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Paula Scher: The Geography of Design (Part 2)

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Published on Aug 27, 2009

(Continued from part 1)

Scher left CBS Records in 1982. She formed the studio Koppel & Scher with Terry Koppel in 1984, where she embraced the pressures of working on her own. The experience taught her the challenge of keeping her own clients and "paying [her] own phone bill, a situation distant from that of a corporation like CBS. In 1991, Scher became a partner in the New York office of Pentagram. This unique business environment makes each partner responsible for maintaining his or her own clients and design teams while sharing accounting services, overhead, and profits with the other partners. The sole woman among 15 partners, Scher describes herself as "the only girl on the football team. That doesnt make her a cheerleader or a trophy date, but an equal player in a pack of heavy-hitters. The Pentagram environment continually forces her to hold her own and stay on top, both creatively and economically.

The move to Pentagram marked a major shift in Scher's career. This world-class, large-scale studio brought Scher a new level of visibility, and cultural and economic clout. She now had access to clients and projects that would not have ordinarily come to a smaller studio, especially not to one run by a woman. The years at Pentagram have allowed Scher to sharpen her typographic wit and her knack for conceptual solutions into a powerful approach to identity and branding. Whereas Scher's earlier work often centered around the creation of a neatly contained package for a specific cultural product, she now confronts the much broader challenge of conveying a visual personality across a range of media, from posters, advertisements, and packages to physical spaces.

Among her most spectacular achievements has been the institutional identity she generated for the New York Public Theater in 1994. From large-scale billboards, down to the logo and stationery, Scher used a rhythmic mix of sans serif letterforms to construct a visual vocabulary that is both diverse and coherent—like the theater's programming. Other clients include The New York Times Magazine, Champion International Corporation, Philips Van Heusen, and The American Museum of Natural History.

Assessing her work, Scher says, "I've always been what you would call a 'pop' designer. I wanted to make things that the public could relate to and understand, while raising expectations about what the 'mainstream' can be. My goal is not to be so above my audience that they can't reach it. If I'm doing a cover for a record, I want to sell the record. I would rather be the Beatles than Philip Glass."

Paula Scher is among the best designers of her generation. She cut a path for herself through the billboard-jungle of Pop, creating an approach to design that is articulate yet unpretentious, open to influences yet decisively individualistic. Through her astonishing visual work as well as her generous efforts within our profession as a teacher, advocate, and agitator, Scher has helped put an intelligent face on the field of graphic design.

-Ellen Lupton

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