I had the unique pleasure of speaking to the great Paula Scher about her extraordinary, wall-sized map paintings for Print‘s Hollywood NYC issue. Scher has been creating these improbably-intricate maps for nearly 20 years, and has shown an exhibition of them, called U.S.A., at the Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery in New York City.
In this Q&A, Scher expands on her ideas about accuracy in art and design, as well as insights about identity design and a recent Netflix documentary about her.
Maps, Identity Design & More: Straight Talk from Paula Scher
Q: It was your father who inspired your interest in maps, correct? Tell me a bit about that.
A: He was obsessed with accuracy. He was the one who told me how inaccurate maps were. He was a scientist, and his specialty was photogrammetric engineering, the science of the camera and how it captures imagery. And he invented a device that was called Stereo Templates that made the camera lens capable of correcting distortions when you blew up aerial photography—and the mathematical equation [to calculate them]. The device was like three holes cut out of a piece of cardboard; it was a measuring device.
As a matter of fact, if it wasn’t for that invention or something like it, there would be no Google Maps because it’s all based on that ability to see and try to correct. But he said the Earth is curved, and photography is flat, so what you see isn’t really what’s there.
The idea that information has complete accuracy is a mistake. People shouldn’t rely on it, and I know that as a designer. It’s not all the news that’s fit to print; it’s all the news that fits. Everything is edited. Why is a newspaper the same length every day? It’s a decision to include or not include.
But more dangerous than that is actually the way we look at data now. You look at data separate from an author. It used to be that you would look at charts, diagrams or maps in relation to some other text that it was in support of to prove a point. You could find out who the author was and then understand the point of view that this was supporting.
Data isn’t neutral—it’s gathered, which means someone is editing it. So we look at data on a computer today: 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 of something. I’m in control. If something doesn’t look good there, I don’t put it in.
A map of U.S. area codes and time zones from the recent exhibition U.S.A
How do you decide what goes into each map painting?
It’s aesthetic, and also emotional. I describe it as “abstract expressionist information”—taking information and manipulating it to create a sensibility.
What’s your process like?
I don’t really plan it out. I look at a number of maps about a given territory. [For the recent exhibition “U.S.A.”], 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.
I really just 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 to they meet, and what do people think about when they’re in the middle? Like, if you take the state of Illinois, it’s completely fascinating because you think about it as Chicago and Barack Obama’s home, and the very bottom of it is probably this very reactionary place. And it’s border between Kentucky and Missouri is an area that’s probably fairly racist and grim, if you want to make generalizations about people and geography.
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, and it’s right there on the surface of the map.
Installment from U.S.A., a recent exhibition of Scher’s maps.
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… I felt completely odd, like I didn’t make anything. Even though I made a lot of things, I felt like nothing was happening. And I realized I missed working with my hands. So we have this big house, and I thought it would be really interesting to see if one of those maps I painted was really big. I thought it would be better. So I began painting it large-scale.
How long does it take you to create one?
They take a long time. I’ve been doing this for about twenty years. I’ve probably done about 55. I do them in spurts. Last year I did this thing I really liked in Philadelphia called Philadelphia Explained. It was a room installation where I did a roadmap of Philadelphia that consumed the whole space. I broke it up into sections and gave it to students to fill in their own copy so it has 162 participants in this installation. I love it—the collaborative thing was just phenomenal. I want to do more of that. That was exciting.
photo from Philadelphia Explained
Have you done any other collaborations like this?
id a mural with my former signage designer Drew Freeman, and I did two murals in a [New York City] public school when Bloomberg was mayor. It was one of his special projects, and they’re each about 1200 square feet. It was from my painting, but how we installed it was very much Drew.
One of two murals at the new Queens Metropolitan Campus in Forest Hills, in collaboration with Drew Freeman. Read more here.
How closely related is your design work to your paintings? Do you approach these types of projects similarly?
They’re completely opposite. I started painting not thinking that I would have a gallery or show. I have been painting opinionated maps and charts for a really long time.
[At first,] they were small—people would want to use me as an illustrator to do that sort of thing. When people wanted to buy it as illustration, they wanted to control the copy. And the minute they wanted to control the copy, I had no interest in doing because I was doing something very laborious that I could do much faster on a computer.
But I think 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. I was completely collaborative with my team; everything was made on a computer; there were no art supplies anymore. And I felt completely odd, like I didn’t make anything. Even though I made a lot of things, I felt like nothing was happening. And I realized I missed working with my hands. So we have this big house, and I thought it would be really interesting to see if one of those maps I painted was really big. I thought it would be better. So I began painting it large-scale.
I was working on it for 2-3 years and Bonnie Siegler’s husband Jeff Scher [no relation] was up, and he saw them and recommended me to his gallery. So that’s how I started showing.
Creating intentionally-unrealistic maps is a pretty unconventional approach. What are your thoughts on the way you break convention in your work?
I think I do it all the time. Just look at the crap I took for the New School. I’m famous for that. That’s what I do—I annoy people. Three years later they’re copying it, and it’s the style. This one even faster. I had the worst press forever on that. It annoyed everybody. You’re not supposed to do that. And you’re definitely not supposed to do it at my age.
That’s what I do. I annoy people.
You said news is “all the news that fits.” You’ve also created a word map by that name, yes? And a few others, one of which was featured in Print in 1989.
[It was a] timeline of the Bush administration and the call into Iraq—the way the elected officials were talking about weapons of mass destruction. It’s all quotes, and if you read it, we just marched right into war. It’s an impression of what the media was like at that time. If you read it, you can read why we went to war.
It’s the same as it was. I’m about ready to create a Donald Trump map.
I had done the map when I was both painting and doing that sort of work, and then I got into large-scale paintings and I abandoned [the word maps].
At first I was painting continents, then I started painting cities and this show is all one thing over and over again—it’s just one subject that changes. I made 10 maps of the United States that are all the same and all different. When you look at it and think back on what’s going on, it’ll resonate [with current events].
There are different things I found out. I did a painting of demographics, and I found out something: I can’t remember the exact statistic, but I’m not far off when I say that something like 90% of the population lives on 5% of the land in the United States. Think about that politically in relation to the amount of senators and what that could possibly mean. There are only 600,000 people—maybe 680,000—in Wyoming, but they have two senators. California has something like 18-20 million people and they have the same two senators. We’re not very democratic.
How has New York City influenced your work?
It’s influenced both (art and design) in different ways. The loudness of my work as a graphic designer is a result of New York. Things are packed in, they’re noisy, they’re irritating. And then on the other side, I think that the paintings are all about being bombarded with media and how you see and hear things.
What’s the most intricate map painting you’ve ever created?
None of them are simple. There’s a zip code map in [the U.S.A. exhibition] that is truly intricate. After I finished it, I looked at it and I decided I was probably really crazy, and I was annoyed at myself in the middle for doing it. It’s sort of abstract.
A small section of Scher’s map of U.S. zip codes
All my maps, if you take them down, are usually population maps, because they’re about place names, and you see them become dense or more sparse, and that’s all about population. The zip code map is a background of zip codes that sort of extends into the water because I ran out of space, and they’re combined with county names. There are a million county names, and there are teeny states and large states. And the large states have the same amount of counties as a place like Delaware. I can’t figure out how any of these things happen. I don’t know what composes postal codes. I don’t know how many people you have to have to be a postal code—I looked it up and I can’t find it. It’s totally arbitrary. There’s no amount of people. It’s not like “oh dear, you’re at 748 people, time to be a new postal code.”
It seems to be based on how whatever state legislature broke up the territory. Every now and then New York adds a new one. They sort of jam one in. There are a bunch in Manhattan, where the population got really big and they said “uh-oh, we can’t serve all this.” The probably needed a new post office because they were probably breaking the postal workers.
What can you tell me about how breaking convention figures into your identity design work?
I have a little Skillshare course on this called Liquid Identity. It’s about dynamic or flexible identities. If you consider the way Paul Rand designed
an identity, he would make a mark that had beautiful form, and he would apply the mark to a corner of an envelope or a corner of a piece of stationery, and if you ripped off the corner, you had no idea what corporation it was. You could rely on these very specific things being similar.
Now, you have to communicate to audiences via very broad channels. You may be talking to them on a website; you may be talking to them in print media; you may be talking to them as a series of web banners; you may be talking to them on Facebook; and you need to be able to have them recognized in every single form. If you design for the smallest form—which may be the Twitter button—it doesn’t resonate when you have to design a poster for them.
What I try to do is create this kit of parts that’s recognizable in every single form. If you go to the Public Theater and you see their website and you see their smallest banner ad, and their Twitter button and whatever else, you’ll see it’s completely connected. No matter how you see it, you always know it’s the Public. And sometimes you don’t even see the logo. You just recognize the graphics. That’s the job.
I’ve had to learn to design for [new platforms], and I’ve had to anticipate new technologies and what they’re going to do. That’s where my approach to identity really changed—starting with a mark that moves to animation that moves to editorial design that moves to three-dimensional design and becomes environmental that then goes back to the web. It’s everywhere. That’s really exciting and it’s great work.
It’s like a game: How far can you stretch something? If I’m designing something with a series of components, I have to determine whether they have what I call legs: Will this extend as far as I need it to extend? I did an identity just this past year for the Atlantic Theater. It was very successful; everybody likes it. I think it has about a two-year lifespan unless it has the capability of evolving. I haven’t figured out how it’s going to evolve yet, so I have to sort of stay involved with these things to see how they’re going to grow. And then, very often, 50 or 60 percent of the time, the identities I design have other people executing them to have to teach them how to make it happen and how to grow it.
Identity design for the Atlantic Theater
Identity is more than mark-making. It’s how you create a visual language and teach someone else how to speak it.
Identity is more than mark-making. It’s how you create a visual language and teach someone else how to speak it.
How do you feel about the idea that people absorb design on a daily basis, but often fail to recognize the artists behind the work—that being a “famous designer” means you’re only famous to 10,000 or 20,000 people?
I don’t know that that’s true any more. It used to be true. But I think a lot of this stuff has changed… Things change all the time. I’m amazed that more people know the work and know me than I ever thought, and I couldn’t have said that maybe 6 years ago. I think the industry has exploded in a way that we don’t recognize and designers are known.
Conde Nast and Netflix did a whole design documentary series—Abstract. They selected some designers [including me]. I thought, “who the hell would care about that?” and apparently a lot of people do. Consider the movie Helvetica and how many people watch that.
I’m sort of amazed by it. I would be with you—the work is all over the world but only this small group of people know it and who I am. I think it used to be true, and I don’t think it’s true anymore. I think that what changed it is that when people began having the ability to make a selection of something like typography on a computer, they suddenly began to wonder about design. And it changed the way people look at things.
We moved, I think—even in advertising—from a world that was verbal, like from tag lines like “Just Do it” to really the logo itself or the mark itself or the typography that goes with it. People recognize it and they attach meaning to that recognition. We’ve moved from a verbal culture to a visual one.
Being able to be influential is actually teaching someone how to see. It’s about your ability to explain design. Some people are good at doing it and terrible at explaining it.
It’s interesting in relation to the perception of design’s value, which is what I think has really changed. People who are not very skilled running [design] businesses is no different than desktop publishing 20-30 years ago—unskilled people with equipment. And even before that, when I was working in the record industry, designers competed with printers because printers would offer design, and they’d throw in design capability if you bought the printing there.
The idea that designers as professionals are competing with all kinds of people that are not really quite that professional is not new. The idea that you are terrific and you’re trying to run a small business and you don’t have any influence is another story. Being able to design is one thing, being able to be influential is something else. Being able to be influential is actually teaching someone how to see. It’s about your ability to explain design. Some people are good at doing it and terrible at explaining it.
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