Paula Scher at FIT09 October 2009 | By Christine in designers, events
Design legend Paula Scher, partner at Pentagram Design, gave a lecture as part of the FIT Visiting Artist Program on Monday evening. The event was free and open to the public, so my Electronic Page Design II class went as a field trip.
Somehow I’d always had a hard time truly relating to Paula Scher’s designs, but listening to her talk about her past, her reasons for doing certain things, and various experiences really brought Paula as a person home to me. Here are some of my favorite parts of the night:
Here, Paula showed us a photo of the house she grew up in in Maryland. It was a cookie cutter house that literally got her lost, because all of the houses looked the same. She said that this upbringing caused her to rebel against all things Helvetica and in the Swiss international style, because things are prone to look the same when you strip things down to that extent. Instead, her heroes became the likes of Pushpin Studio — one of the founders of which eventually became her husband, her ex-husband, and her husband again (yes, I’m talking about Seymour Chwast — talk about a prominent couple in graphic design).
I wish I could find a better quality image of what’s shown on the screen here, but it’s such an old work that it seems untraceable on the Internet. It was a job that Paula did for AIGA called ‘Graphic Design USA.’ She was told that they had no fee to pay her, but they had $1000 to cover expenses. Paula said, ‘Well what are expenses?’ and they said, ‘You know … like if you need to buy a typeface and photos and stuff.’ So Paula asked, ‘What if there are no expenses?’ to which they replied, ‘I guess you can keep the $1000.’ So Paula executed the entire cover by hand. The front shows her estimation (based on a presidential election — I can’t remember when she said this was, or which election) of how many people in each state uses Helvetica. The best part is that on the back she drew a map of the United States from memory, and she’d accidentally left out Utah, so you see it added in below the rest of the country.
And of course we have her famous designs for the Public Theater. (Sorry, that’s a railing getting in the way in the photo above.)
That is about the extent of which I took photos of the work she showed, but she showed a lot of work. Some of my other favorite things she talked about were the environmental graphics projects that she’s done. She said that somehow seeing huge banners in the Public Theater that she’d designed made people think that she could do environmental graphics, but she usually doesn’t know what she’s doing when she tackles these projects. It’s always great to hear such accomplished designers saying that they don’t know what they’re doing. Among her environmental graphics projects are the Shake Shack in Madison Square Park, the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, and the Pittsburgh North Side. She’d commented that she didn’t know how they expected a logo to help bring people to visit that side of town, so she decided to present all these crazy ideas, figuring that it’s Pittsburgh and she can simply just not go there anymore if things don’t work out.
At the end, Paula took questions from the audience, and many people were asking about how she’s dealt with changes in technology. She said that yes, technology is always changing, so young designers should definitely look into mastering new technology, as she’s found that in the past, economic downturns and technological changes coincide. Though the result is the loss of one medium (such as records — Paula started out doing album covers, like many famed designers did, but with digital music that profession’s gone out of the picture), she says that because people don’t change (when it comes to clients, etc.), the same problems are there, so she feels that essentially it’s all the same.
One of the very encouraging (or depressing? I can’t tell) things she said is that in a bad economy, even if we’re not making a lot of money, we need to keep making things — ‘Because if you’re not doing [design] to make things, there are other ways to make money.’ Great advice, because sometimes it’s easy to forget why we’re doing this in the first place.
Oh, yes, and it was the day before her birthday, so they surprised her with a cake in the beginning. Happy birthday Paula, and thanks for the great talk!