Paula A TED Book
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This book is dedicated to the profession of graphic design and to all the talented wits, intellects, and humanists who are its best practitioners. To all those who have been partners in collaboration, commiseration or competition; you are just as integral a part of this book as the work within it.
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Foreword by Debbie Millman
Creativity as a Small Defiant Act of Misbehaving New Jersey Performing Arts Center School Systems Las Vegas Shopping Street Type Director’s Club Microsoft Tel Aviv Subway System The Public Theater
Design as the Art of Serious Play CBS Records The Public Theater Environmental Signage Northside Underpasses Citi
Do What You’ve Never Done Before The Highline MoMa Northside Underpasses Map paintings
About Ted / Source Notes
12 Introduction by Debbie Millman
For four decades Paula Scher has been at the forefront of graphic design. Described as the â€œmaster conjurer of the instantly familiar,â€? 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 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 â€˜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. Scher has developed identity and branding systems, promotional materials, environmental graphics, packaging and publication designs for a broad range of clients that includes, among others, Bloomberg, Microsoft, Bausch + Lomb, Coca-Cola, Shake Shack, Perry Ellis, the Museum of Modern Art, the Sundance Institute, the High Line, Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Ballet, the New York Philharmonic, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, the New 42nd Street, the New York Botanical Garden, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Robin Hood Foundation, and the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. In 1996 Scherâ€™s widely imitated identity for The Public Theater won the coveted Beacon Award for integrated corporate design strategy. She has served on the board of directors of The Public Theater, and is a frequent design contributor to The New York Times, GQ and other publications. In 2006 she was named to the Public Design Commission of the City of New York.
During the course of her career Scher has been the recipient of hundreds of industry honors and awards. In 1998 she was named to the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame, and in 2000 she received the Chrysler Award for Innovation in Design. She has served on the national board of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) and was president of its New York Chapter from 1998 to 2000. In 2001 she was awarded the profession’s highest honor, the AIGA Medal, in recognition of her distinguished achievements and contributions to the field, and in 2006 she was awarded the Type Directors Club Medal, the first woman to receive the prize. In 2012 she was honored with the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Design Collab Award, and in 2013 she received the National Design Award for Communication Design, presented by the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. Scher has been a member of the Alliance Graphique Internationale (AGI) since 1993 and served as its president from 2009 to 2012. Her work has been exhibited all over the world and is represented in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Denver Art Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, the Museum für Gestaltung Zürich, and the Bibliothèque nationale de France and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.
Scher has developed identity and branding systems, promotional materials, environmental graphics, packaging and publication designs for a broad range of clients.
Scher holds a BFA from the Tyler School of Art and honorary doctorates from the Corcoran College of Art and Design, the Maryland Institute College of Art, and Moore College of Art and Design. Her teaching career includes over two decades at the School of Visual Arts, along with positions at the Cooper Union, Yale University and the Tyler School of Art. She is the author of Make It Bigger (2002) and MAPS (2011), both published by Princeton Architectural Press, and the subject of Paula Scher: Works (2017), edited by Tony Brook and Adrian Shaughnessy and published by Unit Editions. Scher is featured in “Abstract: The Art of Design,” the Netflix documentary series about leading figures in design and architecture.
CREATIVITY as a small defiant act of
misbehaving There’s a lot of talk about creativity and I’m always uncomfortable with the word because I don’t think people go out and be creative. That’s a very embarrassing thing to do it’s like saying you’re gonna go out and be beautiful, you really kind of can’t do that. I think that what creativity really is, is this small defiant act of misbehaving. It comes from generally being in situations where you’re uncomfortable with something and that you’re looking for another way to do something because you feel either trapped or confined, or you’re arrogant, or you’re just generally carrying on. For this particular exercise I put together seven projects some of which you’ve seen, some of which haven’t been made yet, some of which just came out, that all had some kind of defiant moment where I made a small breakthrough that either changed the project or changed the way I worked later.
he New Jersey Performing Arts Center, which has been reproduced and everybodyâ€™s seen, was a result of not having any money for a job, being essentially ignorant about how to solve an architectural problem, and also the major discovery that if you photoshopped a building it could come out like that. The building was a school for children studying dance, drama, and theater. They had no money and they asked me to do something to it and I essentially photoshopped it. The Photoshop rendering came out like this and about a year and a half later, the building in fact looked like this. It was painted with typography. It sort of became more emphasized as an architectural statement because of the typography. It was painted by guys who paint garages and made this their most important job and it has never gotten any graffiti on it because I think that the people who were graffiti artists actually respected the fact that it was so carefully painted.
Left: Sign painters painting the NJPAC building; Top to bottom: The original NJPAC building, the photoshop rendering, the final building after it had been painted; Opposite: Achievement First School.
I looked at the stickers and thought well they should really be walls.
o as a result of it, I began getting in these other schools to do and the other schools came with slogans. For example, this is a school system called Achievement First that exists in New York City. Itâ€™s its own little charter school system and in that system the students are encouraged to excel by all these little slogans that they got as stickers. I looked at the stickers and thought well they should really be walls. So we began painting walls with the slogans. There was a gym with slogans and a great big wall with slogans. This thing became sort of an industry for me, where I have now done five schools with these slogans on walls and the kids are in fact excelling. I guess maybe they donâ€™t really read the slogan but maybe they absorb it, but they seem to be doing incredibly well.
PAVE Academy Charter School’s environmental graphics.
The most recent, which just opened, the slogans started to get embedded into tile and I keep looking for ways where the misbehavior can become worse. The kids actually begin to accept this and now it’s sort of the norm for a public school system where it was odd maybe 10 or 12 years ago. So it’s not misbehavior anymore and I don’t know quite how to deal with it. School systems used to be beige and now they’re not. You know you do these things and you do them out of love and you do them out of fun and you do them because you want to do something good but what’s really wonderful is actually when you get to see the result and that’s sort of fantastic.
20 Is there anything you want to explore in the next 5 to 10 years? I have started a couple projects that I like. I did a mural for a public school that allowed me to marry environmental graphics with painting. I want to do more of that. Environmental graphics has become a much bigger industry than it used to be. I’ve been experimenting with all kinds of materials that I haven’t worked with before. My partner, Abbot Miller, and I are collaborating on a project of immense scale in Florida, which we’re excited about because we’re doing things we don’t know how to do. Being in that position is wonderful. When I’m doing things that are repetitious—when I know what the client is going to say before they say it—then it’s depressing. I’ve been in that position too many times. I’m happiest when I don’t know what the day will be like. I like it when I can walk around, free-fall a little bit, and free-associate, because that’s when I do my best work. I live with a balance of design, painting, and teaching, and those are the three things that I’d like to keep in balance.
his is actually another school episode and this was different. It wasn’t a school system where I was hired as a designer, it was an art commissioned from the city of New York to make a mural in a public school. I was competing with three other artists and I did not feel like I was qualified to get this commission because I thought the other artists were going to be better and do a better job. I paint these big large-scale maps that have all kinds of details on them and are complicated. The architects and the 1% for the Art Commission had seen them and thought it might be a good idea to Commission me to do a map of the area where the school was in, which is in Queens in New York City.
You know you do these things and you do them out of love and you do them out of fun and you do them because you want to do something good but whatâ€™s really wonderful is actually when you get to see the result and thatâ€™s sort of fantastic.
This was the architectural rendering I was presented. If you look at that blue square that was what I was supposed to fill with the map, it was the size of the map. I looked at it and I thought, well if I put my map there that’s not gonna win. My maps tend to be loaded with color and that looked like a fairly dark space in the rendering and I thought the map would look too busy in the space. As a matter of fact I thought the whole thing was a loser. So what I decided to do was actually ignore the space and just fill the whole damn thing up with the painting and say okay the blue square doesn’t count. I knew I could do that because I’m an environmental graphic designer and I know how to actually fill space with the stuff, which meant I could go down to City Hall with a model. I knew that the other painters were only going to go down with the drawing and I thought that was going to be cool. So I made the map.
What advice would you give to young designers just starting out? This is a wonderful profession. Design is important to our society. Designers for the most part are interesting people who have a unique vision. It is important to be part of that community, to support one another, to continually improve the state of design and create a more intelligent and informed public. Never pander, never be cynical and never attack fellow designers, not on blogs and not to clients. Most things that need to be designed are worth doing well, unless they are for harmful products or things that you cannot believe in for personal reasons (politics etc). You are the one who will be creating America’s visual landscape. Your job is to raise the expectation of what design can be.
his is my painting of New York City in Queens and we broke it up into the space. That is the space of the whole building where that mural is which actually has a skylight on the top and a catwalk around it. We broke the painting up into panels because in New York City the painting has to last forever. You have to be able to remove it in case of a flood and it has to be fire resistant. So it was a repainting of the painting which we did at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It was projected on the wall and then painted. There’s me holding the original size of the painting against the giant painting. Then it was projected, repainted, and broken up into tiles. The tiles were sort of giant pieces of board that were covered with canvas and then slathered with paint and installed. That was the finished mural. There were two of them and the second mural had the whole area of Queens in a million different languages. The first mural the teachers proof read and they corrected my spelling mistakes, the second mural I asked for help of actually translating these things and the teacher said to me, “No you’re gonna have to translate them yourself.” So I got them off Google and they made no sense at all. I gave them to the teachers and I said, “You want to proofread this?” and they said, “No, no, no no, no that’s art.”
Paula holding the original size of the map painting against the giant painting.
Signage and environmental graphics for a shopping street that was a reconstruction of a sort of a New York City Soho Street in Las Vegas.
his is a project that didn’t get completed and it was driven by my dislike for the project. I have to say the approach, which I loved where I came out with it and I’m gonna save it for another project. I was asked to do signage and environmental graphics for a shopping street that was a reconstruction of a sort of a New York City Soho Street in Las Vegas. I thought I hate this and I don’t want to do this. What I had this huge desire just to cover the thing up. Then I realized that in the times that those great industrial buildings were built in Soho, well by the way it was on a shopping street like this and there was a ferris wheel at the end of it, I realized that what existed in those days which is not in this in we’re a million telephone poles with wires and cables that were actually part of that period. If you had signage on cables it was potentially possible that you could program it and light it. So I got this bizarre idea of creating sort of layers of cabling that you could attach typography to because it would be like a giant grid that you could light the typography and it would sort of look like neon. This thing would be something that you could walk under, sort of like making a shelter for a shopping center, which I thought was going to be amazingly cool. Then you could take the surface and in the daytime you would barely see the cables but it would feel like an old city and at night it would look like that. They actually could never afford it and I think in the end it is probably not that expensive a proposition. However, I would have never thought of this except for I had this insane desire to just simply cover this whole place with typography. This is another sort of a solution I would not have come to except I was in sort of a bind. I had agreed to take on the Type Directors Club show. An annual which is actually a lot of work because they do a lot of promotion. You have a book you have to make sort of quickly at the end and then you have a series of ads, eblasts, and
I would have never thought of this except I had this insane desire to just simply cover this whole place with typography. website you have to put up. Which means that you got to get somebody on your team on it pretty much full-time because it’s always going on. The reason it’s a staffing problem is not that I couldn’t get somebody to do it, but that everybody on my team would want to do it. It’s much more interesting than the client work because there’s no you’re making it, you’re not really dealing with a lot of political problems. I was looking for a method for how I could actually break this thing up and give it to a bunch of people on my team and have it not worry about how it was managed or whether the work looked consistent. I came across this graffiti artist named Barry McGee and he’d done a series of these concentric paintings that I really loved because the form changes but they all look connected and I realized it could be typography. I took the letter TDC and I sort of broke it up into these radiated things and gave them to twelve different kids and said here are the rules: it radiates, it’s red, it’s got concentric lines, it has no curves but it says TDC. Design any alphabet you want with it and I had a bunch of kids all at the same time design these things, which
were sort of amazing because they function together as identity without really having a solid rule book. Like you could actually recognize it as one as one thing. I’d have kids who would come up and they’d sort of intern for me and they’d be there for like two months and they would do this thing. I’ve seen them now in portfolios all over New York. People drew these TDCs and they were there and then you gave them something else to do and they really couldn’t do it. It was sort of an amazing thing that happened with this thing. I realized that it was really a great way to create an identity system, that you can in fact make these incredibly ridiculously loose rules. As long as there’s a control of color and control about form. There’s a moment where you don’t recognize it, if the lines get too thick or too thin it doesn’t quite work. These uses sort of went on forever. I’ve begun to actually use it in sort of serious identity application because it’s interesting to see how far you can stretch something, keep it interesting, and still have it be recognizable.
When did you know you wanted to be a graphic designer? When I went to college, I didn’t know what graphic design was. It wasn’t until my junior year that I discovered it. And I think I wanted to study design because the school I went to taught a very Basel-oriented basic graphic design course, which was “white on white”: taking pieces of white paper and laying them over each other. But I was very sloppy; I was horrible at it. I was terrible at anything that involved rubber cement and rubber cement pick-up. These were things I just couldn’t accomplish. I went to the design department to be an illustrator, not a designer, because I didn’t think I had the skills to be a designer, whereas illustration seemed to be more expressive. Opposite: Type Directors Club Show promotion work done by twelve members of Paula’s team after being given a set of parameters to work within.
The project where I think I worked with it to its best effect was actually for Microsoft, only I didn’t realize I was doing it. I had a project that was exactly the opposite of this. It was for a very enormous company on an identity everybody was going to see, where I had to change both the behavior of a company in terms of the way I’ve thought about identity and the behavior of a lot of individual groups within the company to get them to buy something. I actually failed and then found that I have succeeded in retrospect. These are all of Microsoft’s logos and they were all designed at different times, usually with the involvement of the engineer who designed the software. They had no connection to each other, except for the fact that they all have kind of bright colors, a lot of gradients, and a lot of sort of dimension. I think the goal was to make everything on the computer screen look dimensional. So you thought you could go into it, that you could sort of push these buttons and they sort of would push back. That’s my theory about why these things are also kind of round. Windows had designed its windows 8 software at that time which is what they called authentically digital. Meaning that there are no gradations, that everything is
If you weren’t a designer, what would you be, and why? I don’t think I’d be anything else. I don’t know how to do anything else. I’m completely unemployable. Everything I do is about making stuff. I paint, I teach, I write, I make large painted maps. But I couldn’t be a full-time painter because it’s too solitary for me. I’m much more social than that. I’m always surprised when I meet young people who don’t know what they want to do. I never had that problem. I didn’t know what graphic design was when I went to college. I found out that it existed and had natural empathy toward it. But always was gonna be an artist of some sort.
flat, it’s a modernist design of a series of squares that you move around. So the logo really had to reflect the spirit of where they’d gone with their software. When I looked at this flag that they had, which I didn’t understand, which sort of looks like four pieces of tile that are bent, that are in dimension, that looked like they’re supposed to wave, I thought well I think what they meant is this. I think that originally it was supposed to be a window in perspective but somebody was in a meeting and they said well it doesn’t look dynamic enough. It’s too flat, it needs to have motion and that was what made them sort of make this thing. If you could track back into it, what somebody probably said in a meeting, and I thought well why don’t we go back to what they meant and what they meant was probably perspective. I sort of took them back to Euclid and then we looked at this prospective drawing about how things are drawn in perspective. I realized that if they could accept the notion of thinking about this thing drawn as a flat drawing because on the computer, on the television screen, and any other place you’re going to see it, it’s always going to be in motion. Anyway that the thing could be flat and it could be a drawing of something in perspective and in fact all their logos could be that. All Microsoft logos could take perspective as a basis in tool for creating themselves. That means anybody could do it because you could go to the prospective chart and you could draw your own logo. They certainly didn’t understand me but then I saw how the windows logo came out of the thing. It demonstrated how you don’t need to worry about it being
Windows 8 ad using the perspective grid that Paula suggested.
I actually failed and then found out that I have succeeded in retrospect.
30 The Windows 8 identity is built on the principles of perspective.
seen one way because it can always be in motion. You look through windows and you see them at all kinds of angles. All the logo is, is this one freeze frame of the logo that’s perpetually in motion. You can use it as a design thing, you can think about everything as angles, you can see through it, and you can make ads out of it. You can do all this stuff. That actually got adopted and used. What didn’t get adopted and used was a hundred years of fights with Office trying to get them to conform to the little respective grid. They bought the prospective grid they just didn’t like the way I was cutting it up. Bing didn’t like it, I couldn’t get Xbox to go near it. And yet over time as I threw up my hands and walked away and said take the perspective chart they began to adopt it. It was really rather shocking for me. First the Windows logo launched and the logo was suddenly everywhere, so everybody accepted it. Here’s the Office logo done by Wolff Olins and all the stuff inside and I guess they’re drawing right off the chart. It’s sort of wonderful that you can actually create this thing, dump it, walk away from it, and watch it come to life on its own without your involvement. his is a job that hasn’t been built yet but I had to show it to you because it doesn’t involve any typography at all and I usually get hired to do typography. What happened was that I was hired by an architect to design the subway station signage in Tel Aviv which was going to exist in three languages which are Hebrew, Arabic, and English. I was told that I wasn’t really going to be able to use or pick a typeface yet because they hadn’t sent out the branding RFP, which meant that if I picked a font the font would have to change. So they didn’t want me to use type. I said well how do I know what size the signs are and they said well you’ll have to figure that out for
Subway station signage in Tel Aviv. The angular shapes allowed them to be directional arrows with type.
yourself. So I was essentially designing blank signs for a system of unknown space and trying to figure out how it was going to work and as a result I did something I think I would never have done before. I hope they use it because I actually think itâ€™s a good idea. The subway system, the kiosks, and all the entryways were designed by an architect
called Samson Prison. They made these beautiful angular shapes that are very indicative of Tel Aviv architecture which looks like Czech cubism. I looked at the top of these entryways and I realized if you stood them up straight they would make terrific signs. We thought they could be of any size, of any scale, and they could fold and bend. They could do a lot
of things and we could figure out where the type went later. They would look very much like the landscape there because they would cast shadows. There would be a lot of light and dark and play that would work on them that would be quite beautiful. Tel Aviv is a very bright City and there’s a lot of light and shadow. If they bent on the side, they could become directional arrows, which meant that you could probably run an LED through the side. You could have the type run one way or the other way. You can make seats out of them, you can make little tables out of them, you could put them together and make shelters out of them where you can be x-rayed when you go into the subway. Little people could walk through them. They could be any width, they could be fat or skinny. It didn’t matter how much type they had, I could just make a fatter one that was sort of the thinking. You could run where the subways were coming up one of the angles and maybe you could light it sort of the scale of it with the LED on the side and the thing on the back. What amazed me about this thing, and I have no idea what will happen to it, is I just never had approached a job like this. It really came from the most screwed up brief I’ve ever gotten. I think that that’s always wonderful because that’s really where the opportunities come in. I think when something is just so incredibly screwed up that if you don’t do something that you don’t typically do it would never get solved anyway.
Opposite: Rendering of subway system signage in Tel Aviv
o saying that, for the last project I’m going to show you is something that I’ve worked on for 18 years. I think it is the hardest job I do because when you’ve done something as long as I’ve designed the public theater and you go into another season you don’t know if you could actually do it. You don’t know if you’re right to be doing it, you don’t know if you should pass it on to somebody else, and it’s hard to rebel against yourself. It’s much easier to rebel against somebody else’s stupidity, it’s very hard to recognize your own. So I do this thing, almost as a test to see if I can get through another year.
I was essentially designing blank signs for a system of unknown space and trying to figure out how it was going to work and as a result I did something I think I would never have done before.
34 Are you creatively satisfied? Sometimes. I’m never done. I’m more interested in what I’m going to do than work I’ve already accomplished. My favorite projects are the ones that I haven’t finished yet: I think they will be the best thing I’ve ever done before they get screwed up. (laughing) There’s always a moment when I think a project is going to be really amazing—that’s the moment I love, and it’s what I live for. The best time is when you see what’s possible. When it’s over, it’s not possible, it just is. The future is always more interesting.
What I of course became interested in, with the public after doing millions of millions of posters was really getting involved in the redesign of their new space. It opened this year. For those of you who don’t know, I’ve been designing the graphics for this theater. It’s a wonderful theater that does free Shakespeare in the Park in New York City; is the home of Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Tony Kushner, Philip Seymour Hoffman; and a score of American actors, actresses, writers, producers, and directors that have totally influenced American theatrical community. I’ve redesigned their identity three times and nobody knows it because I change it subtly. Over the past four years as they were raising small cups of money, we began redesigning their lobby. The posters that we did this year, which sit in their brand new poster boxes, were based on the lobby design. They had sort of this red bar across them because there’s a red fence inside the theater. The theater’s colors have always been red, black, and white. Here’s the black banner on the landmark building, that’s not so unusual. The awning was a lot of trouble, getting it through City Hall, you can’t attach things to landmark buildings in New York City. he inside of the theater has gone digital. The chandelier is a display, which was programmed and designed by Ben Rubin. The chandelier has Shakespeare plays in them. All the dialogue to the Shakespeare plays which play on these blades back and forth. It was an interesting experience because I was on the board of The Public and on the architecture committee. We picked Ben and I forced him to use Public Theater type, which was very difficult for him because he wanted to use typical digitized typography that he’d always work with when he does these things. I thought the result was amazing because it lives in the lobby and it’s part of the lobby and it’s part of the Public Theater language.
Top to bottom: The posters that Paula has designed are behind the case in the box office as a relic of the past; Posters for the Public Theater on the street.
Top to bottom: The chandelier display, which was programmed and designed by Ben Rubin; The donorsâ€™ wall where the more money you have donated the further out your brick sticks.
All the furniture is customized. The signage is pushed into the walls, punched out, and lives there in a way that’s permanent. The building previously was just sort of slathered with posters and now it’s just type city. Their biggest goal is getting this donors wall built. The donors wall is unusual because of the way the donations are organized. Instead of having the person who gives the most being in the biggest type or being at the top of the list, they come out the farthest on this brick wall. So you get a really big brick. So the big the big issue with the donors wall was well if you’re below the brick your name is cast in shadow so your name doesn’t show up as much as the brick that sticks out. My thesis was well that’s the point. If you want to get your name to stick out, give more money to get a deeper brick. It’s a fundraising wall, go raise that money. Here it is and they’re building it and that’s sort of what we hope the future of it is. If anybody wants to give money to the public theater they can have their brick stick out. And this is what’s become of my posters. There behind the case in the box office, enshrined in history and well a relic of the past where they truly belong.
Who do you consider to be a role model now? After all that you have done, and all that you have accomplished, and all the work at Pentagram and working with some of the best designers in the world, being one of the best designers in the world. Who do you admire, what kind of work do you really like? Well you are actually asking me this question at a very odd time because I’ve actually I feel like I don’t have any role models anymore. There aren’t many women at my age working. Or at least at the level, there are some and they tend to be, there are a few architects and product designers, graphic design as a profession seems to be a young profession so as I go forward I actually am sort of wondering how long one keeps this going. For me what matters is to continually do new stuff, to conquer areas that I have never done before because I was capable in the past of moving from records to magazines to packaging to branding to environmental signage to painting and I want to keep it moving. I want to be a neophyte and the longer you live the harder it is to be new at something. But at the moment I am sort of at a loss for role models I have to say. I find myself looking at younger people rather than older people for inspiration and also admiring their energy. I mentioned Nicholas and Kristoff and Paul before and I enjoy the company of my younger partner Abbott Miller as well as Michael Bierut who is also somewhat younger than me. I seem to be drawing a lot/ looking behind me as opposed to infront of me and enjoying them.
DESIGN as the
My work is play. And I play when I design. I even looked it up in the dictionary, to make sure that I actually do that. The definition of play, number one, was engaging in a childlike activity or endeavor, and number two was gambling. And I realize I do both when I’m designing. I’m both a kid and I’m gambling all at the same time. I think that if you’re not, there’s probably something inherently wrong with the structure or the situation you’re in, if you’re a designer. But the serious part is what threw me, and I couldn’t quite get a handle on it until I remembered an essay. It’s an essay I read 30 years ago written by Russell Baker, who used to write an “Observer” column in the New York Times. He’s a wonderful humorist. And I’m going to read you this essay, or an excerpt from it because it really hit home for me.
“Here is a letter of friendly advice. Be serious, it says. What it means, of course, is, be solemn. Being solemn is easy. Being serious is hard. Children almost always begin by being serious, which is what makes them so entertaining when compared with adults as a class. Adults, on the whole, are solemn. In politics, the rare candidate who is serious, like Adlai Stevenson, is easily overwhelmed by one who is solemn, like Eisenhower. That’s because it is hard for most people to recognize seriousness, which is rare, but more comfortable to endorse solemnity, which is commonplace. Jogging, which is commonplace, and widely accepted as good for you, is solemn. Poker is serious. Washington, D.C. is solemn. New York is serious. Going to educational conferences to tell you anything about the future is solemn. Taking a long walk by yourself, during which you devise a foolproof scheme for robbing Tiffany’s, is serious.” Now, when I apply Russell Baker’s definition of solemnity or seriousness to design, it doesn’t necessarily make any particular point about quality. Solemn design is often important and very effective design. Solemn design is also socially correct, and is accepted by appropriate audiences. It’s what right-thinking designers and all the clients are striving for.
erious design, serious play, is something else. For one thing, it often happens spontaneously, intuitively, accidentally or incidentally. It can be achieved out of innocence, or arrogance, or out of selfishness, sometimes out of carelessness. But mostly, it’s achieved through all those kind of crazy parts of human behavior that don’t really make any sense. Serious design is imperfect. It’s filled with the kind of craft laws that come from something being the first of its kind. Serious design is also — often — quite unsuccessful from the solemn point of view. That’s because the art of serious play is about invention, change, rebellion — not perfection. Perfection happens during solemn play. Now, I always saw design careers like surreal staircases. If you look at the staircase, you’ll see that in your 20s the risers are very high and the steps are very short, and you make huge discoveries. You sort of leap up very quickly in your youth. That’s because you don’t know anything and you have a lot to learn, and so that anything you do is a learning experience and you’re just jumping
That’s because the art of serious play is about invention, change, rebellion — not perfection. Perfection happens during solemn play.
right up there. As you get older, the risers get shallower and the steps get wider, and you start moving along at a slower pace because you’re making fewer discoveries. And as you get older and more decrepit, you sort of inch along on this sort of depressing, long staircase, leading you into oblivion. I find it’s actually getting really hard to be serious. I’m hired to be solemn, but I find more and more that I’m solemn when I don’t have to be. And in my 35 years of working experience, I think I was really serious four times. And I’m going to show them to you now, because they came out of very specific conditions. It’s great to be a kid. Now, when I was in my early 20s, I worked in the record business, designing record covers for CBS Records. I had no idea what a great job I had. I thought everybody had a job like that. The way I looked at design and the way I looked at the world was, what was going on around me, and the things that came at the time I walked into design were the enemy. I really, really, really hated the typeface Helvetica. I thought the typeface Helvetica was the cleanest, most boring, most fascistic, really repressive typeface, and I hated everything that was designed in Helvetica. And when I was in my college days, this was the sort of design that was fashionable and popular. This is actually quite a lovely book jacket by Rudy de
Harak, but I just hated it, because it was designed with Helvetica,and I made parodies about it. I just thought it was, you know, completely boring. y goal in life was to do stuff that wasn’t made out of Helvetica. And to do stuff that wasn’t made out of Helvetica was actually kind of hard because you had to find it. And there weren’t a lot of books about the history of design in the early ‘70s. There weren’t — there wasn’t a plethora of design publishing. You actually had to go to antique stores. You had to go to Europe. You had to go places and find the stuff. And what I responded to was, you know, Art Nouveau, or deco, or Victorian typography, or things that were just completely not Helvetica. And I taught myself design this way. This was sort of my early years, and I used these things in really goofy ways on record covers and in my design. I wasn’t educated. I just sort of put these things together. I mixed up Victorian designs with pop,and I mixed up Art Nouveau with something else. And I made these very lush, very elaborate record covers, not because I was being a post-modernist or a historicist — because I didn’t know what those
things were. I just hated Helvetica. And that kind of passion drove me into very serious play, a kind of play I could never do now because I’m too well-educated. And there’s something wonderful about that form of youth, where you can let yourself grow and play, and be really a brat, and then accomplish things. By the end of the ‘70s, actually, the stuff became known. I mean, these covers appeared all over the world, and they started winning awards, and people knew them. And I was suddenly a post-modernist, and I began a career in my own business. And first I was praised for it, then criticized for it, but the fact of the matter was, I had become solemn. I didn’t do what I think was a piece of serious work again for about 14 years. I spent most of the ‘80s being quite solemn, turning out these designs that I was expected to do because that’s who I was, and I was living in this cycle of going from serious to solemn to hackneyed to dead, and getting rediscovered all over again.
Record Covers Paula designed while at CBS records; Left to right: Eric Gale’s Ginseng Women, 1976 ; Leonard Bernstein’s Poulenc Stravinsky, 1976; Al Di Meola, John McLaughlin, and Paco de Lucia’s jazz album Friday Night in San Francisco, 1981.
So, here was the second condition for which I think I accomplished some serious play. There’s a Paul Newman movie that I love called “The Verdict.” I don’t know how many of you have seen it, but it’s a beaut. And in the movie, he plays a down-and-out lawyer who’s become an ambulance chaser. And he’s taken on — he’s given, actually — a malpractice suit to handle that’s sort of an easy deal. In the midst of trying to connect the deal, he starts to empathize and identify with his client, and he regains his morality and purpose, and he goes on to win the case. And in the depth of despair, in the midst of the movie, when it looks like he can’t pull this thing off,and he needs this case, he needs to win this case so badly. There’s a shot of Paul Newman alone, in his office, saying, “This is the case. There are no other cases. This is the case. There are no other cases.” And in that moment of desire and focus, he can win. And that is a wonderful position to be in to create some serious play. nd I had that moment in 1994 when I met a theater director named George Wolfe, who was going to have me design an identity for the New York Shakespeare Festival, then known, and then became the Public Theater. I began getting immersed in this project in a way I never was before. This is what theater advertising looked like at during that time.
Is it important to you to be part of a creative community? Yes, it’s very important. My partners at Pentagram stimulate and inspire me; I compete with them, and I like the intellectual stimulation. I was president of an organization called Alliance Graphic International for the past three years, and I have friends all over the world who are terrific designers. I’ve learned a lot from them and they make my work better.
This is what was in the newspapers and in the New York Times. So, this is sort of a comment on the time. And the Public Theater actually had much better advertising than this. They had no logo and no identity, but they had these very iconic posters painted by Paul Davis. George Wolf had taken over from another director and he wanted to change the theater,and he wanted to make it urban and loud and a place that was inclusive. So, drawing on my love of typography, I immersed myself into this project. What was different about it was the totality of it, was that I really became the voice, the visual voice, of a place in a way I had never done before, where every aspect — the smallest ad, the ticket, whatever it was — was designed by me. There was no format. There was no in-house department that these things were pushed to. I literally for three years made everything — every scrap of paper, everything online that this theater did. And it was the only job, even though I was doing other jobs. I lived and breathed it in a way I haven’t with a client since. It enabled me to really express myself and grow. I think that you know when you’re going to be given this position, and it’s rare, but when you get it and you have this opportunity, it’s the moment of serious play. I did these things, and I still do them. I still work for the Public Theater. I’m on their board, and I still am involved. The high point of the Public Theater, I think, was in 1996, two years after I designed it, which was the “Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk” campaign that was all over New York. But something happened to it, and what happened to it was, it became very popular. And that is a kiss of death for something serious because it makes it solemn. And what happened was that New York City, to a degree, ate my identity because people began to copy it. Here’s an ad in the New York Times somebody did for
a play called “Mind Games.” Then “Chicago” came out, used similar graphics, and the Public Theater’s identity was just totally eaten and taken away, which meant I had to change it. So, I changed it so that every season was different, and I continued to do these posters, but they never had the seriousness of the first identity because they were too individual, and they didn’t have that heft of everything being the same thing. ow — and I think since the Public Theater, I must have done more than a dozen cultural identities for major institutions, and I don’t think I ever grasped that seriousness again. I do them for very big, important institutions in New York City, the institutions are solemn, and so is the design. They’re better crafted than the Public Theater was, and they spend more money on them, but I think that that moment comes and goes. The best way to accomplish serious design — which I think we all have the opportunity to do — is to be totally and completely unqualified for the job. That doesn’t happen very often, but
Ads for the Public Theater’s first season with the new identity, 1994.
44 I literally for three years made everything — every scrap of paper, everything online, that this theater did.
Paula’s Posters for the Public Theater; Left to Right: The Diva is Dismissed, 1994; Him, 1994; Simpatico, 1994; Bring in ‘Da Noise Bring in ‘Da Funk, 1995; Bring in ‘Da Noise Bring in ‘Da Funk, 1995.
it happened to me in the year 2000, when for some reason or another, a whole pile of different architects started to ask me to design the insides of theaters with them. I would take environmental graphics and work them into buildings. I’d never done this kind of work before. I didn’t know how to read an architectural plan, I didn’t know what they were talking about, and I really couldn’t handle the fact that a job — a single job — could go on for four years because I was used to immediacy in graphic design, and that kind of attention to detail was really bad for somebody like me, with ADD. So, it was a rough go, but I fell in love with this process of actually integrating graphics into architecture because I didn’t know what I was doing.
said, “Why can’t the signage be on the floor?” New Yorkers look at their feet. And then I found that actors and actresses actually take their cues from the floor, so it turned out that these sorts of sign systems began to make sense. They integrated with the building in really peculiar ways. They ran around corners, they went up sides of buildings, and they melded into the architecture. This is Symphony Space on 90th Street and Broadway, and the type is interwoven into the stainless steel and backlit with fiber optics. And the architect, Jim Polshek, essentially gave me a canvas to play typography out on. And it was serious play. This is the children’s museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, made out of completely inexpensive materials. Extruded typography that’s backlit with neon. Things I never did before, built before. I just thought they’d be kind of fun to do. Donors’ walls made out of lucite. And then, inexpensive signage. I think my favorite of these was this little job in Newark, New Jersey. It’s a performing arts school. This is the building that — they had no money, and they had to recast it, and they said, if we Top to bottom: Symphony Space; Children’s Museum bathroom; Opposite: Stairwell in 42 Duke; Donor’s wall made of lucite for the Children’s Museum.
Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something bigger than yourself? Yes, I do. I think graphic design is an important profession because it’s part of what we put out into the world, and it’s what people see and perceive. 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. Obviously, we don’t want to advertise products that are horrible for people because that’s immoral. But if we can raise the expectation of what something can be, then we’ve done a huge service for our community. For example, consider the way most strip malls and shopping centers think they have to appear and behave: it’s horrible.
Why can’t there be a different kind of experience? Why can’t we see them as something potentially terrific? There’s an architect named James Wines, whose Structure In the Environment architecture firm designed facades for a chain of BEST stores in the 1970s. He took big box stores and turned them into fantastic outdoor sculptures. He raised the expectation of what those experiences could be. To me, that’s the most responsible design there is: taking something “bad” and making it terrific by raising the expectation. That’s what we do. I don’t know how to distribute water to people in India; I’m not trained to do that. I’m trained to make an intelligent piece of design exist in public so that people can interact with it. That’s my role, and I think that’s what the goal is.
48 You mentioned having a work-life balance in one of your talks. Some people tell us they don’t separate their work from their life, and others say it’s important to make a distinction. What are your thoughts? I think everybody has a different prescription for what balance is. Pentagram is collaborative and social, but my weekend life with Seymour is private and removed, and that balance works very well for me. I do my paintings in that balance. I’m generally in New York four days a week and in the country for three. I don’t have children, but if I did, my schedule would probably be different: maybe that part of my life would have been spent another way. I think everybody makes their own decisions about how they make that balance work for them and what makes them feel the most comfortable. For me, I have to have change and stability. They seem like opposites, but they’re really not: the stability is knowing that I have familiar places, and the change is mixing up what’s going on in those places.
give you 100,000 dollars, what can you do with it? And I did a little Photoshop job on it, and I said, “Well, I think we can paint it.” And we did. And it was play. And there’s the building. Everything was painted — typography over the whole damn thing, including the air-conditioning ducts. I hired guys who paint flats fixed on the sides of garages to do the painting on the building, and they loved it. They got into it — they took the job incredibly seriously. They used to climb up on the building and call me and tell me that they had to correct my typography — that my spacing was wrong, and they moved it, and they did wonderful things with it. They were pretty serious, too. It was quite wonderful. y the time I did Bloomberg’s headquarters my work had begun to become accepted. People wanted it in big, expensive places. And that began to make it solemn. Bloomberg was all about numbers,and we did big numbers through the space and the numbers were projected on a spectacular LED that my partner, Lisa Strausfeld, programmed. But it became the end of the seriousness of the play, and it started to, once again, become solemn. This is a current project in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where I got to be goofy. I was invited to design a logo for this neighborhood, called the North Side, and I thought it was silly for a neighborhood to have a logo. I think that’s rather creepy, actually. Why would a
But it became the end of the seriousness of the play, and it started to, once again, become solemn.
Left to right: Bloombergâ€™s stairwell incorporated large numbers; Bloombergâ€™s numbers were programmed with led lights.
Current: Northside Underpass that ran as front page in the paper and the first installation that the Northside put on; Opposite: Photoshop renderings that Paula presented at her meeting with the city council.
50 Do you have any favorite albums you’ve been listening to?
But I was so utterly unqualified for this project, and so utterly ridiculous, and ignored the brief so desperately that I think they just embraced it with wholeheartedness.
I like a mix of things. I began to love classical jazz a number of years ago. For painting, there’s nothing better than jazz. It actually puts me in another mindset, and all of it is great, whether it’s classical jazz or Miles Davis’ fusion stuff. I also like the Robert Plant and Allison Krauss album, Raising Sand, which is just incredible. I didn’t know what to expect from Led Zeppelin and Alison Krauss, but it’s terrific. I also like rap music, but I don’t listen to it unless it’s already on. In the car, The Rolling Stones are the best. (laughing) When it comes to driving with rock and roll, nobody does it like they do: the first licks are always great. Springsteen is good in the car, too, but the Rolling Stones are better.
neighborhood have a logo? A neighborhood has a thing -— it’s got a landmark, it’s got a place, it’s got a restaurant. It doesn’t have a logo. I mean, what would that be? So I had to actually give a presentation to a city council and neighborhood constituents. I went to Pittsburgh and I said, ”You know, really what you have here are all these underpasses that separate the neighborhood from the center of town. Why don’t you celebrate them, and make the underpasses landmarks?” So I began doing this crazy presentation of these installations — potential installations — on these underpass bridges,and stood up in front of the city council — and was a little bit scared, I have to admit. But I was so utterly unqualified for this project, and so utterly ridiculous, and ignored the brief so desperately that I think they just embraced it with wholeheartedness, just completely because it was so goofy to begin with. And this is the bridge they’re actually painting up and preparing as we speak. It will change every six months, and it will become an art installation in the North Side of Pittsburgh, and it will probably become a landmark in the area. John Hockenberry told you a bit about my travail with Citibank, that is now a 10-year relationship, and I still work with them. And I actually am amused by them and like them, and think that as a very, very, very, very, very big corporation they actually keep their graphics very nice.
I drew the logo for Citibank on a napkin in the first meeting. That was the play part of the job. And then I spent a year going to long, tedious, boring meetings, trying to sell this logo through to a huge corporation to the point of tears. I thought I was going to go crazy at the end of this year. We made idiotic presentations showing how the Citi logo made sense, and how it was really derived from an umbrella, and we made animations of these things, and we came back and forth and back and forth and back and forth. And it was worth it, because they bought this thing, and it played out on such a grand scale,and it’s so internationally recognizable, but for me it was actually a very, very depressing year. As a matter of fact, they actually never bought onto the logo until Fallon put it on its very good “Live Richly” campaign, and then everybody accepted it all over the world. o during this time I needed some kind of counterbalance for this crazy, crazy existence of going to these long, idiotic meetings. And I was up in my country house,and for some reason, I began painting these
What was the first thing you ever designed? As a kid, I didn’t know what design was. I wanted to be an artist. I drew and painted a lot, and designed publicity posters for my high school, for proms and stuff. I don’t have any copies of that stuff. But it was my claim to fame in high school, probably my greatest success. I consider the first thing I fully designed a children’s book I wrote called The Brownstone. It’s about to be reprinted by Princeton Architectural Press, illustrated by Stan Mack.
Top to bottom: Citi logo that Paula sketched on a napkin in the first meeting with the client; Actual Citi logo though it took a year for the client to accept it.
Top to bottom: Paula’s map of the United States; Paula’s map of the world.
very big, very involved, laborious, complicated maps of the entire world, and listing every place on the planet, and putting them in, and misspelling them, and putting things in the wrong spot, and completely controlling the information, and going totally and completely nuts with it. They would take me about six months initially, but then I started getting faster at it. ere’s the United States. Every single city of the United States is on here. And it hung for about eight months at the Cooper-Hewitt, and people walked up to it, and they would point to a part of the map and they’d say, “Oh, I’ve been here.” And, of course, they couldn’t have been because it’s in the wrong spot. But what I liked about it was, I was controlling my own idiotic information, and I was creating my own palette of information, and I was totally and completely at play.
One of my favorites was this painting I did of Florida after the 2000 election that has the election results rolling around in the water. I keep that for evidence. Somebody was up at my house and saw the paintings and recommended them to a gallery. I had a first show about two-and-a-half years ago, and I showed these paintings that I’m showing you. And then a funny thing happened — they sold. They sold quickly, and became rather popular. We started making prints from them. Do you have any favorite books? If I read a book, it tends to be political, but at this moment in time I can’t think of any. I read something last year that I can’t even remember the title of, but I really liked it. I read Keith Richard’s Life—but that doesn’t count (laughing)—and I read Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. I read the big ones when they come out, but I read them on airplanes. I’m not really reading now, though. I’m a political junkie, so I read a million magazines and newspapers online. I’ll either get up in the morning and read them or read them before I go to sleep at night. I do that more than watching television. I used to read novels, but I totally stopped. I think I just got subsumed with Internet reading. I’ll go into strange fits of obsession when I read about things online. For instance, I was totally obsessed with the debt crisis and with how dysfunctional Congress is. I was reading about that all the time, getting outraged, finding another story that outraged me even more, and then talking about it all the time. I can’t do anything about it, but I’ve got to see what happens!
Opposite: Map of Florida with the election results swirling in the water.
And that’s a terrifying factor — when you start something and it turns that way — because it means that all that’s left for you is to go back and to find out what the next thing is that you can push, that you can invent, that you can be ignorant about, that you can be arrogant about, that you can fail with, and that you can be a fool with. Because in the end, that’s how you grow, and that’s all that matters.
Do you consider yourself a confident person?
his is Manhattan, one from the series. This is a print from the United States which we did in red, white and blue. We began doing these big silk-screen prints,and they started selling, too. So, the gallery wanted me to have another show in two years,which meant that I really had to paint these paintings much faster than I had ever done them. They started to become more political, and I picked areas that sort of were in the news or that I had some feeling about, and I began doing these things. And then this funny thing happened. I found that I was no longer at play. I was actually in this solemn landscape of fulfilling an expectation for a show, which is not where I started with these things. So, while they became successful, I know how to make them, so I’m not a neophyte, and they’re no longer serious — they have become solemn.
When I was young, I was not a confident person, but I presented myself as if I was. I was cocky, and I had a certain kind of attitude and panache that I rolled out when I need it. But it was a piece of armor and a house of cards. After 25 years of working, I think I’ve gotten much more confident. I am more comfortable in my own skin. I don’t look around so much for approval. I find myself comfortable enough to be myself.
That’s a terrifying factor — when you start something and it turns that way — because it means that all that’s left for you is to go back and to find out what the next thing is that you can push, that you can invent, that you can be ignorant about, that you can be arrogant about, that you can fail with, and that you can be a fool with. Because in the end, that’s how you grow, and that’s all that matters. So, I’m plugging along here — and I’m just going to have to blow up the staircase.
I love making stuff and I’ve been doing it a long time. I like it more when it gets made, but I find more and more that the way stuff gets made is really accidental and circumstantial and that things have a life of their own. I’m going to show four projects most of which you’ll recognize. Some of them had almost very little to do with anything I did, but stuff happened anyway. A man named Robert Hammond was a marketing director at a place called Watch World. He came to Pentagram for an identity and he wanted a retail identity. I wanted the job because it looked like it was going to pay well. So I sent him a proposal and I was waiting to hear the result of whether or not he took the proposal or was going to cut the fee when he called me up. He said he wanted to talk to me
about something private. I said sure. He asked me if I’d be interested in designing a logo and an identity structure for this abandoned railway called the High Line, which I had never heard of and had no interest in whatsoever, but I wanted the Watch World job. I thought if I said no I wouldn’t get the job. So I had to do a logo for him. I thought well let’s see it’s a railway it starts with the letter H, I mean that can’t be that hard. ere it is. He took me up and walked me on it and I walked along something that looked just like these incredible Joel Sternfeld photos that we ended up using throughout the whole project. It was magical and while I did fall in love with it, I did need the watch world job. I figured out that an H and a railroad track were more or less the same thing and I crafted it and it looked like this. It took about an hour of studio time to do. I showed it to him, and he said but we’re friends of the High Line, we’re the organization that supports the High Line, it really should be an F. Well I thought the F wasn’t as good as the H. I said, “No no no no, you’re not the organization
How would you define the term “graphic design”? I would start first with the term “design.” If you look it up in the dictionary, it says, “a plan.” And I see design as the art of planning. There’s an implication in graphic design that it involves both planning and something graphic, something produced, something that may have breadth or have words or images attached, or have some impact. It’s a nebulous description of design. I actually prefer to say I’m a visual planner.
that supports the High Line you are the High Line. The High Line is going to be a real thing. You said it was going to be a real thing, it’s going to be a real thing.” He said, “Oh yeah, okay.” and he bought the logo. I was relieved because I really didn’t want to make the F. We made a bunch of stationery for him and they started marching around trying to get people to give money. At that period of time they were known as two guys, because he had a partner Joshua David, and a logo. They were walking around trying to get support. During that period we were designing a book and this is in the year 2001. We had designed a book called Design for the Publictrust, which was a history of the High Line, where the High Line was, and why it would be viable to make it and save it and all that stuff. Some wealthy people signed on. Martha Stewart had just moved into
Opposite: Highline logo on a telephone pole; Current: photo of The Highline, taken by Joel Sterneld.
her building and she gave some money and signed in the book. A candidate who was running for mayor, who had no chance in winning, named Mike Bloomberg also signed it. Between the time that we made the mechanical and the book was published, 9/11 happened and then November happened, and nobody ever thought Mike Bloomberg was going to be elected mayor. So we had the mayor’s signature on the book, though he wasn’t mayor when he signed it. So we pulled the proofs back before it went to press and changed it to Mayor Michael Bloomberg. This is the page at the bottom where his name is and that meant that the mayor of New York City had endorsed this project. So the thing actually begin to be serious about happening, which was amazing. or the next 10 years, we made lots of what I call crapola. Crapola is the stuff you make to sell stuff and to get people interested and make them think it’s real. To make people think something’s happening, we made a show in Grand Central called Designing the High Line, which was an open competition, and all kinds of people entered and brought in their own ideas about how the High Line was made and put on a show in Grand Central. Here people are making wind farms with cows and there’s a swimming pool that took up the whole block. Then the show had some credibility to it because it was actually kind of beautifully staged and it got a lot
of press and media. Afterwards, there was actually some seed money from the city of New York to have a real design competition with some star architects, amongst them obviously Diller and Scofidio, Zaha Hadid, and I think it was Herzog and de Meuron. They had a competition and over a period of time the real High Line began to be formed. We began campaign funds and here’s an early rendering by Diller and Scofidio and a rendering by James Corner at field operations, who designed the landscaping. We sent this thing out and made a pile of money. We then launched a campaign on the street with people who had given money, who had their picture taken in front of the Joel Sternfeld picture. These things appeared all over the place and that was sort of a citywide little area campaign for about two or three years, that sort of lived on the streets. We made millions of party invitations, one after the other raising money, raising money, raising money, sold postcards, and then finally it was the place. What’s interesting to me about it is, that I would say until we actually broke ground I was never firmly convinced the thing would ever happen. It was like so many things I worked on, where it seemed like a good idea but why would it ultimately get made. It seemed like it was too much money and too much work. Why
Opposite: Highline campaign materials designed by Paula with photography by Joel Sternfeld.
Whatâ€™s interesting to me about it is, that I would say until we actually broke ground I was never firmly convinced the thing would ever happen.
Do you consider yourself to be successful and how do you define it? I think I’m successful in certain ways. I think that I’m lucky in that I like what I do, and I get to do it. That is a factor in how I see myself as successful. I consider the fact that I have been able to continue to grow a very important part of how I perceive success. To me, success is not about money, it’s about what I design. If I get up every day with the optimism that I have the capacity for growth, then that’s success for me.
Current: Template on how posters for MoMa could remain cohesive; Opposite: Posters displayed for MoMA.
would the city do it? And now it is this sort of iconic thing. The most visited tourist attraction in New York City that seemed to happen in this period of time of us making it. And I’m still kind of actually sitting around waiting for the watch world job but I’m glad it’s there. There’s Sarah Jessica Parker with a Highline logoed bag. My favorite New Yorker cartoon with the High Line logo, which is what you want to have happen when your logo is sort of immortalized in The New Yorker. his is a totally different project. I do lots and lots of identities, a lot of them are institutional and cultural. When I design them, I’m usually confronted with things that look pretty much like this. They’re not that bad. This was the Museum of Modern Art before we began to reinstitute an identity program for them. If you look at these brochures they look sort of similar and dissimilar at the same time. They all have sort of pieces of artwork on them but they use the typography totally differently. If you walk into an institution and you wonder why that happens, it is because they’re done
in different departments and the departments don’t talk to each other and they’re not functioning together as one brand. You’ve got to make them sit down and behave. I do this all the time and it’s sort of fun and interesting. Generally after I do it and we sell a new identity and we give them the fancy manual, the whole thing falls apart when I leave. The reason it falls apart is that people tend to go back to their own behavior. They don’t operate along the lines of the manual because they’re interfering and making changes the way they were before they brought me in. I realized that after years of sort of watching these institutional identities sort of semi fail or make it, it would be good to operate from a whole other point of view.
What’s wrong in most in-house situations is that an organization is sort of structured with a lot of department heads. And they’re usually going to one creative service area where there’s an art director. The art director is completely beleaguered with changes, going back and forth from all these institutional heads. They all are operating without talking to each other and there’s no central control. So you get a diagram of stuff that looks like this. It makes a mess of the sort of little brochure as you saw in the first slide. The goal was to take, and it took nearly a year, and to persuade the structure to sort of change. Where the central area, which was marketing and design, reported directly to a director and the other people were
talking back and forth to the director and then down to the art department and then back up. What that meant would be that there will be less changes and more continuity. We could do this but what made it even better was to actually staff it. sent them one of my former really talented senior art directors named Julia Hoffman and she got this position. We were capable of giving the museum of Modern Art a one-page template that in effect worked for everything; which said you have a show promote the show, you have a big picture of some piece of artwork that’s going to fit in the grid, you’ve got a great big logo, and you’ve got a bunch of disrelated programs that you’re promoting on the side. Here’s sort of the system of how you promote the disrelated programs. You use the one typeface you already have which is Franklin Gothic, you increase visit visibility in New York, you own unrelated programs, and most important you’re consistent. It means if you’re promoting abstract expressionist paintings or if you’re putting them on the street they can look like they’re cohesive. Or you can do it with Coen Brothers movies and it still looks like it all works together, or you can do it with a bunch of different disrelated shows and put it out on the street and it’ll look collectively the same. You can put it on two buses and it doesn’t matter what you’ve got, they’re all going to hold and be one thing. You can put it in subway cars over and over and over again and in subways and in subway stations and on the street everywhere you go and in the newspaper and this calendar.
Julia Hoffman from this one page template has built stuff that’s been continuing for four years and all we had to do, to do it was change the way the reporting worked. It was absolutely amazing. So sometimes it’s not the design, it’s really the people In this situation, my brief was really strange. I was hired to design a logo for a section of town called the Northside located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I was invited by a former client of the Children’s Museum, where I had done identity and signage in Pittsburgh. The Northside is a section of town that’s on the north side of these sort of railroad tracks and underpasses that break up the city of Pittsburgh and on the other side is the Warhol Museum, the river, and some cool stuff. No one ever wants to walk under the underpasses of the train trellis to the north side of town. So the businesses over there don’t get as much business as they would. They wanted me to design a logo for a section of town. No where are logos for towns. Remember any of these, they really grab you. You know I heart New York wasn’t for New York City it was for New York State. That was actually an accident. Mostly these things are disasters. I mean they really don’t look like anything. Do you want that? Is that going to make you go to the Northside of Pittsburgh?
If you could fantasize for a minute, it’s five year from now. We’re that much closer to our imminent demise. Where do you see yourself, your life? Are you painting, are you still designing? Are you still at Pentagram? What are you doing? I am not really sure. I’m facing that right now, and I am really, totally confused. What I think is terrific is that I actually have the possibility to paint full-time. I would do it. On the other hand, when faced with the choice, I wouldn’t want to give up designing because I really love design. I really love designing. I guess I’m a very lucky woman.
I got on the plane with something that wasnâ€™t a logo and I was sort of sweating it out as I landed. I realized well what was the worst thing that could happen, I just never go back to Pittsburgh and that would be okay. So I got there and I started to talk to them about logos and why cities donâ€™t have logos. What cities have are landmarks; they have places, they have things you talk about and you feel about.
68 ake a look at this. This is what’s making people not go to the Northside of Pittsburgh, it’s the bridge. So I had to go to Pittsburgh. The way it was set up was I was part of a committee composed of architects, landscape designers, and urban planners. We were going to make a presentation to the City Council and to a group of wealthy people in Pittsburgh, movers and shakers for the city. I was supposed to make the logo and I didn’t make the logo. And I didn’t make the logo because they weren’t paying me and I didn’t want to do something for free that I thought was dumb. I got on the plane with something that wasn’t a logo and I was sort of sweating it out as I landed. I realized well what was the worst thing that could happen, I just never go back to Pittsburgh and that would be okay. So I got there and I started to talk to them about logos and why cities don’t have logos. What cities have are landmarks; they have places, they have things you talk about and you feel about. I said you know people aren’t going here because of this stuff. And this stuff is grim but you can change it by actually doing stuff to it. You could wrap it like christo or you can put lights on it or you can cover it with graffiti and chandeliers at the same
time. They were very quiet and I thought oh this is bombing especially when I got to the graffiti picture. I think I did about 20 of these sort of Photoshop renderings of this stuff. My proposal was that they take the bridge and turn the bridge itself into an art event. They paint it, they put a kind of wiring and lighting in it that you could house art shows because on the other side, in the Northside there’s an art institution called the Mattress Factory and the Mattress Factory could actually run it. They could commission people to install murals and things there. And they could close down the street for a night and have openings and then all of a sudden it would connect the parts of town, which was sort of the big idea. So I went through this presentation. This was the last image which sort of hit him over the head with my point. Ironically this ran on the front page of the Pittsburgh paper the next day and they’ve done it. They refurbished the bridges, they have their first installation up, and it really happened. So sometimes, just ignore the brief and go and do it, especially when you’re not getting paid, and its Pittsburgh and you have nothing to lose. Those of you who know my work, know that in the past ten years probably the things I’ve enjoyed doing the most have been environmental graphics and also my own personal painting of maps. They are opposite acts, it takes a long time to do both. Environmental graphics is five minutes of design and 100 years of installation and the maps are a million years of a little hand-drawn
Opposite: The underpass which is preventing people from traveling to the Northside of Pittsburg; A photoshop rendering of what the underpass could look like as an art installation.
Mostly these things are disasters. I mean they really donâ€™t look like anything. Do you want that? Is that going to make you go to the Northside of Pittsburgh?
things that I do. Here’s one of my maps. This is a map of Manhattan. It’s got Manhattan zip codes and it’s you know completely detailed and everything’s screwed up in it. This is one of the buildings I did I think about ten years ago in Newark New Jersey, it was a school for Performing Arts. I got a call not as a designer but as a fine artist to do a One Percent for Art mural inside a public school in Queens called Metropolitan High School. It was really four schools in one building. The way the One Percent for the Arts Commission works is that they call three artists. The artists are invited down to demonstrate their idea of what their artwork would be if they won that commission. It was interesting for me because I functioned so often giving presentations as a designer. I think in many ways I had an edge because I do this all the time.
70 You have spoken at various chapters, been the subject of the AIGA artist series video, and been honored as an AIGA medalist. What impact has the organization had for you and your career? I went on the AIGA (National) board in 1980. I met all my design friends that way and I absolutely treasure all of those relationships to this day. At the time I worked for CBS Records and I didn’t know people my age (30) who ran design studios. Because of AIGA, I had the courage to start my own business. At that time, on that board, I met Woody Pirtle and Colin Forbes, which is how I came to Pentagram. I met Michael Vanderbyl and Michael Bierut, and April Grieman and Jennifer Morla, and Kit Heintrichs and Joe Duffy and Chuck Anderson and Dana Arnett and Rick Valicenti, all through AIGA. I learned from every one of them, and from all of the designers I have met since in the 36 years I have been a member. I owe AIGA a lot.
hat I thought I would like to do, which I had never done before, was to combine my painting with my environmental graphics. I thought the notion of making a painting for a mural space was rather boring. The space, and there were really two of them, were atriums and they were supposed to be inhabited for PTA meetings and special events. I thought a mural on the wall wasn’t enough volume in the space. It wouldn’t do, my fear is to make boring schools, I always want to take the beige out of the schools. This is one of my environmental graphics for Achievement First. You know it’s a very sort of powerful graphic where the whole building is sort of wrapped in typography. I really wanted to do that
with painting but I couldn’t quite paint anything that big. So I had to figure out how to do it. I made this painting of New York City which incorporated Queens and Staten Island and all the boroughs of New York as well as parts of New Jersey and zip codes. My proposal was to break it up into the structure that was the atrium. The painting was broken into panels and the panels were painted by a sign painter who does my environmental graphics. We made a virtual reality of what the painting would look like when it inhabited this space that has a skylight and a catwalk. It sort of moves around and this is just done by scanning the painting into the computer and sort of manipulating it into its appropriate position. Queens was on the far wall. Right where the school was there’s like a little dot someplace that demonstrated where Metropolitan High School was. This is the actual painting finished in the real space so you can see how close it was to the catwalk. If you look very closely you’ll see the scenes where the sections of the painting were connected. You see the painting through windows and the way this thing was done is that the painting itself was projected on the wall and repainted by a sign painter. You can see me standing with my original painting against the scale of the things, so you have a sense of how big the thing was.
Top to bottom: Metropolitan High School atrium with Paula’s map of New York City and Queens; Paula with sign painters as the original map is being projected onto panels to be painted.
hat’s interesting about this for me is that I live this straddling balance between design and art. The way I define the difference is that design has a purpose and art has no purpose. What’s interesting about these sorts of environmental commissions, that happen from the city of New York, is fine artists are put in a position where their art suddenly has a purpose because it actually has to do a specific thing. There isn’t the same kind of involvement and guidance with a fine artist doing that form of installation. So they’re sort of running it at cross-purposes with buildings and there isn’t the ability to teach the bridge of the two — the city doesn’t structure it that way. I find that very interesting and the Commission, about the way they’re separated. This was truly a hybrid and actually became a little bit of a case study for One Percent for the Arts on how they might begin to think about these things because I could actually really collaborate with the architect as opposed to being kept separate from him because he was so much a part of the initial thing. Here we are with the sign painters sort of looking on the piece of the panels as they were painted. The thing has texture and depth and really some kind of gorgeous surface. What was the most exciting thing for me about getting it made was I wasn’t sure how it was going to come out. I didn’t totally know what I was doing and now I do. So probably my next one won’t be as good, which is always the case.
Opposite: Paula’s map of New York in the Metropolitan High School atrium.
I live this straddling balance between design and art and the way I define the difference is that design has a purpose and art has no purpose. There were two murals and this was the second one. The first mural the school teachers — and this is the design part — the school teachers said well we’ve got to read the mural to make sure you didn’t make any typos because it’s going up in a school. I said okay and they made proof read corrections and I had to correct all these zip codes and spelling mistakes and all the stuff on the painting. The second mural was a painting closeup of Queens and the mural is painted in 20 languages. I painted in Korean, Russian, and Arabic and nobody would translate for me. I couldn’t get anybody at the school to do the translation so I took it off of Google. Then I gave it back to the school and I said, “Well I guess you’re going to have to proofread it.” and they said, “We’re not proofreading that, that’s art.” So that’s the difference between art and design. Anyway here it is and I want to make more of them. It’s always fun to do what you’ve never done before and thank you very much.
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Watch Paula’s Talks Paula Scher’s TED Talks are now available for free at TED.com, and are the companion to Paula Speaks.
SOURCES Text Sources Scher, Paula. Great Design is Serious, not Solemn. TED, 05.2008 (ted.com). Scher, Paula. Do What You’ve Never Done Before. Youtube, 10.25.2012 (youtube.com). Scher, Paula. Creativity as a Small Defiant Act of Misbehaving. Design Indaba, 10.13.2013 (designindaba.com).
Millman, Debbie. How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer. Allworth Press, 10.30.2007, NY. Design Matters with Debbie Millman (Paula Scher) Lynch, Erin. An Interview with Paula Scher. Portland AIGA, 03.03.2016 (portland.aiga.org). Dunne, Carey. Graphic Designer Paula Scher: “I figured Out Every Identity I’ve Ever Done in a Taxicab”. 04.13.15 (fastcodesign.com). Paula Scher. Interview by Ryan and Tina Essmaker, 11.19.2013 The Great Discontent (thegreatdiscontent.com).
Image Sources Pentagram (pentagram.com) TED Talk (ted.com) Design Indaba (designindaba.com) Paula Scher Maps (paulaschermaps.com) Scher, Paula. Make it Bigger. Joel Sternfeld Friends of the Highline (thehighline.org)
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