When talking about post modern design, the conversation will either begin or end with Paula Scher- 99design refers to her as “a reigning titan in a heavily male-dominated industry” and with good reason. Scher graduated with a BFA from Tyler School of Art, Pennsylvania in 1970 and moved to New York City to start her first job as a layout artist for Random House publication; by 1991 she joined Pentagram where she became the first female principal of the internationally distinguished design consultancy. Her story is right there with the American dream if one exists for artists- she moved to New York with her portfolio and $50, living first with her aunt in Queens and then subletting with friends for 2 years.
“When I told my mother that I was going to move to New York, she said, ‘Oh Paula, don’t do anything like that. That sounds like it takes talent.”- The Great Discontent.
In 1994, Scher recreated the promotional identity of The Public Theatre, a definite turning point of her career. The goal was to make theatre approachable and by creating a graphic language that reflected street typography and graffiti-like juxtaposition she not only brought a wholly unseen representation of street culture to the theatre but largely influenced much of the graphic design created for theatrical promotion and for cultural institutions in general. In her 40 year career she’s done it all, from album covers for Boston to high profile clients like Coca-Cola, the Metropolitan Opera and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMa) among others.
What makes her style so iconic is the importance of Type, something most designers are taught to appreciate in the academic sense; but to Paula, Type isn’t just about making words look pretty, its a visual image- the main character.
“One day, Stanislaw told me, “Illustrate with type,” and that was the best design advice I have ever received. Once I started to see type as something with spirit and emotion, I could really manipulate it. I never drew very well, so my ability to communicate feeling through typography became really important.”- The Great Discontent
Paula’s an inspiration, not only to young designers in the field but to any creative misfit, trying to find their space “I failed at everything else. As a child, I failed at everything but art. First, I was too scrawny; then I was too fat; my hair was never right; and I was never popular. But as the school artist, I was okay: that was the first place where I felt like I actually belonged.”- The Great Discontent
“…if you get good at something and become known for it, then it’s time to change it. If you don’t, you’ll be stuck and people will get tired of it. You’ve got to grow. Sometimes that means putting yourself in a position where you might fail or do bad work for a while because you’re still finding yourself…”- The Great Discontent
If you’re looking for more of Scher’s words of wisdom watch her Netflix documentary on Abstract; or for visual inspiration check out the MoMa’s collection of some of her iconic pieces.