I met Paula when I was fifteen. She won’t remember it, she wouldn’t have visited the record shop in my depressing midlands town very often. If she had, she might have asked why I wasn’t admiring Malcolm Garrett’s Buzzcocks sleeves or Jamie Reid’s Sex Pistols-inspired situationism. Well, I sort of was, but I couldn’t take my eyes off a fantastic poster for a series of jazz re-issues – a fabulous mish-mash of big blocky type arranged at 45 degree angles that had me begging (in vain) for a copy of the poster once surplus to requirements.
I had no absolutely no idea who had designed it. That wasn’t really an issue, yet.
At college I remember admiring a series of retro layouts in the library’s fiercely guarded collection of Graphis magazines that looked kind of old, kind of ugly, but kind of cool. They made my dense design history course more palatable – it’s fine learning about Tschichold but here was someone tripping out on all that stuff. I had no idea who’d designed them. That wasn’t really an issue, not yet.
After college I fell into a slightly sterile world of corporate design where every scheme seemed to be grey and yellow, or yellow and grey. Or maybe tints of grey (with a bit of yellow). And then I saw her öola scheme, all De Stijl colours, bonkers type and, well, fun. I read later that she’d shown them two logos; they liked both, so they used them both. Brilliant. (And no grey in sight).
I began to realise it was the same person designing this great stuff that I kept mentally bookmarking, the same person mixing and mashing up millions of typefaces, colours and styles without any hang-ups about what she should and shouldn’t do. A person happy to put two fingers up to the next ‘big thing’ (all that po-faced deconstructivist Baudrillard-bold, Foucault-filtered stuff).
I was officially a fan. As I struggled to build johnson banks, she’d joined the dream team at Pentagram New York and unveiled scorching schemes for The Public Theater and Ballet Tech. By the mid-nineties we’d met – it wasn’t a disappointment. She seems to have her own personal scriptwriter permanently employed in her head to supply judicious one-liners and killer put-downs, a little like graphic design’s equivalent of Joan Rivers.
More recently she’s found a new outlet for any frustrations of her corporate life – massive, dense, type covered paintings that depict everything from ironic state-by-state statistics on ‘their use of Helvetica’ to the imagined prevalence of drug traffickers in Panama. I’m hoping that one day she’ll give me one, but I fear I’ll wait in line behind the major museums.
If you can find it, get a copy of her book Make it Bigger – a fantastic record of her life’s work and a great read at the same time, a sort of proto-Chip Kidd with less book covers, if you like. I re-read it often because a) it’s funny and insightful, b) in stressful times it reminds me it IS possible to do great work and enjoy yourself and c) every now and again you can’t go wrong with a bit of huge type.
Her work still has the same effect that poster did thirty years ago – you want to pull it off the wall, roll it up, take it home, make it yours. There aren’t many designers whose work you can say that about.
Paula Scher, photographed by Branson Veal, 2007
This is an adaptation of an article by Michael Johnson in this month’s Grafik magazine, part of their ‘heroines’ series.