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Interviewing Paula Scher is like talking to the graphic design professor that I always wanted but never had. She’s smart. She’s cunning. She’s a little intimidating. But ultimately she’s a never-ending well of design knowledge.
After doing a short feature on Scott Dadich’s latest project—a docu-series called Abstract—I was given the opportunity to chat with Paula about her involvement in the Netflix original, her more than 45 years in the design field and her advice for designers that are entering the Regional Design Awards. The following is a glimpse in to our conversation.
I wanted to ask you a little bit about working on the Abstract series with Scott—I want to pronounce it right—Scott Day-dish, I think?
Right. Da-ditch. So have you worked with Scott Dadich before or was this your first time?
I’ve known him for a really long time. I’ve never really worked with him though. He’s somebody I’ve known through the design profession for years, and I’ve done pieces for Wired, I’ve been interviewed for Wired, I’ve done drawings for Wired…but I can’t say we’ve really worked together. We know each other more socially I think through the field.
At the very beginning of your episode … someone referred to you as the “goddess of graphic design.” What does that feel like?
That was Ellen Lupton.
Ellen Lupton said that? How does that feel?
I don’t really relate to it to be honest.
I mean, I know Ellen. She’s wonderful.
So you don’t think that holds any weight?
You know, I’ve been designing for a lot of years. And there are periods where you’re really appreciated and you’re “hot.” And then there are periods where people think you’re ‘over the hill.’ And they go back and forth all the time.
I’ve had this since I started. I began in the record industry, and I was a wunderkind. I was like this little girl doing these record covers—and I was only in my early 20s. And then I was like box office poison for a period of time … I couldn’t really relate it to anything.
Then I really began to understand that it’s wonderful if people are inspired by you, or grow because of something you did … But actually as a working person—which I am—the only thing that really matters is what I’m doing now and what is the work like and what can I make next…
Around this time, Paula began telling me what it was like to work as a designer in the ‘70s, and the changes she’s seen in her 46 years of experience.
Can you speak to some of the biggest changes that you’ve seen? Whether it’s from a technology standpoint or just as far as trends go?
Well, you know, the way we made things changed time. It changed the way we used time. Like, in the early days for me, time was about craft. You typeset things, which meant you had to be accurate about character counting and you had to make sure that the typography fit the space you want it to go in to make it mechanical, because if you didn’t you would spend twice the amount of money to reset the type.
So, you learned to understand typefaces and understand the sort of space they took up. And you began to understand things like the difference between lightweights and heavyweights and how they balanced each other.
It was a wonderful way to learn typography because the craft really mattered here. If you did make a mistake, you could be fired. So it was really about that principle.
Certain types of decisions had to be made, if you were copy setting something there would be a proofreader, and the proofreader had to catch all the mistakes in the copy because if they didn’t, a person with an X-Acto knife would have to cut out one little letter to change the spelling of a word or move a whole line of text, which could take a very long time … And so the craft, accuracy and discipline were very much part of the field.
Now [we don’t see that to] the same degree because you can make corrections with a computer. So people are much more lax about proofreading things. I catch more mistakes in things that are printed now—that were typeset on a computer—than before. Not because the computer isn’t accurate, it’s because the people don’t have to be. So it changes the form of behavior.
Paula explains to me that her during her time with CBS Records, she was responsible for creating 150 album covers each year. The CBS team had around 70 members in New York, Nashville and in California.
Today, Sony, whose team has roughly 100 members in the art department, is still making about 150 records per year, despite the use of computers and modern software.
I wondered what they were doing with all of the extra time [since] they didn’t have to accomplish all the craft we had to accomplish. And I know what they were doing: They were making changes because they could.
… In other words, the technology enabled people to participate … And I think the increase in the participation in some areas made the work stronger and in some areas made the work weaker. That’s the human factor.
Paula recalls a time when all of her designs were completed by hand. You see, she’s been teaching the same class since 1982, right around the time that computers started popping up in homes across the U.S. She’s watched class after class of design students experiment, interact and create with the software available to them at that time.
The students that I taught in the ‘90s were all consumed with learning how to work on the computer. And that went on for about 20 years, where they were mastering software programs or they were adapting to it, or they were trying to accomplish something that the software didn’t do yet. And it seemed like so much of the class was taken up with the discussion of the computer.
And last year, for the first year since I’ve been teaching, it wasn’t an issue at all. Everybody could do everything. Everybody could animate, everybody could program type, everybody could Photoshop, everybody could look at things in virtual reality programs. And they were not interested in talking about the technology, they were interested in talking about what they could make. And it was fantastic …
Technology crossed over a boundary into the most beautiful period of design I’ve ever seen. The human factor hasn’t caught up though. You know, the changing, the iteration, the decision-making, all of that.
Paula and I talked for nearly an hour. The conversation went from new technology in design to the pros and cons of working with typography and architecture, to the Palm Beach ballot of 2001 and why the Electoral College might need some updating. I made a fool of myself by mixing up “foppish” design (think McSweeney’s) with Swiss Style. After fumbling through my last few questions, I fell back on the one I know most creatives hate answering: advice. At least this time, it made a little more sense to ask.
You’re helping [Print] with the Regional Design Awards this year as a judge. Would you be willing to give designers any sort of advice as to what you’re looking for in a strong design?
Oh, that’s so hard to explain. I think I look for things where something changes the expectation of what it could be. You know, I see a book cover that’s designed in a way I didn’t think possible. Or somebody does something so incredibly dynamic that it’s enthralling. Or somebody does something so withholding that it’s brilliant. It really depends.
And as for students entering the RDA this year?
The student design will probably be the best thing in the exhibit. It always is. No clients. They have more time to get it right.