Paula Scher’s Mind-Bending Maps

Posted inDesigner Interviews
Thumbnail for Paula Scher’s Mind-Bending Maps

Print has been acquired by an independent group of collaborators—Deb Aldrich, Laura Des Enfants, Jessica Deseo, Andrew Gibbs, Steven Heller and Debbie Millman—and soon enough, we’ll be back in full force with an all-new look, all-new content and a fresh outlook for the future! In the meantime, we’re looking back at some of our favorite pieces, such as this one by Jessica Zafarris. Enjoy.

A tempest of hand-painted words swirls, tumbles and writhes across a 7-foot-tall canvas, forming a map of the United States. A far cry, perhaps, from Pentagram Partner Paula Scher’s sleek, ubiquitous identity designs, but cartographic paintings have been the tailside of her creative coin for nearly 20 years.

The design legend’s fascination with maps began in the 1950s, informed by her father Marvin Scher’s work as a civil engineer for the U.S. Geological Survey.

“He was obsessed with accuracy,” she recalls. “He was the one who told me how inaccurate maps were. He said the earth is curved, and photography is flat, so what you see isn’t really what’s there.” Specializing in photogrammetric engineering (the science of the camera and how it captures imagery), Scher’s father invented stereo templates, a measuring device that made camera lenses capable of correcting distortions that occur when aerial photography is enlarged. If not for that invention, precise mapping software such as Google Maps would not exist today.

In a playful perversion of this accuracy, Scher’s map paintings allude to distortion in the presentation of data on the web and in the media. Today, people look at charts, maps and infographics as if they are always completely accurate. That’s a mistake, she says, and a dangerous one.

“Data isn’t neutral,” Scher says. “It’s gathered, which means someone is editing it. Someone will make a chart, and it might be right, but it’s not literal fact. You don’t know what factors are included or not included. My map paintings are nothing but opinion. I’m controlling the data any way I want and I’m blatantly open about it. I’m using it to create an impression.”

New York City’s Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery showcased a new collection of Scher’s maps in an exhibition entitled “U.S.A.” It was the first release of 10 maps of the United States she painted between 2014 and 2016, taking an interpretive and chaotic look at various data sets including climate zones, zip codes and transportation flow—complete with cultural and political commentary. The pieces in the exhibition are, in Scher’s words, “all the same and all different.”

“I did it largely because [it was] an election year, and I’m fascinated by statistics and the way people vote and the way people think and why they think that way,” Scher says. “I began looking at the country and population centers and what’s near something else. Where’s the North, and where’s the South, and where do they meet, and what do people really think about when they’re in the middle? When you look at things like that, you gain a sensibility about why things exist and how they happen and why we are the way we are. It’s right there on the surface of the map.”

“US Demographics and Economy” detail

Although she has created at least 55 wall-sized maps featured in galleries across the U.S., Scher’s adventures in opinionated cartography began on a smaller scale. Her earliest hand-drawn maps and word-dense visualizations of quotes in the media were more personal creative projects that documented the way she saw and felt about the world. One of Scher’s first projects in the same vein was a hand-drawn illustration of the United States for a 1989 AIGA cover. After that, demand for her illustrations swelled. But when potential clients sought to control the copy that comprised each intricate creation, Scher lost interest.

She painted her first large-scale map in 1998 in her home, without considering that it would appear in a gallery or show.

“It was around the time I was designing the Citibank logo in 1998; we had become completely computerized, and I never touched anything as a designer anymore,” she says. “Everything was made on a computer. There were no art supplies anymore. I felt completely odd, like I didn’t make anything. Even though I made a lot of things, I felt like nothing was happening. I realized I missed working with my hands. So we have this big house, and I thought it would be interesting to see one of those maps I painted really big. I thought it would be better.”

She worked on her in-home map for nearly three years before, during a visit to her home, filmmaker and painter Jeff Scher (no relation) saw the painting and recommended Paula to his gallery. Scher starts the process of creating her maps with little planning—a look at several maps of a given region and any relevant data sets.

“It’s aesthetic, and also emotional,” she says. “I describe it as abstract expressionist information—that you are taking information and manipulating it to create a sensibility.”

“U.S. Geography and Climate” detail

The words that appear in her map paintings describe the historical context in which she creates them as much as they comment on the geography and population of the region. None of the maps she has created are simple, but perhaps the most intricate of her recent paintings is “U.S. Counties and Zip Codes, 2016,” featuring a tangled background of postal codes and county names that extends into the oceans where Scher ran out of space.

“After I finished it, I looked at it and I decided I was probably really crazy, and I was annoyed at myself [while painting it],” Scher says. “All of my maps, if you take them down, are usually population maps. They’re about place names, and you see them become dense or more sparse, and that’s all about population.”

“U.S. Counties and Zip Codes” detail

Scher has reinterpreted the entire world again and again—continents, countries, cities, even political landscapes and timelines of media coverage. In 2011, she also published a book featuring dozens of her maps, installation pieces, drawings and prints, appropriately titled Paula Scher: MAPS.

Scher’s cartography speaks to the importance of place in her life and work. The chaotic style of her paintings—as well as her design work—is influenced in part by her life in New York City.

“The loudness of my work as a graphic designer is a result of New York,” she says. “Things are packed in, they’re noisy, they’re irritating. And then on the other side, I think that the painting is all about being bombarded with media and how
you see and hear things.”

Scher’s maps may be impressionistic, but the narrative she constructs reflects the distorted, complex state of the world today—and encourages the rest of us to do the same.

Like most sites, Print uses Amazon affiliate links, and may receive a small commission on them.