“I’m just a designer,” Paula Scher replied as I said how honoured we were to speak with her. What she said is not exactly the truth, as Scher is also an artist, a design educator, a talented public speaker, a director at Pentagram – the prestigious studio that redesigned the identity system for the Museum of Modern Art in New York –, and much more. Throughout her legendary career, she has always tried to figure out how to change and evaluate the communicative power of images and texts, breathing new life into every object, brand, place and space that has fallen into the path of her gaze.
Her job as a “transformer of spaces” began with a shift in her own space: after college, she moved from Washington DC to New York, a city that has, according to her, a dense structure and cultural mix that has influenced the way she looks at typography. At 25, she was the East Coast art director at CBS Records, where she curated the design of hundreds of albums, making each cover a little masterpiece of creatively combined styles from the past. Scher was a ‘post-modernist,’ but she wasn’t aware of it. She just hated using minimal, boring types like Helvetica, and so she began experimenting with early modernist typography and learned how to work in every style. “I just was very lucky,” she says, “because I had a lot of freedom to explore new territories. Today it’s different. Graphic design is such a crowded profession now”.
Her practice, as both an artist and a designer, has always focused on words. In both her environmental projects and her maps, she plays with the relationship between language and form, the signifier and the signified, graphics and colour. She transforms letters into a dynamic stream that entirely changes the energy of the space she works in.
Her love story with words, she explains, began in college. “I didn’t draw very well, and I also had difficulty working with types. A teacher suggested I illustrate with types, so I began to look at types as form and I understood how they make meaning”. She started combining typography with images to do just that. “All the typography took over, and images ran away,” she said, laughing with relief.