Focus On: Paula Scher

“Typography is painting with words.”

If you’re unfamiliar with the world of graphic design then you may not know the name Paula Scher. However, that’s about to change. Paula Scher is a prolific New York designer whose work revolutionized our use of historical type and styles.

Scher’s love affair with typography began during college. She attended the Tyler School of Art in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. After graduating in 1970 she landed her first job as a layout artist for Random House’s children’s book division. In 1972 she started working at CBS Records, the company with which she would do perhaps her most recognizable work. Before that, though, she was in the promotions and advertising department, and 1974 saw her poached to CBS Records major competitor, Atlantic Records. 

Scher spent a year with Atlantic Records as an art director, and when she returned to CBS Records it was an art director, and it was for her longest period of employment under a company. While working for CBS Records, Scher designed hundreds of record covers, sometimes as many as 150 a year. Even with her prolific output, you may not recognize her most popular work as her work, but you’ll almost certainly recognize it.

Boston’s Self-Titled Album (source)

Boston’s self-titled album is not Scher’s favorite work, despite its popularity. “The Boston cover is dumb,” Scher said in an interview for Netflix’s Abstract series. “I am really mystified with how something like that really resonates in culture…When I die it will say ‘Designed the Boston cover’ and I have lived with this horror ever since.” 

Instead, she prefers covers that utilize clever typography and old wood block type to create a brand, and it was with the smaller artists that she was really able to stretch her creative wings. 

Covers like 50 Years of Jazz Guitar allowed her to be the artist, finding and arranging the perfect type for a cover that will resonate throughout design history. (This cover resonated so strongly that it is on display in the MoMA.)

After eight productive years at CBS Records, Scher left for independent work. Her next notable move was in 1991, and it was an exciting one. In 1991, Paula Scher joined iconic design house Pentagram as the first female principal partner. She still works at Pentagram today, designing with an independent team and crafting the images of some of the biggest brands and identities we know today. 

Scher calls these projects “identity systems” and although you might not know it, you’ve definitely seen her work (especially if you’ve been to New York City).

“You can create an identity for a whole place based on a recognizability of type.”

Her magnum opus, in my opinion, is the identity of the New York Public Theater. Starting in 1994, Scher has designed and redesigned the Public several times, and set off a wave of imitators each time.

This is where we can see Scher truly play with type and create a masterpiece. Her work was so influential that she had to redesign the original logo just a few years later because it was being imitated around the city and country. 

Even with all that she’s achieved, Paula Scher isn’t slowing down.

“I’m driven by the hope I haven’t accomplished my best work yet,” she said to Netflix. “Making stuff is the heart of everything. That drive never goes away.”

After seeing some of Scher’s work in class I fell in love. Her drive, creativity, and dedication is inspirational to me, and I really admire her and her work. I don’t think any article could truly embody the life of such an incredible designer, but perhaps this one whet your appetite. If that’s the case, I’ve included some further reading (and watching) for those interested in learning more about this amazing woman.

Netflix’s ABSTRACT: The Art of Design

Paula Scher’s MoMA Profile

Paula Scher’s Pentagram Biography

Paula Scher’s Pentagram Work

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