paula scher interview
paula scher is an american graphic designer and illustrator who is a principal at pentagram. scher kicked off the 2013 design indaba conferences in cape town, south africa, and designboom spoke to her about her practice, and the worst piece of advice she has ever been given.


DB: please could you tell us about your background and how you came to do the work you do now?


PS: I was an illustration major at tyler school of art.  I really didn’t draw well, but I learned to illustrate with type. I began designing for the music business in the 1970 when i got out of school and was senior art director at CBS records (now sony) when I was 26. I was responsible for the design and production of about 150 albums (12 x12 format) a year.  I learned how to work in every style and became obsessed with period typography. a lot of the work was later referred to as ‘postmodernism’ but I didn’t know what that was at the time I did the work.  I was merely experimenting with early modernist typography. I can trace almost every project I work on back to the music business.  so much of my work is for theater or dance or other forms of popular culture.  even when I am designing identities for corporations, I seem to operate through the lens of the entertainment industry.

paula scher interview
left: ‘best of jazz’ in-store poster | right: elvis costello in-store poster
portrait of paula scher © designboom



DB: what were your first significant projects?


PS: a series of album covers for the best of jazz where I experimented with russian cobstructivism.  the in-store posters were the best part of the series. I also still like my poster for elvis costello. another would be a series of jazz albums that relied of large scale objects for bob james (tappan zee records) and a number of intricate typographic albums.

paula scher interview
the public theater logo

paula scher interview
posters for the public theater

paula scher interview
poster for public theater



DB: what made you decide to join pentagram rather than work independently?


PS: after CBS records, I was partners with my friend  from college, terry koppel – we worked together for seven years under the name ‘koppel and scher’. terry koppel was a magazine designer and in 1989 there was a recession and he didn’t get anymore magazines to design so he took a staff job, while I continued on my own. I realized that as a woman alone in business I wasn’t likely to get large scale projects and that the work I was already getting was probably be what I would continue to get. when pentagram invited me to join I knew it was an amazing opportunity.  I would have never been able to work on the broad diverse types of projects I have been fortunate enough to work on without the reputation and structure of pentagram behind it.

paula scher interview
citibank logo



DB: what is the attraction of designing identities for you?


PS: identities are the beginning of everything. they are how something is recognized and understood. what could be better than that?

paula scher interview
windows 8 logo



DB: given your experience, are you able to finalize a logo or identity much quicker than before?


PS: the process takes varying amounts of time depending on the various individuals involved. it doesn’t matter how long something takes. all that matters is how the end user perceives the design.

paula scher interview
the high line logo



DB: what mistakes or ‘traps’ should a young designer avoid when working on an identity system?


PS: understand what the client does. understand the audience. be able to explain why you designed something a certain way and be prepared to inspire your client to a level beyond their expectations.

paula scher interviewnew jersey performing arts center exterior graphics



DB: what drew you to working on wayfinding and environmental design programs?


PS: by the year 2000, most interesting design had become digital. I like physical things more than designs that live on screens. environmental graphic design was a way to design in the real world, not the virtual one.

paula scher interview
new jersey performing arts center exterior graphics

paula scher interview
interior graphics for achievement first endeavor school



DB: do you think it’s important for a graphic designer to be able to draw?


PS: it’s important for a graphic designer to be able to see. it’s also important to be able to make a sketch of what you see.


DB: what are your thoughts on specialization vs generalization?


PS: specialization is narrow, generalization is broad. a generalist gets to try more things.

paula scher interview
world map painting



DB: besides design, what are you passionate about?


PS: I paint very complicated large scale maps.

paula scher interview
rome map painting



DB: what is the best piece of advice you have ever been given?


PS: ‘illustrate with type’  from my teacher at tyler, stanislaw zagorski.


DB: what is the worst piece of advice you have ever been given?


PS: fortunately, I forgot it.