Paula Scher is one of the most influential graphic designers in the world. Described as the “master conjurer of the instantly familiar,” Scher straddles the line between pop culture and fine art in her work. Iconic, smart, and accessible, her images have entered into the American vernacular. Scher has developed identity and branding systems, promotional materials, environmental graphics, packaging and publication designs for a broad range of clients. In this session, Scher reflects on career-defining moments, shares her design process and explores the relationship between design and marketing.
Scher has been a partner in the New York office of Pentagram since 1991. She began her career as an art director in the 1970s and early 80s, when her eclectic approach to typography became highly influential. In the mid-1990s her landmark identity for The Public Theater fused high and low into a wholly new symbology for cultural institutions, and her recent architectural collaborations have re-imagined the urban landscape as a dynamic environment of dimensional graphic design. Her graphic identities for Citibank and Tiffany & Co. have become case studies for the contemporary regeneration of American brands.
Hugo Perez: What part of design process do you find the most exciting?
Paula Scher: The moment where I think I may have solved it. In other words, there's a moment, sometimes it's an initial meeting, sometimes it's far down the road because I've been struggling, but there's a moment where I think I may have solved it. I make this decision and private conversation to myself that this is going to be the best thing I've ever done. It never is, but that's the thing that keeps me going.
Hugo Perez: What have been some of the early highlights in your career that helped define you on your path to being such an influential designer in the graphic design world?
Paula Scher: I've been designing a very long time, really nearly 50 years. I was in the record industry initially. I worked at CBS Records in the 70s and I produced lots and lots of work for lots and lots of recording artists. Some things were good. Some things were terrible. Some things embarrass me when they turn up today. Some things are classic. I did the Boston cover. That will haunt me to the day I die because I hated it, and it was a big hit.
Hugo Perez: You started in the record industry, how did you make the jump over then just to more mainstream or broad graphic design?
Paula Scher: I was at CBS Records and a stint at Atlantic for a year, which is how I became a record cover art director. I was in the record industry for 10 years and I wanted to make something that wasn't a square. And also, the record covers were becoming CDs and I really had no interest in designing them. I decided I was going to start my own business, and I left the record industry and I freelanced for about a year, mostly doing record covers. Then, I went into a partnership with somebody I went to college with named Terry Copal, who was a magazine designer. The sort of projects we got were youth culture. For example, I did the first campaigns for Swatch Watch when they came to the United States. But this was in the 80s, and throughout that decade, for more than the first half, I think our business grew every year. By the late 80s, right before the first George Bush recession, the industry tanked and I was about to turn 40. I realized that I was probably, as a woman in business, not going to be able to grow very much more. I saw a period of complete stagnation and failure, actually. Terry left the partnership at the end of the 80s because of the recession, because magazines went away and he took a staff job. I was left running the business alone, and at that particular point in time, in the year 1990, Woody Pirtle, a designer who was a partner at Pentagram, came around and asked me if I'd be interested in joining. I joined this international partnership that was all men and made a calculated risk, that it might be very difficult to join the group, but that it would afford me the believability that would enable me to get bigger projects, more age-specific to me where I could grow. And it turned out to be the best decision I ever made in my life.
Hugo Perez: Where do you get your inspiration? Where do you constantly refill the tanks?
Paula Scher: I live in New York City and it's a constant visual. It's an incredible place to live and work. And during COVID, I've been living in my home in Salisbury, Connecticut, my weekend house, which is now my full-time house. I miss New York, and I feel idea challenged in a way, because I got my best ideas riding around in taxi cabs and sort of mindlessly looking out the window and it would trigger something. And that's gone for me now. Also, I'm not with my partners every day. I'm not with my staff every day. I'm working through this little box. I hate that. I think it's not the way to work. Design is collaborative. You want to see somebody's face and you want to hear, not the idea necessarily that they're expressing, but the condition from where that comes from, which you can only do in person. It isn't exactly what's said, it's what's inferred. And that's what brings about ideas and thinking.
Hugo Perez: What are some tips that you would give young designers that they should focus on, that they should explore in order to keep becoming better and being better contributors to the space?
Paula Scher: I think your first job is really important. Where you work, who you're working for and what you can learn. If you are a young hot shot with a cool portfolio and you go around looking for the most amount of money you're probably likely to grow the least. Mentoring is important. It's important to learn how the industry is structured, to learn what people's expectations are. And you can learn that from somebody with more experience whose work you admire. If you're working for a place where you don't like the work, you're not going to come in and change it. I would say for the first three or four years, the most important thing you can do is try to learn and build the best portfolio you possibly can.
Hugo Perez: Are there certain skillsets that they should rehearse or practices?
Paula Scher: The most important thing you can do is look at other people's work and to look all the time. So much of my work is reliant on topography and there's so much exciting things going on in type design today. European design is spectacular. There are so many great things coming out of Asia. The thing to be doing is to be looking everywhere at everything and absorbing it all.
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