Get to know Paula Scher, titan of postmodern design

Alex Bigman

It’s hard to believe that a single creative mind could be responsible for both the polished corporate-ness of the Citibank logo and the loudly expressive poster designs of historic Public Theater productions like Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk. Yet this all-embracing sensibility is the calling card of Paula Scher, a reigning titan in a heavily male-dominated industry.

After working for decades designing record covers and magazines, Scher became a principal at the heavy-hitting design agency Pentagram in 1991. Since then she has remade the identities of brands ranging from Microsoft to the Museum of Modern Art, all the while maintaining an abiding interest in environmental design, and a mural-scale painting practice that is all her own.

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The “postmodern” appellation derives partly from Scher’s refusal to draw lines in the sand with regard to what sorts of jobs and clients she takes on, reflecting her belief that multinational corporations are just as worthy of dignified design as vanguard local arts organizations. It also stems from her exuberant rejection of modernist strictures demanding neutral and “clean” designs. For Scher, expressivity is of paramount value.

Whether or not you agree with all of her positions, Paula Scher is an important figure for all up-and-coming designers. Below we’ve paired ten of her key designs (some for Pentagram, some from earlier) with some great nuggets of wisdom pulled from interviews, on topics ranging from the social value of design to the importance of boredom in the creative process.

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On illustrating with type

“[As a student] I didn’t understand typography; I couldn’t see the form. One day, Stanislaw [Zagorski] told me, “Illustrate with type,” and that was the best design advice I have ever received. Once I started to see type as something with spirit and emotion, I could really manipulate it. I never drew very well, so my ability to communicate feeling through typography became really important.”

The Great Discontent

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On being able to defend your work

“I think it’s very important for young designers to do two things. One: spend the first one to five years learning how to design and present design from somebody who is terrific at it. Having that basic understanding will carry you through the rest of their career. The second is this: develop the ability to explain, defend, and promote your work. Those are the two most important things.”

The Great Discontent

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On the staying power of design

“People often say that graphic design is ephemeral, but it’s not. Older designs are still seen in the mainstream; we interact with things that were designed a long time ago.”

– via The Great Discontent

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On designing for “the public good”

“It’s not just about doing design for the ‘public good.’ The design community currently thinks that if you design something to help the victims of Hurricane Sandy, then that’s good, but if you design something for a bank, then that’s bad. I disagree. I think all design matters and all design deserves to be intelligent.”

– via The Great Discontent

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On the unpredictable nature of creativity

“How do you know [the creative process is] going to work? You don’t. That’s why some work is better than others. I remember a book jacket director in the ‘80s who said my work for him wasn’t up to my normal level, and I said, ‘Well, some days I’m just not as talented as other days.'”

– via Fast Company

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On the importance of boredom

“iPhones and other forms of digital media [are] disrupting boredom, because people can occupy themselves all the time. You don’t have any more downtime—you go on your iPhone, look at email, or you’re playing video games.

“The fact of the matter is, that eats up really good creative time. I realize that when I’m sitting in a taxicab in traffic, or on my way to the airport, or waiting to get on a plane, or trapped in some other boring situation, that’s when I get the best ideas, because I’ve got nothing else interfering with it.”

– via Fast Company

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On technology

“The danger is getting trapped as a technologist. You need to be able to ride past the technology by understanding what it can do, who you are, and where you want to take it. You don’t want technology to lead you; you want to lead it, but it’s very hard to do that when you’re in the middle of it.”

– via The Great Discontent

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On “clean” design

“[According to Swiss Modernism] the biggest compliment you could give to something was that it was ‘clean’. C’mon, there’s gotta be more than that … That can’t be it! What about expression, what about emotion, what about feeling? You had to be engaged with it in some way. If you could be neat, it seemed that you could achieve it. And that didn’t seem right to me about a form of expression and communication. If anybody can achieve it, why bother to do it, why don’t we all do it ourselves?”

– via Eye Magazine

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On the goal of design

“I think the contribution and goal of design is really to raise the expectation of what the design could be. So if you’re thinking about a curb and have a prescribed notion of what a curb is, there might be a better solution.

“If you’re drawing water in an an environment that doesn’t have a good methodology for doing it, there may be a better one that one can conceive of that solves the problem. That’s the goal. If it’s designing a website for a bank, there can be the easiest one to use that hasn’t been designed yet. All those things are the goal.”

– via Fast Company

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On the expressivity of typography

“Words have meaning and typography has feeling. When you put them together it’s a spectacular combination. I think the reason I responded so negatively to Helvetica way back when was that it neutralises feeling.

“A Modernist would argue that that’s terrific because then the words speak and you’re not influencing the content by creating disorder with them …. All other styles imbue the words with a shade or meaning, which changes them, which is where I think all the fun is!”

– via Eye Magazine

What do you think of Paula Scher’s design work? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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