a featured figure in “Abstract: The Art of Design,” a Netflix documentary series about leading figures in design and architecture. She’s a frequent design contributor to The New York Times, GQ and other publications. Her artwork has been exhibited all over the world and is represented in the permanent collections of museums such as the Museum of Modern Art and the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, the Library of Congress in Washington, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.
Scher has been the recipient of hundreds of honors and awards, including the entry into the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame, the Chrysler Award for Innovation in Design, the AIGA Medal, the Type Directors Club Medal and the National Design Award for Communication Design, presented by the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. She’s received honorary doctorates from Corcoran College of Art and Design, Maryland Institute College of Art and Moore College of Art and Design.
Innumerable accolades, accomplishments and success aside, Scher spoke earnestly about the SEGD Fellow Award. “I'm very honored to receive this award and I really hope more designers understand what a great thing it is to do—I love working in environmental graphics,” Scher remarked. “I have to say, in the 20 years I've been doing it, it's been nothing but a pleasure.”
Scher’s petite frame belies her larger-than-life presence. She is decidedly sharp; she’s intelligent, focused, funny and speaks quickly, clearly. When speaking with her you instinctively sit up straight and enunciate your words.
She manages to make a tie-dyed t-shirt look effortlessly chic. She holds audiences of hundreds of designers in rapt silence as she makes light quips about her utterly impressive body of work—and lucky for us, she’s exceptionally good at being interviewed.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Where does your energy come from?
I'm never sick of designing. I’m not tired of it at all.
I find people who complain about their clients, or the work, or say they just don’t want to do it anymore—I don't feel like that. I have a great team; I love the people that work for me.
Can you give us a prediction for the future of the EGD field?
I'm frustrated with the art schools, because they aren’t even showing students that it's a possibility, much less creating programs for it. I think that it's an incredibly exciting and growing field, there's a lot of opportunity.
There is coming a critical moment where [the collective] expectation will rise, and the level of work will rise to meet it. Certain areas like museums and types of visual media are at a fairly high level, but most aren't. I think it is due to the lack of people who are innovators working in the field.
There are very, very good people in our field but not as many as in graphic design. I think that that's wrong.
Speaking of school, what led you into design? And, how did you know it was the right thing for you?
From Washington, D.C. where I grew up, I went to Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia. In the first two years, I took the typical broad range of every type of art taught at the school—and was terrible at everything—I couldn't draw, I couldn't paint, I couldn't make prints. I was inept at metals, too.
I really didn't know what I was going to major in; then, in the end of my second year, I took a course called ‘Graphic Design.’ It was about problem solving and ideas. And, I liked it because I had ideas. I often didn't know how to execute them, but I had them. It was a breakthrough for me.
Who has influenced your work the most?
Well, there was a teacher at Tyler, Stanisław Zagórski—a Polish illustrator with a very thick accent—I'm a designer because of him. In the beginning, I was a better illustrator, and really didn't understand how to work with type.
I thought the function of type was being methodical and neat, which I didn't have any interest in. He [Zagórski] gave me a very clear piece of direction, which was, ‘Illustrate with type.’ And, that [sentence] gave me my whole career.
Then, I met my husband, Seymour Chwast. He taught me how to look at the world differently and how to make visual associations between dis-related things.
Does your artwork influence your design work, and how do you approach these kinds of mark making differently?
For the first 20 years of my working life, I made things by hand. But 1998 or '99, we were totally doing every, every, everything on the computer. At that point in time, I was working on the Citibank identity, and I had this swath of very corporate work that required a level of proficiency, but I didn't find it to be very creative. I started doing environmental graphic work for the first time, in about that same period.
I also felt like I wasn't working with my hands anymore.
Seymour works all the time. That's just who he is, and that's what he does. On the weekends, I would be sort of puttering around with not a hell of a lot to do. I used to make the map drawings as little sort of satirical commentary—jokes that were early data visualization. That was part of my personal vocabulary. I thought, you know, these things would be great big, if they weren't jokey, but they were just paintings.
So, I got a big piece of canvas, push-pinned it to the wall and I painted the world, in words. I really enjoyed doing it. Two or three years later this friend of mine who was a painter came up to the house, and said, ‘I'd like to show these to my gallery. I think they would like them.’ That’s how it started.
And, I like to marry them with environmental graphics: I did a commission for a high school in Queens, where they were installed in the wall. Then, I did a show with students where we actually installed the map in a room, with 152 students drawing on these various pieces of paper that were assembled to make Philadelphia.
What projects or assignments have most affected your professional development?
I went through a bunch of different phases.
I designed album covers for 10 years. In that capacity, I experimented a lot with typography on the covers themselves and sometimes on posters. My style, if you call it that, was deeply affected by doing the ‘Best of Jazz’ series at the end of the 1970s. It was constructed with typography—something I still fall back on.
In the ‘80s, I experimented a great deal with different forms of typography from different time periods. Then, in the ‘90s when I joined Pentagram, I began working on a multitude of identity projects, which led me into environmental graphics. Initially, the graphics were flat and applied to buildings. The New Jersey Performing Arts Center building with the typography covering the building is not that different from doing the ‘Best of Jazz’ posters, just in three dimensions.
I then made the breakthrough discovery of my career in environmental graphics.
Please, do tell!
As a graphic designer and dealing with clients, there would be all kinds of additions and subtractions and changes to a design right up until it went to press. Nine times out of 10, a final would be a complete compromise of what I originally presented. They can make these requests because it's easy to say, ‘Oh, you can just do that on a computer.’
In that moment of time, all kinds of really terrific work can be compromised, depending upon how strong you hold your ground, which I've gotten very good at. But, the fact of the matter is—and so many designers will tell you—that's the inherent problem of getting something realized in the way they initially conceived it.
However, with [environmental graphic] design, because of the nature of the schedule, unless the budget is lopped off, they come out pretty much the way you intended them. Often, I will change a material for a less expensive version, without affecting the look. If whatever I rendered can actually be made in the given budget against the time frame—it will come out exactly like the rendering.
That was my major breakthrough. That's why I love environmental graphics.
Does your internal approach, vary dramatically between those two functions?
It's really interesting; they are so different. I have separate graphics and signage teams, because I approach graphic design in a very different way than I approach signage. With signage, there's the dimension and the materiality, timelines are different, the approach is different.
Sometimes you're doing both jobs at once. Sometimes I’m hired to do the identity, and then the environmental graphics. Then I'm really changing hats because the whole decision-making process changes.
In both areas, my goal is to try to push something to defy the expectation of what it's supposed to be. There’s an expectation about what a corporation is supposed to look like, or what wayfinding systems look like—my goal is to uproot that whenever possible. Not in a sense it's impractical, or if it doesn't function, but just to explore a different way of doing it.
Has being a Pentagram partner afforded you more license in that?
Well, some of it's that, and some of it is I'm impossible to deal with. [laughs] It's not for everybody, but I have a good sense of humor about it and usually the clients do too, that's why they hire me.
If they like the spirit of the work, and want to talk to me about it, it's a fairly collaborative journey. They’re still going to make assumptions, and I'm going to test those assumptions.
And, in that back and forth, we're going to invent something. That’s what the fun is. The question is: Can you invent the thing within a budget? I always think you can.
One of my favorite projects was the Bloomberg LED. The budget got cut by 50 percent, but because we had made the numbers so big—because it was a job based on numbers—we just cut the jumbotron in half.
We saved half the budget and the project was better for it. I love stuff like that—that's the most fun part of the job.
Would you say that you thrive on limitations?
I think limitations make work better because you're always pushing back at them. You want to defy them. That tension is what generates a creative solution.
How much limitation is too much limitation?
Budget certainly isn't an issue for me. I've found that I have done some of my best work with very cheap materials.
One type of project I tend to dislike is the type that come with tight, rigidly defined guidelines. Why bother to design it? Just pop it into the computer and print it out. I won't even want to touch that sort of thing; it’s boring.
Sometimes, it’s a good idea to take on an area where you see only terrible work being done and challenge perceptions, assumptions and limitations. For example, at first, I didn’t want to do the Park Avenue Garage, but the client said I could do anything I wanted within the budget. The minute he said that, it was a great job. I love it—that being said, I didn't want all the parking garage jobs that came as a result of it.
Let’s talk about pro-bono and working for free.
The first reason I do something for free is because I want to do it. I've worked for the Public Theater for 25 years in various capacities, but always because I love it.
There are other reasons, too: I did some work for Madison Square Park, because it was across the street from us. I thought if I didn't do it, I’d have to look at someone else’s design every day—seriously!
In some instances, I've made donations. When I was on the design commission, the New York City Parks Department needed a sign system designed, and I gave it to them because they needed it and it was a worthy cause.
I wouldn't have the influence on or the ability to get the work I did if I hadn't done things for free. It's a trade-off; when I make the decision to work for free, the client gives up some of their impact on the work.
If you make a donation, you can do something absolutely wonderful, understanding that the client has to be efficient on their end to make sure they provide the information appropriately and there aren't a lot of changes and revisions. So, you need to be pretty tough about that stuff.
I was raised that way. Seymour and Milton Glaser did so much free work to develop their reputations.
If you say, ‘No, no, no. I never do it [work pro bono],’ you miss certain rich opportunities that are good for you. Also, in doing this, I did not take something away from another designer that they would've gotten paid for.
You've said, "More is more, and less is more, but the middle is not so great,"…
It's a bad place.
And about the city and the country being…
I don't like the suburbs either.
Is that a recurring theme for you?
I haven't really thought about it.
I tend to like the extremes; I like things that are immensely complicated, and I like things that are very simple. I find things that are in the middle never quite work.
And, it's true. If you think about architecture—if you think even about a poster—it's one or the other. Usually, most of the identities I design are simple because I have to do complicated things with them as you move into promotional categories.
What do you think about the concept of the ‘personal brand’?
I think that you don't have control over that because a brand is usually an amalgamation of what something is and how everybody else sees it at once, right? That's the total understanding.
There are lots of things that you control, like what you wear, or the sort of work you make, or the clients you have to a degree. You have an ability to be expressive, and you make those choices when you think that's appropriate or necessary. You don't have any control about how anybody else perceives it.
You do projects because of who you are, and that if you're trying to shape who you are to be the right sort of person, to fit into whatever time it is, or create a brand for yourself—I think that's sad. I don't know what you do with that.
I find it so repulsive that these concepts of control that have permeated society in a way that is just completely unrealistic. Everybody's going to be tremendously disappointed when they fail.
A lot of designers see Pentagram as an ideal place with ideal projects, what is it really like?
It isn’t always all ideal, of course, but what we have at Pentagram is idealism: We really do believe that we can make and do things that are going to elevate and push the profession forward. Sometimes we even do it. And, that's great.
Pentagram is designed as a business, as a place for a designer to work. And it is structured in the inherent equality of the partnership. It's a collaborative. We all own equal shares. We share profit at the end of the year. We support each other: If somebody has a client that they want to dump, or the project is making them miserable, the rest of the group will support them 100 percent.
So, the ethic is different. It’s not about money, particularly if a project is going to make you unhappy. The partners have a very similar ethos because we're all here for the same reason. We all want to make the thing.
You’ve said that you are more creative, particularly with materials, when you’re not quite sure if something will work.
Absolutely. Making guesses and being a neophyte in something affords accidents: The best work comes out of accidents.
Taking what’s interesting from those mistakes are what’s important. I find that if I do the same kind of project three times, by the time I do the third one, I've really taken away the originality out of it because I know how to do it.
How do design organizations better embrace experimentation and failure as part of the process in your opinion?
It isn't that the notion of experimentation or failure is part of what you present to your clients, in terms of the process. I think it's what you have made as a result of it.
If you show the work, they'll ask you what your process is—and I will say there's some trial and error in everything. That this thing is more like a lab, and we’re experimenting, but that within this timeframe, within any given budget, we can achieve this kind of result.
What recent EGD projects are you really proud of?
I like the ones where I really do things I've never done before, for example, Quad Cinema, which I think is really a successful project. Scholastic was a surprise; I love the way it came out.
It started out like a signage project where they wanted to hang up a lot of illustrations. They just looked junky in this clean modernist office, so what we did is to change it contextually. We turned Harry Potter into a Gilbert and George stained glass window. We made a 3-D model of Captain Underpants bursting through the wall. It's a scream when you're in it.
I really love it. And what's wonderful is, it looks that good in real life—exactly like the Photoshop renderings.
Accolades for Paula Scher, FSEGD
“Big Abrazo to our 2019 SEGD Fellow, Paula! From her first venture into spatial communication to the present we have all learned from her!” —Lance Wyman, FSEGD, Principal & Founder of Lance Wyman Ltd.
“Paula is resolute, authentic and wonderfully creative. She is also delightfully funny!” —Robert Probst, FSEGD, AGI, & Professor of Communication Design, Provost Designee and former Dean of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning at the University of Cincinnati
“Paula has incorporated graphic design into the amazingly energized map art she has created. It’s so good to see that designers still have hand skills; I hope that the young generation of designers can see the importance of craft in Paula’s beautiful work.” —Jan Lorenc, FSEGD, Principal of Lorenc+Yoo Design
“Throughout her illustrious career Paula has been instrumental in promoting and establishing a high level of expectation for environmental graphic design. This honor recognizes decades of dedication to the craft and a passion that has been instilled in so many designers that idolize her work.” —Bryan Meszaros, SEGD President, CEO & Founder of OpenEye Global
>> Video of Paula's Keynote & Acceptance Speech: Coming Soon!
>> Meet more of SEGD's distinguished SEGD Fellows, including Massimo Vignelli, Deborah Sussman, David Gibson, and many others.
>> For more great EGD/XGD content in your areas of interest, discover SEGD's Xplore Experiential Graphic Design index!