Features / Graphic Design

One Step Ahead: we meet Paula Scher, the trailblazing Pentagram Partner


Caroline Tompkins

When discussing graphic design with Paula Scher she lets me in on a secret for spotting trends and tastes: “If you look through design history and you see something that looks really radical, that’s what you’re going to be doing now. If you think that’s nice, that’s what you’ve already been doing. If you think it’s tired, that’s what you were doing five years ago. But if you think it’s ugly, that’s what you’re going to be doing in five years.” I ask Paula when she worked out this key piece of design knowledge, she laughs…“about 30 years ago.”

Knowing this rotation could be the reason why Paula’s work has often been one step ahead of her contemporaries. However, looking at her work, and particularly when you hear the designer speak, it is a palpable passion that has elevated her work, rather than a calculated formula. She defiantly says no to projects that don’t fit with her ethos, “you know when you can’t do something,” she donates her skills to institutions that need it, and she even relays a story about blowing a pitch “because I said some unpolitical thing to them”. Paula is an erudite designer, but the industry’s love and long-term relationship with her is also because of a zealous and thoughtful personality. Paula Scher is the guest at a dinner party who says what she thinks, the thing you think too, but couldn’t find the words. She paints and designs those words.


Each of these attributes make Paula the ideal choice as the ‘graphic designer’ in the eight-part Netflix documentary Abstract: The Art of Design, which aired earlier this year. Paula watched the documentary the same way many of us interact with Netflix, tucked up in bed. “Seymour [Paula’s husband illustrator Seymour Chwast, who she met when she was 21] wasn’t there at first, but I put it on because I am very self-conscious of what I Iook like, so I had this moment of ‘my god, can I do this?’”

Her concern was quickly diminished however, due to the documentary’s blockbuster opening that sets you up for watching someone so powerfully cool. “It was the very beginning when I was walking through traffic and I heard my voiceover and thought I’m not going to be able to deal with this. All of a sudden these graphics come on and, holy shit, they looked so powerful to me.” When speaking about the film with Paula she characteristically downplays the attention. “Most of the time I spent with him [director Richard Press] was riding around in taxi cabs, walking in traffic, going up and down the steps of Pentagram a million times, and I really wanted to kill him!” she says. “There was this thing, it was a summers day and I had to walk down sixth avenue on this really crowded street, and people kept walking in front of me, or he didn’t catch it right, and I had to go back and do it 100 times. We had to spend one whole day in traffic and he is making me sketch, all that shit. It looks totally natural in the movie, but you don’t realise how much of movie making is that.” But Richard’s dedication worked, “people who know me feel it’s very much me, and it was, I feel that too”.


Unit Editions: Paula Scher: Works


Unit Editions: Paula Scher: Works


Unit Editions: Paula Scher: Works

This year also saw the designer’s work celebrated in Paula Scher: Works a monograph published by Unit Editions. The book presented an opportunity to tell an alternative story to Make It Bigger which revealed her thoughts on the design industry. This time, the book dives into her portfolio from political posters to paintings. “It was 15 years since my last book was published and I had accomplished what I think is quite a lot of significant work in that period,” says Paula. “I wanted to do it, I was thinking about doing it, I just didn’t want to write it.” The offer from Unit Editions “thrilled” the designer, and had helpful serendipitous timing. “I was shocked, totally gobsmacked, it was such an honour.”

Paula Scher: Works takes you on a journey of the designer’s polished career. The night before our interview, I went to see Paula speak on her own and in conversation with one of the monograph’s editors, Adrian Shaughnessy. In the first half, Paula teaches the audience ten life lessons in design. Her “hardest piece of advice,” is based on the career expectations we go through over each decade of our lives. “In your twenties you don’t know anything, what’s interesting is how much growth you have,” she says. “In your twenties you’re either kind of a peanut or a wonder kid. It’s not great to be a wonder kid, because you have no where to go but down. But mostly you’re starting out not knowing something, and then you begin to grow.” When Paula was in her twenties, she was working at CBS records — a classic dream job of any designer, whatever age. “That was lucky, I didn’t even know I had a great job. I was just a kid!” she explains when I argue that she was definitely a wonder kid that has grown rather than stumbled. “I had moved to New York and no one even knew what graphic design was, it was just the 70s,” she says, showing her humble and still self aware personality.


Paula Scher: New York’s Highline


Paula Scher: New York’s Highline

Paula’s move to New York has provided the biggest learning curve in her career. The city has offered both inspiration and endless briefs through her work for institutions such as New York City Ballet and The High Line, consequently in 2006 she was named the Public Design Commission of the City of New York. “The biggest donation I’ve ever made was to the city of New York because I redid their whole signage programme in the parks department, which is enormous and they’re still rolling that out. But that got me nothing as a designer, I did it because it was something I knew how to do, and I love New York City! They have signs, they should have good signs, and I can do it.”

The design contributions Paula has made during her career is due to a personal, and often controversial, ethos that designers should do work for free. “Everybody always talks about that,” she says. “It is actually common of designers from a previous generation. I mean this is a thing I know about, you invest yourself in personal projects for a variety of options.” By working for free, Paula argues, offers you a certain freedom. “It could be because it changes the way you work, it could be to experiment, it could be because you liked the cause, they’re all the reasons I’m talking about,” she says. “In the States, young designers have been kind of forced fed this thing of ‘all work has value, you should always be paid.’ As a result, they find themselves with the inability to change what they have made, because if they’re working for somebody else that’s all they do. They’re not figuring out that you can go outside that box by finding a cause, or volunteering services, or making a relationship… It’s becoming more and more rare and I find it really troubling. It means that it takes the profession and sort of turns it into a pure business, instead of a craft or a calling that you’re working to improve.”


Paula Scher: Maps, Demographic and Economy

Due to this ethos, Paula is respected as one of America’s greatest liberal designers. It is inevitable therefore that our conversation at some point turns to Trump. Within her team at Pentagram, Paula explains that a shift has already begun since the start of his presidency. A proudly global group of associates, “there are things that have changed that I have felt already,” particularly in terms of employment and visas. “If Trump is talking about a good deal for American business, this isn’t.” But most of all it is the discussions the designer heard 40 years ago resurfacing that she finds worrying. “The cause of feminism has not really — yes there are better numbers — but it’s really not where I thought it would be. I just can’t believe I am having the same conversations all these years later, I’m just totally horrified by it.”

The lack of female graphic designers is a constant discussion within the industry and during Abstract Paula recalls back to the 70s when all women were in organisational roles, agents or reps. “I would sit there and think ‘oh my god what are they gonna do with me, what am I gonna do with them.’” Surprisingly, the designer still experiences sexism, saying during the film: “If I am sitting with a new client, I can see in the first glance that he’s wondering why he’s got this old lady.”


During our interview I explain my dismay that this still happens to a designer of such stature, the first female partner at Pentagram with the world’s biggest and exciting creative clients under her belt. “It doesn’t really happen if they know who I am, but a lot of times they don’t,” she explains. “They call up Pentagram because they’ve seen a piece of work or they want to know who did something or other, and something about the appearance seems shocking to them.” Talking with clients is where this occurs most, “I’ve gone to meetings with my partner Michael Beirut and if he’s in the meeting, the eyes go to him. I see it and I feel it in the room. He’s also a mansplainer sometimes and I have to smack him, but really it’s horrible, I mean he knows it too, I have to yell at him about it — not in the meeting — we’re friends. But in most instances he will be awarded confidence, and I will have to earn mine. It’s the only way to describe it, it’s a free pass. Women do it too by the way, it’s not just men who are guilty, I have women clients who do the same thing.”

Still in the midst of a career including countless successes, and during a year where her work has been celebrated in book and film form, Paula says she remains excited about what she does. One particular project she is still proud of is her identity for New York’s beaches from Coney Island to Rockaway. “I was really proud of the beach project because they were disseminated and I wasn’t capable of doing a case study on it at that time. But it was a serious project that they had to accomplish really quickly, and it was successful. Also in the Rockaway’s, everyone knows who I am.” Proving again Paula’s ability to be more than the designer behind the desk, but the character conveyed in her work.


Paula Scher: Rockaway Beach

Even on the surface, Paula’s contribution to graphic design is nothing short of astonishing. Her work has informed pop culture through record sleeves, but it also visualises technology when Windows computers are turned on all over the world. Her identity designs sit on the mastheads when prospective students receive letters from The New School or University of the Arts London. Her signs direct people when they’re trying to meet friends at the beach or the park, or when your hungry for instance Pentagram’s identity for Shake Shack, where this feature is shot. Her ideas give a voice to non-profit arts institutions that keep this industry thriving. Galleries such as MoMa, The Guggenheim, the Victoria and Albert museum, who represent the best of the art world, choose her to represent themselves. Her work for Planned Parenthood is immeasurable in what it has done for the organisation.

Of course there are other designers whose work may be more instantly recognisable, but Paula’s work is embedded in our everyday lives. Her work is ubiquitous and embodies the notion that design in its purest sense should be communicative. Paula will also continue to do this, showing no signs of slowing down even though she is in her 60s. “Let’s take tools and see how far we can expand them,” she says when I ask what she would like to do next. “Let’s see if it still works.”