Contemporary Graphic Designers: Paula Scher

If ever there was a designer who deserved the term “rock star”, it’s Paula Scher. The American graphic designer started her career working with not one, but two of the world’s biggest record labels and at her peak produced some 150 album covers a year – including classics such as Boston’s eponymous 1976 debut album.

Typography rock star Paula Scher

Scher went on to be the first female principal at illustrious design agency Pentagram and almost single-handedly define the look of New York’s cultural scene in the 1990s and beyond. She has the rock star chutzpah too. When asked to consider a new design for big brand giant Windows, she immediately turned round to the client and said: “Your name is Windows. Why are you a flag?”

Scher’s style evokes bold imagery and uses typography in an almost illustrative rather than print style and she continues to this day to push design boundaries and her own. Still at Pentagram, where her work continues to delight and surprise, she also works as an educator, writer and fine artist and has received many of the top awards in the design world including the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) Medal in 2001 to mark her distinguished career.

Paula Scher was born in 1948 in Washington DC and went on to study at the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, where she collected her Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts in 1970. From there she travelled to New York where she has made her name, as well as making her mark indelibly on her adopted home town.

Her early career included a short stint at publishers Random House before moving to the advertising and promotions department of CBS Records where she spent two years. Her move to CBS’s big competitor Atlantic as an art director in 1974 enabled her to spread her creative wings through the medium of album cover art, and earned her four Grammy nominations in the process.

Scher spent five years between 1979 and 1984 working independently, during which time she worked extensively on alternate typographic vocabularies within her work, before joining former classmate Terry Koppel in founding Koppel & Scher. Her work there, including the iconic Swatch poster, re-affirmed her name and talent so that when Koppel dissolved their partnership in 1991, Paula Scher went on to become a partner at the New York office of Pentagram, the world’s biggest design partnership.

Scher’s work has included corporate identity and branding for major Wall Street clients including Citibank, Coca Cola and Bausch + Lomb, but it is for her work in the arts that she has become most recognised. Her cultural clients read like a “who’s who” of the American theatre and arts scene, with the Museum of Modern Art, New York Ballet, Metropolitan Opera and New York Philharmonic among them.

Her early work for the city’s Public Theatre, with its graffiti-like style combined with elements of traditional woodcuts and Victoriana, became a watchword in theatre promotion due to its appeal to an urban population previously inured to the perceived pretentiousness of the arts scene. It also went on to pick up the coveted Beacon Award in 1996. She has also provided all the identity work and design for promotion for the Theatre’s long-running Shakespeare in Central Park series since the early 1990s.

Public Theater branding and poster design by Paula Scher

Scher has collected awards as diverse as the American Book Award for best book design, The School of Visual Arts Master Series Award, Print Magazine, the AIGA, the Type Directors Club, New York Art Directors Club and the Package Design Council. She holds honorary doctorates from Corcoran in Washington DC and the Maryland Institute and has taught at the School of Visual Arts, the Cooper Union, Yale and her own alma mater in Philadelphia.

As well as her graphic design, Scher is internationally renowned for her map pieces which combine the geography of place with dense text detailing the preconceptions of people regarding the subject alongside common knowledge and place names etc. She has been exhibited around the world, with her work having a permanent place in collections in New York, Washington, Denver, Zürich, and Paris.

Scher has served on AIGA’s national board and has been installed as a member of the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame.

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