Design History #3: Paula Scher

This is a strange time to experience what will become human history, since we in Toronto have been locked in our homes for more than 4 months. But also a good time to write about human history, particularly design history, given the extra time at my disposal. So I decided to write about Paula Scher – an American graphic designer whose work with typography I really admire. I am also going to cover her work with The Public Theatre in New York City because there are a few important lessons that all creatives can learn by studying her association with the institution.

Born in Washington D.C. on 6th October 1948, Paula Scher took up her first design-related job in New York City as a layout designer at the children’s publishing division at Random House. She had completed a B.F.A (Bachelor’s in Fine Art) at the Tyler School of Art in Pennsylvania prior to this (in 1970) and went on to work for organizations like CBS Records and Atlantic Records. She currently serves as the principal at Pentagram in New York city.

Scher’s work with typography and maps is brilliant. Netflix’s series Abstract, which features one episode about Paula Scher, follows her into her studio where she explains how she paints some of them by hand. The maps are diverse – Scher has covered places as disparate from China to the United States – and extremely detailed. There is also a map-typography piece where she has used zip codes from places across the United States, placing them where they would be on a geographically accurate map.

As I studied her professional works and interviewed I was struck by Scher’s interest in public art. There are two lessons that creatives can learn from observing her work in public art, particularly her collaboration with The Public Theatre in New York city. In Abstract, Scher confirms what all wise creatives know: Pro-Bono collaborations, with individuals or the public, give the artist the greatest satisfaction. This is because there are fewer constraints imposed by a paying client which allows the artist more creative freedom. There is also the added satisfaction of having given back to society!

The second lesson to learn is that iteration is essential for effective brand design. Paula Scher started collaborating with The Public Theatre in 1994 and has redesigned the organization’s brand identity thrice since then. This gave her a chance to keep improving her work, which is something she recommends that all creatives do, while providing the institution with an updated, contemporary look. All the graphic design or UI/UX design courses I have come across highlight the importance of iteration at the beginning of the creative process, but Scher’s example proves that it is valuable at any stage.

Photo by Amador Loureiro on Unsplash