Paula Scher: Ten Life Lessons from the Field

By Mark Sinclair

Paul Scher opening her talk, ‘Ten Life Lessons from the Field’

The Royal Geographical Society’s main lecture hall was packed with people who’d come to hear Scher talk and to discuss her life and work with Adrian Shaughnessy, co-editor of Unit’s extensive new monograph on her career to date. Over the course of a good couple of hours, the New York-based Pentagram partner, designer and artist didn’t disappoint.

For the first part of the evening, Scher offered up ‘Ten Life Lessons from the Field’, practical and philosophical advice about successfully working as a designer. Paraphrased below are her ten pieces of wisdom that she shared with the audience (if you ever get the chance to hear Scher give a talk, go along, she’s an engaging speaker). An extensive interview with Scher, where she sheds light on her working process, will also appear in the next issue of CR.

“There are things that never change about being a designer,” Scher said as she introduced the ten subjects in her talk. “They’re very much part of me.” So, from one to ten, here’s a handful of useful advice from someone who knows what they’re talking about.

1. Fall in love with something that was designed

Ultimately, if you’re making or designing something, you want someone to think about your own work the way you felt about those projects that you consider great. For Scher, she had a handful of significant design epiphanies early in her life and three of them were by people who produced artwork for The Beatles: the sleeve design for Revolver, its follow up Sgt. Pepper’s, and its visual opposite, the White Album. From 1966 to 1968 (one a year!), these sleeves represented 1) a brilliant illustrative approach; 2) how contemporary culture might be contained within a single image; and 3) “the smacker of nothing” in the blank sleeve of the band’s 1968 release, as Scher put it. “I hang on to this, I remember it when working,” she said. “I want somebody else to feel that way”. The conceptual approach of the White Album is something Scher still sees as groundbreaking – and so it remains something to aim for.

2. Have heroes and mentors

Scher named two people who have had a huge impact on her life and work: Polish illustrator Stanlisław Zagórski, her teacher from her days at the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, and her husband, the designer and illustrator Seymour Chwast. Mentors can “ground you,” Scher explained – and it’s not just their output, their ‘work’, that can influence you for the better. How do they think about creativity and process, what knowledge do they have to dispense? Zagórski’s memorable advice to the young Scher was to “illustrate with type” – and, she said, it remains the best piece of advice she’s ever received. Having a hero or role model again gives a designer another high point to aim at. After a legendary career, Chwast, 86, still draws something every day.

3. Push back against something

It’s healthy to find something to work against in your practice, Scher explained. And who doesn’t like to take on the status quo? For Scher, her target was a typeface: Helvetica. She hated it. Using it was akin to “cleaning one’s room”, it was bland, boring, un-authored and, more pertinent to the culture of the 1960s, becoming the default look of corporate America. Scher’s love of eclecticism led her to Pushpin Studios (where she first met Chwast and Milton Glaser) and on to creating illustrative type work that was radical for its time. She pushed against the conformity of a single typeface that everyone wanted to use – and it helped her realise what she wanted to do. It’s ubiquity set her own work apart.

Adrian Shaughnessy in conversation with Scher

4. Defy the career staircase

One of the hardest of the ten lessons to realise, Scher said – as our expectations of what we want to be change as we get older – and as we view our lives from a single point. In one’s 20s, Scher said, designers know relatively very little, but begin to grow; into their 30s and 40s they enter “pro” territory and are taken much more seriously, while achieving real power in their 50s – the “golden decade” where experience of one’s profession is at its most potent. While it might not look or feel like that from any of those vantage points, challenging what we think is expected of us at any time in our career can help define our own path. A witty graphic showing the “career staircase” in all its glory suggested this was perhaps her most tongue-in-cheek lesson – but it was a refreshing take on working life.

Spread from Paul Scher: Works showing some of her designs for The Public

5. Go the distance

Hang in there, as you never know what might come of your relationship with a client. Scher’s 24th season with The Public Theater in NYC shows no signs of letting up, yet it’s precisely the longevity of the collaboration that has enabled her to see what works for them, what doesn’t – and how change is possible. When her identity for the theatre launched in 1994, there was nothing like it in that area (drawn by hand and then made from wood type), and its success, epitomised in Scher’s poster for ‘Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk’ (1995), influenced the design of many other theatres’ work. So, gradually, Scher changed the look of the next series of The Public’s posters – the logo went smaller, the typeface changed again, perhaps a little too much, she confessed. Then, in 2008, she went back to a wood type identity. And now Scher makes work for the theatre themed by ‘season’ – ensuring that the communications stand out from those of the city’s other theatres. The ups and downs of these campaigns over the years are all part of the longer journey – and Scher has an invaluable perspective on all this simply because she has spent so much time with the organisation. This “body of knowledge” is very powerful. Scher now knows exactly what The Public needs and is there to supply it.

6. Be a neophyte

Or, try to keep making discoveries. It might seem like it gets harder to encounter the truly ‘new’ as we get older, but unknown territory is everywhere. Look for it and keep learning about new things – but not necessarily the ‘latest’ things. For example, at the point where many designers were embracing digital, Scher realised that the things she liked working on most were projects that were “outside”, “public” and “big” – and so she moved towards working more as an environmental graphic designer. Given the chance to redesign the outside of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, she took a photo of the building, had the proposed design added in Photoshop – and proved her theory that if the client loves the render, they will try to make the final work look as much like it as they can afford to. Experimentation is key – be it with materials, forms or spaces. Scher’s murals for Planned Parenthood’s offices in the US make use of imagery from the organisation’s archives, blown up to a huge scale; the 90ft-wide concrete slabs that form the Rockaway promenade are essentially enormous “pixels” that spell out the name from high above; while her latest identity work for the Quad cinema revealed to her that she “hadn’t totally learned how things work. Each time I ask a question,” she added, “I find that something is possible.”

7. Find a personal expression

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is an area of life and work that Scher is particularly passionate about. At the time of her Citibank identity project in the early 1990s – presenting, persuading without “touching” anything physical – she realised that she needed an outlet for herself. Scher began painting her large-scale maps partly as a way of working on something that was the opposite of what she did in the week. The paintings could take months of work and, as she was able to establish a good balance with studio commitments, suddenly this new vocation grew. “Making these things is good for me as a designer: I get the craft out of my system so I can actually focus much more on the thinking and persuasion without cynicism,” she said. The maps sometimes feed into her design work, too – and have even led to collaborations with sign-painters and students. They remain a personal endeavour but one that naturally fuels and influences her wider commercial work.

Adrian Shaughnessy in conversation with Scher

8. Work for free

“This,” Scher announced, “is going to sound a bit controversial … but working for free is important, because you take a job on a ‘pro bono’ basis when you either like the cause or have the opportunity to do something the way you want [to]”. Not afraid to tackle a design industry hot potato, Scher acknowledged that this was a divisive topic – but offered some convincing reasoning behind why doing work for nothing can and should only ever be in your own interest. While a painter’s work either sells or it doesn’t, a graphic designer is involved with a client who has expectations and deadlines and a fee. The collaborative nature of this relationship means it can be difficult for a graphic designer to realise things the way they want, Scher said, but that what she started doing was to “take things to make a change”. If she wanted to explore a new avenue she wasn’t being hired to work in, Scher would start a self-initiated project where it could appear. An unpaid AIGA cover led her down a route that resulted in her painting large-scale maps; while, in 2000, she began making her worn posters. In each case, the act can “broaden your possibilities” – enabling you to work on things that you can’t accomplish within a client relationship. “Express anger, make political statements – because you can,” she said. “We all have a lot to say.” Not being paid for something doesn’t mean there’s no value in what you make. In these cases, she said, “it’s for you and your choice”. It’s a way of taking control over the things that you make.

Spread from Paula Scher: Works showing images from her Type Directors Club project

9. Hang around with smart people

Having worked at CBS Records, launched her own studio as Koppel and Scher and worked at Pentagram since 1991, Scher has been fortunate enough to work with a lot of “smart people”. When she left CBS in 1982, she was determined to continue being “around people that you learn from and that continually inspire you”. Pentagram has proven to be such a place. In fact, she added, making reference to the calibre of partners and team members in the New York studio, being intimidated is healthy. Yes, it keeps you up at night – but it also makes your work better.

10. Do what you do best but change with the times

Scher saved her trickiest piece of advice for last: how to keep doing what you do best but evolve with what’s happening around you. “So what I do is I ‘illustrate with type’,” she said – and this threads through her work from the 1970s right up to today. Scher saw her role as a ‘conceptual’ art director move into a “post-modernist” phase in the 1980s, before becoming more of a “typographic expressionist” in the 1990s. When minimalism became more prevalent in the early 2000s she “joined in” before, again, gradually moving on to a current role she describes as being a “visual language designer”. In this role, she designs identities that need to appear across a host of platforms and media, that move and respond and change. The times have changed, too, but her stance within them has, she hopes, remained true. And over all that time, some of the things made decades ago continue to stand up, while other things don’t as well (“there are things I hate, they survive too”). And designers must live with that. Handing work over is also part of how designers evolve, letting projects go and starting again. Scher’s striking work for The New School involved creating a font based on three widths. “I created rules and 15 people execute it and grow it and I love that,” Scher said. “It’s like a living, breathing thing that goes on without my involvement. I see how far they stretch it. I recognise it on the street and it makes me happy”.

Paul Scher: Works is available now from Unit Editions (£65), uniteditions.com

Softback edition of Paula Scher: Works, designed by Spin
Scher signing copies of her book at Unit Live!

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