Vagabond Voyeur

ABOUT PAULA

Paula Scher has been at the forefront of graphic design for four decades. She began her career as an art director in the 1970s and early 80s, when her eclectic approach to typography became highly influential. Since 1991, she has been a principal in the New

Location: Monteverde, Costa Rica

Interview date: October 31, 2013

INTRODUCTION

As Ryan and I walked from our Chelsea apartment to Pentagram’s Fifth Avenue office to meet with the iconic Paula Scher, we had one of those moments—you know, when you think, “Whoa, this is really happening!” We’ve interviewed quite a few people now, but having the chance to sit down face-to-face with a living legend like Paula was unbelievable—we were even a little nervous, although we had no reason to be. Paula was unassuming and charming as she recounted the path that led her into graphic design and, ultimately, to New York City. Surprisingly, Paula didn’t always know the path she would take. Like many of us, she struggled with belonging, even within her own family. But despite any adversities, Paula persisted in exploring her interests. She eventually came into her own and went on to create a prolific body of work that continues to shape how we think about design—and she’s not done yet! As you read on, be encouraged by Paula’s words: you might fail while you’re trying to find yourself, but it’s okay—that’s how you grow. —Tina

Describe your path to becoming a designer.

I drew a lot when I was growing up. I had a pretty unhappy childhood, and I used drawing as a reason to go off to my room and be alone. I find that I still retreat to that today: that’s part of why I paint now. It allows me to escape, and I feel better afterwards, but I find that when I’m really enjoying myself, I don’t draw (laughing).

When I was in high school, I took weekend art classes at Corcoran College of Art + Design, but I kept that to myself because it wasn’t a cool thing to do. It was okay later when I became the school publicity chairman and made all the posters for school dances and events.

In 1966, during the height of the 60s and the Vietnam War, I went to college at Tyler School of Art, and that’s where I came into my own. I went to college thinking I was going to be a painter, but I couldn’t really draw, so I tried other things. I couldn’t throw pots; I knocked my finger out of joint once when I took a metals class; and I rolled my finger through a printing press (laughing). It seemed like I wasn’t good at anything, but then, in my junior year, I discovered graphic design.

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After graduating from Tyler in 1970, I moved to New York City. My first job was designing the inside of children’s books, but after that, I got a job in the promotion department of CBS Records. At the time, the promotion department was the “cootie department,” and the designers who worked in it weren’t considered as good as those who worked in the record cover department. In order to get a job designing covers, which is what I really wanted to do, I left CBS Records and worked at Atlantic Records because they housed promotions and covers in the same department. I worked at Atlantic for one year, and then got hired as the East Coast art director at CBS Records. I returned there in that new position when I was 25 years old.

For the next 10 years, I worked at CBS and was responsible for nearly 150 record covers each year. I approached work from what I would describe as a populist viewpoint: I designed things that mixed in popular culture with the goal of engaging people in the cover itself to make them interested in buying the record. That approach has continued to infuse everything I’ve done since. My current identity and environmental graphics work has the same approach to the work I was creating in the music industry. That early foundation was very important in solidifying how I think about things, even though styles and technologies have changed throughout the years. People often say that graphic design is ephemeral, but it’s not. Older designs are still seen in the mainstream; we interact with things that were designed a long time ago. I am amazed at how many people continue to remember the cover I did for Boston’s debut album 38 years ago.

Something else I learned from working in the music industry was how to present my work. Recording artists had contractual cover approval, which meant that I had to present the work to them, and they had to agree to it. I learned very early on how to explain my work to others, and how to get them to appreciate it. If I couldn’t sell my work, then I couldn’t get it made. That lesson has continued to be very important to everything I do.

When I finally left the record industry in 1982, I started a company with an old friend from school named Terry Koppel, who was a magazine designer. Our studio, Koppel & Scher, was a balance of editorial design and promotion packaging and covers. We worked together for seven years, until the first Gulf War in 1990. Then there was a recession and, suddenly, there were no magazines to design. Terry took an in-house job at Esquire, and I kept the business going by myself for about a year. Then Woody Pirtle, who was a partner at Pentagram, walked over to my studio and asked if I’d be interested in joining them. I was interested. I joined Pentagram in 1991 and I’ve stayed here ever since—it’s been 23 years.

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
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After that, I knew I had to start my own business if I wanted to keep moving. I was beginning to learn that 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.
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When I finally left the record industry in 1982, I started a company with an old friend from school named Terry Koppel, who was a magazine designer. Our studio, Koppel & Scher, was a balance of editorial design and promotion packaging and covers. We worked together for seven years, until the first Gulf War in 1990. Then there was a recession and, suddenly, there were no magazines to design. Terry took an in-house job at Esquire, and I kept the business going by myself for about a year. Then Woody Pirtle, who was a partner at Pentagram, walked over to my studio and asked if I’d be interested in joining them. I was interested. I joined Pentagram in 1991 and I’ve stayed here ever since—it’s been 23 years.