Paula Scher has been a strong presence in the design field for almost four decades. As Pentagram’s leading lady — she joined the New York office in 1991 — she has shaped the face of clients ranging from Citibank to Perry Ellis and the MoMA. Scher’s work brightens the city with its exuberant imagery, drawn type, and vibrant use of colour that constantly convince viewers that they want to be a part of it.

Throughout her career Scher has maintained an open attitude and ambition to reinvent herself. Some of her best work, like the identity for the New York Public Theatre, was accomplished through ‘serious play’ and is usually the result of encounters with materials she had no previous experience with. The signage projects for several theatres in the 1990s are good examples. To combine type and architecture, Scher ignored the customary panels and simply painted signage onto the walls and floor.

In 2001 Paula Scher received the AIGA medal, the highest honour in the design profession, and currently is president of the Alliance Graphique Internationale.

What makes your typographic work distinct? What are its origins?

It’s ironic that I’m known for typography. I’m self-taught, really. At Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, we were taught the Swiss International Style of typography: Helvetica on a grid. I have very bad neatness skills, so that approach didn’t work for me. I felt I was being forced to clean up my room. So I became an illustration major. But I didn’t really draw well. When I came to New York to look for work, I found that I couldn’t draw but that my ideas were good. My teacher (Polish designer Stanislav Zagorski) told me to try illustrating with type. So I learned about type in relation to image.

At CBS Records, I would follow the content by echoing it with typography. The idea was to copy a typographic genre and turn it into a record cover. This was not atypical at the time. In the late 70s there was an economic crash, and as an art director I could no longer afford to put all of our money into imagery. So the type came forward. My work was period influenced—the 30s, Art Nouveau, Constructivism. I was stuck in a “New Wave” show because I did a poster quoting constructivism. I was put in a show with April Greiman! Really, it was American wood type. [Jazz poster with accompanying album series identity] I developed a style of decorative typography combined with imagery.

I was at CBS Records for 10 years, with 2 years in between at Atlantic Records—1974-5. A lot of things that I did came out of pure naivete.

My biggest influence was Seymour [Chwast]. I met him in 1970 with my portfolio. We’ve been married twice—once when I was 25, then again when I was 40. We had a very messy divorce. Now that we’re both older, we can be together again. I responded to Push Pin when I was in school. They were my heroes. They combined illustration with typography, and they used letterforms from historical periods that I identified with. It was related to the 60s—I was in art school from 1966 to 1970. I liked what was cool at the time, like any art student. Victor Moscoso and the Fillmore posters. I loved Victorian graphics and wood type. I still do.

Has there been a change in your work between now and the CBS era?

I have become less interested in rich, illustrative imagery. 90 percent of what I do is just type. Something happened in the 80s. Clients started to interfere with the process—you would show them an illustration, and they would want to change it, and I found that embarrassing. Also, the illustrator always got the credit for the work. I feel more like the author if the project is just type. I’m more in control.

There are situations, of course, where I still commission illustration. We’re doing an identity for the American Museum of Natural History, and we need scientific drawings of animals. We have to have illustrations in this project.

But 90 percent of what I do is creating visual personalities for institutions, corporations—museums, businesses, theaters. Most of what I do is identity-related. Or what I call “defining personality.” That’s what we say at Pentagram. I am interested in projects were you establish an idea and then extend it to a variety of settings and uses. If I’m going to design a one-shot image now, I’d rather do a pro-bono poster than a book cover or album cover. The scale is more exciting.

I enjoy the premise of extending an image—establishing an idea and seeing where it goes.

Tell me about the identity program you designed for the Public Theater.

George Wolf [the director] had clear, specific goals. The organization was intricately linked to Joseph Papp. To many people, it was the Joseph Papp Theater. The problem was, Joseph Papp is dead. So people thought the theater must be dead, too. That’s a big image problem. Paul Davis’s posters were part of the old image. Also, his work was linked in people’s minds with Masterpiece Theater. His posters were amazing, but we needed to start over to rebuild the image of the Public Theater. It was a tall order, because Paul Davis was loved so well. I felt I couldn’t use illustration at all. Going in a totally opposite direction, and focusing on type, was better, because no one would compare the new work with Paul Davis.

I did three logos—George Wolf picked the boldest one. Then there was the problem that the New York Theater Festival was better known than the Public Theater as a total organization. We made “PUBLIC” big so that people would know they were going to the Public. The theaters within the organization had to be subbranded. We made a round “stamp” for each theater that goes with the word “PUBLIC.”

Does the Public Theater identity draw on any historical or vernacular references?

There are a number of influences. A little bit of Dada—the different scale relationships coupled with stamps. The Apollo Theater posters are another source. They were done in wood type on silkscreened grounds of gradated color. Instead of letterspacing to make everything fit, they changed the size of the letters. It was the language of printers. They were the ones doing it. What they wouldn’t do, though, is change the axis of some of the words, as I have done in the Public Theater work.

I’ve always been what you would call a Pop designer. I wanted to make things that the public could relate to and understand, while raising expectations about what the “mainstream” can be. My goal is not to be so above my audience that they can’t reach it. If I’m doing a cover for a record, I want to sell the record. If I’m trying to get people interested in some content, I want to bring them in. I would rather be the Beatles than Philip Glass.

What do you think about the current divide in the design community between a more formal, experimental approach and your more popular approach?

It’s all valid. What I don’t understand about the design community is the level of distrust and animosity among people who are not all that dissimilar. There’s the young/old split and the academic/professional split. These splits are counterproductive to both sides. In the academic/professional split, there’s a disdain for the fact the people make money doing design. It has to do with a misunderstanding about what graphic design is: it’s commercial art. It’s art for industry.

If we had a grand debate right now, here’s what some of the fights would be about: – difference in how people earn their income. – the old battle of formalism versus idea-based approaches. Scott Makela is a formalist—he has an aesthetic that is specific to himself. Michael Bierut doesn’t have a specific signature. He’s a cosmic problem-solver.

The formalist versus eclecticist split is very real. Massimo should really be on the Cranbrook side. The fight goes back 40 years. I’d put Drenttel Doyle Partners on the popular side. Stephen [Doyle] is a Pop designer. Alex Isley is Pop. Tibor Kalman is a Pop designer. April [Greiman] is a formalist.

David Carson is a great Pop designer. He’s doing youth culture magazines in the language of his times. He’s the Victor Moscoso of his time. What he does is appropriate to the subject matter. Beach Culture didn’t deserve to be read. He made it too legible.

I’m a pluralist. The most important issue facing designers is that there’s a plurality in the way you can approach design. What’s dangerous is when designers use a language that people can’t understand.

An example is when Time magazine ran a cover with a photograph of Bill Clinton in negative during the election. This is worse than what you would do to Hitler. No one ever did that to Hitler. The cover emphasized Bill Clinton being a bad guy more than the magazine ever intended. This cover really confused a lot of people, who weren’t used to seeing photographs of politicians printed in reverse. He looked like Hitler. He looked really scary.

There are examples of design that get praised for their content. Wired magazine is not designed as well as people say it is, but the content is very interesting.

Looking at this great divide in the design field, I think that it’s not so much what things look like as the intent. I love a lot of the formalistic Swiss stuff, and I’ve used it where it’s been appropriate to solve specific problems. I like to use style to serve an idea. The thing doesn’t look like what it does in a vacuum.

The ageism thing: the older guys dismiss the younger guys. Milton [Glaser] and Massimo [Vignelli] make better friends with each other than with the younger people, even though they’re working from opposite viewpoints.

And there’s an arrogance with youth. Michael Rock doesn’t know who Dick Hess is. And why should he? I don’t think Milton knows who Michael Rock is. And Seymour had never seen Emigre. And then he saw it, and he liked it. Emigre has a lot in common with The Push Pin Graphic: they’re using medieval typography and lozenges.

 

An edited version of this interview appeared in the book “Mixing Messages: Graphic Design in Contemporary Culture”. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1996