She began drawing as an escape. Teachers told her she had no promise or talent. Her parents told her there was no future in the arts. Yet Paula Scher rose to the challenge and became one of today’s most iconic designers. Find out how. (Recorded live at Museum of Design Atlanta.)

Design Matters Live: Paula Scher

GRAPHIC DESIGNER / ARTIST

2018

GRAPHIC DESIGN / PENTAGRAM / MAPS / TERRY KOPPEL / MUSIC INDUSTRY / CBS / ADRIAN SHAUGHNESSY / THE PUBLIC THEATER / SHAKE SHACK / NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE / ATLANTIC RECORDS / TIBOR KALMAN / CHEAP TRICK / BOSTON / DAVID BOWIE / WASHINGTON DC

In the design world, Paula Scher is indeed a titan of craft, a working legend, a creative guru.

But if there’s one thing the design world does not need, it’s another standard biographical essay about her. (Excellent ones have long abounded.)

What we all might need, though: More of her wisdom. More of her words. For years, I’ve collected (hoarded?) quotes in the course of my daily wanderings into books, magazines and the expanse of the internet. I’ve written before how a great quote is like a poem, or even the occasional slug of fine bourbon—a poultice for the creative soul.

Going a bit deeper, when interviewing subjects and constructing profiles and other articles, there’s a reason journalists save the best material for quotes: It’s a window, a keyhole, to one’s core. A small moment of truth.

Paula Scher is, and has long been, razor-sharp. Brilliant. Blunt. Hilarious. And in this quote parade that follows, aggregated from a medley of talks and interviews over the years, I hope you’ll discover just that.

Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief

Note: I went through and managed to track down links to the original interviews. They are linked on the last word of every quote.

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Identities are the beginning of everything. They are how something is recognized and understood. What could be better than that?

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Mistakes are how new things are discovered. That’s why I don’t think people work together well, because they correct each other’s mistakes. They take away all the good stuff. That’s the problem with trying to achieve perfection: You take out humanity because you take out the error.

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As a child, I failed at everything but art. First, I was too scrawny; then I was too fat; my hair was never right; and I was never popular. But as the school artist, I was OK: That was the first place where I felt like I actually belonged.

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In your twenties you’re either kind of a peanut or a wonder kid. It’s not great to be a wonder kid, because you have nowhere to go but down. But mostly you’re starting out not knowing something, and then you begin to grow.

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My work is play. And I play when I design. I even looked it up in the dictionary, to make sure that I actually do that, and the definition of play, number one, was engaging in a childlike activity or endeavor, and number two was gambling. And I realize I do both when I’m designing.

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I think your mind is like a giant slot machine. On one side of your brain, you have all the experiences of your life: every influence, everything that ever inspired you, everything that’s ever made you angry, everything you’ve ever thought, just rolling around in there. It’s fodder. On the other side of your brain is where you input a specific brief, and the specific brief has all the constraints and needs of the particular situation. It all sort of rolls around like a slot machine. You want the brief to line up with a perfect piece of fodder. You pull that fodder to make analogies and make points. It may be something that’s stylistic, or may be a pointed reference of some sort, and these things come together and solve the problem. Now, how does the machine work? How do you know it’s going to work? You don’t. That’s why some work is better than others. I remember a book jacket director in the ’80s who said my work for him wasn’t up to my normal level, and I said, “Well, some days I’m just not as talented as other days.”

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One day, Stanislaw Zagorski told me, “Illustrate with type,” and that was the best design advice I have ever received. Once I started to see type as something with spirit and emotion, I could really manipulate it.

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I’ve always been what you would call a “pop” designer. I wanted to make things that the public could relate to and understand, while raising expectations about what the “mainstream” can be. My goal is not to be so above my audience that they can’t reach it. If I’m doing a cover for a record, I want to sell the record. I would rather be The Beatles than Philip Glass.

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The notion of lining things up and making things function, and then later designing a business card or putting typography on a grid, was virtually impossible to achieve and depressing for me. I felt I was cleaning up my room in some kind of ordered system where the goal of life is to be neat.

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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.

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So much of my work has a New York attitude. It’s something that’s natural to me. It permeates everything I do, to a degree.

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Graphic design is painting with words—with symbols. Through typography, through manipulating these symbols we see every day to communicate language, it’s almost like speaking without being there.

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I like to teach because I have to look at students’ work and figure out how they can make it better and it’s still their work—I want them to look at it through another set of eyes. I end up learning more than they do.

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It’s not that failure is not embarrassing to me. It’s that I don't have a high enough opinion of myself to have to masquerade as a success.

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There was a very famous suburb on the outskirts of New York, called Levittown, and all the houses were exactly the same and built in the ’50s. Over time the trees grew up, and began hiding the houses. Then people started adding to the houses. People moved in and out and some people put towers on it and other crazy things. And now it’s a terrific neighborhood, because human beings will not stand for that type of regiment. Over time they will rebel. Designers just line the way with their accidents.

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Creativity is a small defiant act of misbehaving.

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My goal in life was to do stuff that wasn't made out of Helvetica.

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iPhones and other forms of digital media were disrupting boredom, because people can occupy themselves all the time. You don’t have any more downtime—you go on your iPhone, look at email, or you’re playing video games. The fact of the matter is, that eats up really good creative time. I realize that when I’m sitting in a taxicab in traffic, or on my way to the airport, or waiting to get on a plane, or trapped in some other boring situation, that’s when I get the best ideas, because I’ve got nothing else interfering with it. … I think I figured out every identity program I’ve ever done in a taxicab. I really do.

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Something starts out, and it looks weird and you’re made nervous by it because the introduction to anything is weird. Then people start imitating it, then someone perfects it (because the first one is usually odd), then it becomes a style, then it becomes expected, then it becomes hackneyed, then it’s dead. Until it gets resurrected in a different form. This is always the same.

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Most things that need to be designed are worth doing well, unless they are for harmful products or things that you cannot believe in for personal reasons (politics, etc). You are the one who will be creating America’s visual landscape. Your job is to raise the expectation of what design can be.

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This is a wonderful profession. Design is important to our society. Designers for the most part are interesting people who have a unique vision. It is important to be part of that community, to support one another, to continually improve the state of design and create a more intelligent and informed public. Never pander, never be cynical and never attack fellow designers.

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It doesn’t matter how long something takes. All that matters is how the end user perceives the design.

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Success isn’t about the finished piece. I don’t think you’re ever done.

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My favorite projects are the ones that I haven’t finished yet: I think they will be the best thing I’ve ever done before they get screwed up. There’s always a moment when I think a project is going to be really amazing—that’s the moment I love, and it’s what I live for.
 

And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both.  — Debbie Millman