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Art HERstory: Paula Scher

We’re girls. We’re all under the stereotype that we like our credit cards and Tiffany’s jewelry…but why is it so hard for some to believe that a woman designed the CitiBank & Tiffany & Co. logos?! Yes, you read right! A W-O-M-A-N…aka GIRL…designed those multi-billion dollar logos.

Her name? Paula Scher.

The woman is modest, too. You don’t get a medal from the American Institute of Graphic Arts, a place in the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame, representation in the collections of MoMA and the Cooper-Hewitt, and become a Pentagram (one of the largest and most successful Design firms in the world!) partner for being flashy! Read on, Ladies…

Paula Scher began her career as an art director in the 1970s and early 80s, when her eclectic approach to typography became highly influential. She’s been a partner in the New York office of the distinguished international design firm, Pentagram, since 1991.

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 classic American brands.

Poster for Swatch Watch USA, 1984

Scher holds a BFA from the Tyler School of Art and a Doctor of Fine Arts Honoris Causa from the Corcoran College of Art and Design. She has lectured and exhibited all over the world, and 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 has authored numerous articles on design-related subjects for the AIGA Journal of Graphic Design, PRINT, Graphis and other publications, and in 2002 Princeton Architectural Press published her career monograph Make It Bigger.

Early on, Scher’s ability to persuade rested on two things:

“I would have to be perceived, first, as an absolute authority, and second, as the most powerful person to approach about design…”

Poster for Ballet Tech, 1997-2000

“Fifty percent of doing good work is actually having it made,” says Scher. “And getting it made means understanding the obstacles.” The key, she quickly discovered, was having a client with both the vision to recognize good work and the power to pull the trigger. It’s what Steve Jobs brings to Apple, or A.G. Lafley to Procter & Gamble. Scher prays that she can instill enough confidence and trust in her clients so that she can persuade them to follow her lead.

Ultimately, though, the critical skill for Scher is knowing how to stay fresh, to keep challenging herself by tapping into what she calls the “charm of ignorance.” When you’re feeling stale, she says, the best thing you can do to shake things up is to

“…look at what you’ve been doing for the past five years–and stop. The thing that’s most to be feared is doing the same thing over and over again.”

Cigarette poster for AIGA Raleigh chapter, 1994

HIM Poster for The Public Theater, 1994

Scher has developed identities, packaging for a broad range of clients that includes, among others, The New York Times Magazine, Perry Ellis, Bloomberg, Target, Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, the New 42nd Street, the New York Botanical Garden, and The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. In 1996 Scher’s widely imitated identity for the Public Theater won the coveted Beacon Award for integrated corporate design strategy. She serves on the board of The Public Theater, and is a frequent design contributor to The New York Times, GQ and other publications.

It isn’t easy being a woman in a profession dominated by men on both the design and client sides. Earlier in her career, she says, “When I would be in a room with a man, all eyes would go to him. I always felt sidelined. I had to work so hard to hold attention.”

“I styled myself as a young smart-ass,” she says. “It served me reasonably well for a number of years.”

Poster for Metropolis’ Net@Work Conference, 2000

Most recently, Scher was named a finalist for a National Design Award for communication design. Honorees were invited to the White House for breakfast, an invitation few could resist. Scher, however, refused to go, writing a letter (cosigned by four other winners) protesting the Bush administration’s “prolonged assault on meaning.”

“I’m not going to put on a party dress and play nicey-nicey because Laura Bush is having tea with people she doesn’t know who the hell they are anyway…”

That kind of outspokenness can scare away timid clients but Paula Scher can teach a lot of us about the advantage of being blunt and cutting to the chase. There’s no point in leading people into thinking you’re a nice, accommodating person who will do it any way they want if you’re hiding a spine of steel.

Info: The Wordsmith by Linda Tischler, senior writer at FastCompany.
Additional info: AIGA.org
Images: AIGA.org

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