Paula Scher – Designer at play


“My work is play and I play when I work” – Paula Scher

Paula Scher is an American graphic designer, painter, art educator in design and the first female principal at Pentagram (New York, 1991).

Scher went to school to be a painter, where she found out she couldn’t draw and her design work was sloppy – then her illustration teacher taught her to illustrate with type; that letterforms mean things and that type had spirit – it changed everything for her. With his advice to “find one thing you’re good at and get rid of everything else” she became really good at typography, her knowledge and skills grew and extended into her career as a graphic designer.

As a designer, Paula Scher hated the typeface Helvetica, she thought it was “the cleanest, most boring, most fascistic, and repressive typeface.” Refusing to be constrained by fashion and the design convention prevalent in the 70s, she set out to explore alternative forms and use of typefaces. Her aversion to Helvetica was reflected in the eclectic approach to her works at CBS Records in her early 20s. The now-iconic album covers she designed were a spirited combination of Art Nouveau, Art Deco or Victorian typography – anything that was completely not Helvetica.

Bartok  Charles Mingues Changes cover5231 copy  Leonard Bernstein

Scher has always had a ‘serious at play’ design philosophy that has given her work a mischievous and subversive quality. She steps out of what is expected, explores the new, the un-fashionable and treads into the unknown – all in pursuit of a new idea or practice. “The best way to accomplish serious design is to be totally and completely unqualified for the job” – she is not afraid to push back against and challenge something that she thinks or believes is silly or wrong – either it be a brief, computing code issues or the structure of an organization.

An exemplary project of this – she was commissioned to design a logo for a section of town called the Northside in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. This section of town is on the North side of a series of railroad tracks and underpasses that break up the city of Pittsburg and on the other side is the Warhol museum, the river and where all the activity is. No one wants to venture under the grim underpasses to the other side so the businesses there don’t get enough traffic. Instead of designing a logo (she argued that cities don’t have logos, they have landmarks and places), she proposed a series of installations that would effectively revamp the underpasses and bridges – by wrapping them, putting lights on them, covering them in graffiti – basically turning the bridges into an art event – to draw people across town.

Pittsburgh 1 Pittsburgh 6   Pittsburgh 3 Pittsburgh 5

Design to Paula Scher is the art of serious play, which is about invention, change, rebellion — not perfection. She operate very strongly on her instincts and says that her best works are often big bold strokes that came very quickly. An example of this is the Citibank logo she designed – she drew it in the first meeting and the idea behind it was simply to unify the merged identity of Citibank and Traveler’s Insurance (Traveler’s had a red umbrella so she turned the umbrella into an arc over the letter ’t’). Another example is the High Line logo – the concept, which she conceived during her first site visit, was ‘H’ for the high line + railway tracks.

citi-logo  High Line Logo

During her career she has developed several flexible identity and branding systems, both institutional and cultural. With her explorations in typography and boundary pushing philosophy, she carried her identity design for The Public Theatre to a landmark status in the mid-1990s. The use of bright flat colors, the silhouetted graphics and typography that are meant to create noise – it changed and influenced the design direction for theatrical promotions and for cultural institutions in general.

Noise Funk 1  Noise Funk 2

Her portfolio includes instantly recognizable identities for Citibank, Tiffany & Co., Microsoft Windows 8, MoMA, The Met, The NYC Ballet.

During the course of her career Scher has been the recipient of hundreds of industry honors and awards, including the AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts) Medal and the Type Director’s Club Medal.

Scher has lectured and exhibited all over the world. Her teaching career includes over two decades at  the School of Visual Arts (SVA), along with positions at the Cooper Union, Yale University and Tyler School of Art.


TED – Paula Scher: Great design is serious, not solemn
Artist Series by Hillman Curtis: Paula Scher
Paula Scher: Do what you’ve never done before

Project 1 – The Public Theatre
Project 2 – Citi-Bank Logo
Project 3 – High Line Logo
Project 4 – New York City Ballet
Project 5 – The Charm Bracelet ( The Northside, Pittsburgh)
Project 6 – Identity System for MoMA


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