Last Thursday, I was lucky enough to attend Paula Scher’s lecture at the UPenn School of Design. Paula Scher, graphic designer and a current principal at Pentagram, has worked in the design industry for the past forty years (and has never been bored with it a single day). She has a BFA from Tyler School of Art, and is the mind behind great identities including The Metropolitan Opera, Citibank, and most recently, Windows 8, and was also featured in the movie, Helvetica.
Scher walked us through the major influences of her designs, including her father (an aerial photographer mapmaker), making jokes out of complicated sets of information and illustration. She began her design career with an aversion for Helvetica and minimalist design, joking that she thought of it almost as a conspiracy between her teachers and her mother, as an extension of cleaning up her room. In her early designs, she was focused on creating elaborately-drawn illustrations.
She eventually began painting highly detailed maps from memory with a tiny brush. This work gradually got larger and larger, but with the same tiny brushes, resulting in wonderfully vibrant maps, with layers and layers of information forming textures. The maps were often her own perspective of that particular part of the world. They aren’t always accurate. She explained that just like any story, there’s always going to be something a little bit off about it. Some of her maps became politically-charged, such as one of Florida during the 2008 election. She has also experimented with how color changes the spirit of the content she paints. Her favorite city to paint is New York. She recently published these paintings in her new book, Maps.
In her professional design work, she explained that as she did more and more paintings of maps, her branding got simpler and simpler. She gave the example of the Friends of the High Line identity, a simple “H” that looks like a railroad. Scher said she would have never done anything this simple if not for her elaborate map paintings. Paula Scher concluded that without experimenting with painting maps, her design work might have never become as minimal as it is now. She said these two separate worlds (illustration and design) helped come together and she ended up with a balanced life of intensely detailed, textured map paintings and minimalist brand identities.
She stressed knowing where you are in the history of design because everyone has their own unique cultural vantage point. She ended with some fantastic advice for designers, especially regarding this technological age. “I worry about getting trapped in technological timezones. I think it’s important to embrace everything, but don’t assume it’s going to stay the same… a broad view and a personal perspective is always going to work.”
India (2007) acrylic on canvas
Paula Scher’s identity for Friends of the High Line