Of all the well known graphic designer’s of a certain hype, I find a lot of them are living off their reputation more so than the work that’s out there. One of the few that I respect and have been a fan for quite a while and doesn’t fit that categorization for me is Paula Scher. Her book Make it Bigger is in my top five books a designer should read and I’ve always learned something worth remembering from the videos and interviews with her. She’s also one of the few designer’s that if I met I might be a bit nervous about. So when Josh Berta who is part of the Piscatello Design Centre which organizes FIT’s Visiting Artist Program mentioned to me that Paula was speaking, I marked it in my calendar. Now that I’ve heard her in person I would have been pretty disappointed if I had missed it.
The line was long to get in, and once the doors opened it was mayhem. I’ve actually never seen a mad rush like that for a design talk before. But it was all good, everyone in the audience seemed to be fans whether they were students or people like me. She broke her talk up into two parts, work before Pentagram and work at Pentagram. She started with a story of getting lost as a child trying to find her house because they all looked the same—if all the houses looked the same, were all the people inside the same too? It seemed like a good foundation to react against Modernist design that she’s talked about disliking.
But like any Libra, they’re always trying to stay in balance. I know this as I’m a Libra myself, but we the audience also found out last night that her birthday is today because a cake was brought out before her talk. For all the free = exercise = play, there’s her corporate identity work that balances the play. Prefacing the Citi work, she described identity design as being more than just placing the logo on the corner of an envelope. But as this audio clip that I recorded last night shows (you might need to turn the sound really up), there’s a lot of selling to get it up the chain. On the flip side there’s her giant map paintings. When she exhibited a series at Maya Stendhal Gallery last year, I visited twice, something that I don’t recall ever doing before for an art exhibition. Again here’s a brief audio clip of her explaining why she does the maps.
Another beef that I have with a lot of know it all designer’s is their attitude towards other people’s work. It’s as though by criticizing the work they’re somehow above it. Paula who’s work is replicated a lot talked not so much about that but the pragmatic nature of corporate design life. If the right people aren’t aren’t allowed to make the right choices, the design isn’t going to work. If you contrast that understanding to others that speak as though they know everything, her attitude was refreshing. She also briefly talked how each recession was brought on with technological advancements, and that this current situation is no different. That was both settling and unsettling for me.
But of all the quotes she spoke, my favourite had to be her talking about some of her environmental typography. “I actually had an A fall off a building. The top of the A is sharp. This stuff is really dangerous…”