Paula Scher: Why Breaking Free From Expectations Is The Key To Good Design

Partner at Pentagram design shares why rethinking the status quo is what will set ideas apart.

Why Breaking Free From Expectations Is The Key To Good Design

Paula Scher’s desire to create has always come from a general discontent with the status quo. “For me, creativity has always been motivated a form of frustration where I’m aware of an expectation that’s been put on the way things appear or the way people understand things, and I think, ‘That isn’t necessary.’”

Since joining Pentagram, one of the world’s top design firms in 1991 as their first female partner, she has continued to interrogate traditional aesthetic principles and create fresh visual identities for major brands, institutions and platforms like Citibank, the Public Theatre, the MoMA, the New York City Ballet, the Metropolitan Opera and Microsoft Windows 8. She is the mind behind the iconic logo of the Museum of Modern Art and the ubiquitous CitiBank emblem.

For Scher, the creative process is natural and fluid “When you’re being creative, you don’t think, ‘I’m being creative now.’ You confront things. You ask questions. You think, ‘What could that be? Why is that like that? Isn’t there another way to do this? That is, in fact, what provokes creativity. You’re looking for another way to do something. It’s an attitude. You’re just bored with something being expected.”

Scher has attempted to eradicate this boredom with her graphic design work that is easily recognizable as part of the essential urban fabric of New York City. Scher’s relationship with the visual culture of the city is a two-way street, as she has certainly added to it, but has also taken creative cues from it.

“Living in New York City has been very inspirational. Some of it’s the way the city is structured. Some of it is what’s wrong with the city. Some of it’s what’s right with the city. A lot of it is the bombardment of media, the sense that there’s always something going on and the opportunity to see everything as it’s being created and happening.”

Scher differentiates between influences that are immediate and those that are ever-present, even subconscious, that come through unintentionally in her design.

“I think that European modernism, from say 1912 all the way through to the mid century, was incredibly inspiring and formed a lot of the stylistic things I do in my work. I find I’m always returning to it, even involuntarily.”

What galvanizes Scher is not only visual stimuli, but also the educational experience that creating something provides.

“What’s inspired me was learning to work with materials and forms I didn’t understand before. I like making something where I don’t quite know what I’m doing. I know what I want to make, and then I realize how I’m going to make it. That’s exciting because it’s new each time.”

The process of being inspired is often associated with a flash of brilliance or Eureka! moment, but Scher likens it more to the process of playing the slot machine.

“Your brain is filled with all kinds of fodder. You’ve got all kinds of things floating around there that you’ve absorbed your whole life. There are books you read, movies you saw, art you’ve seen, people you know, cities you’ve walked through.

Then there’s a brief or there’s some problem that you’re going to solve or some condition that needs to be expressed. That’s the quarter. That goes in, and it rolls around one side of your brain with all this fodder and lines up and you make analogies between all of these cultural and emotional references.

The other side of your brain is very specific and straightforward and needs a specific answer, so the final solution comes out of this. That’s how it works, but you’re not aware of it. You might be in a taxi cab. You might be on foot. You might be asleep.”

The gambling metaphor is an apt one—perhaps more than Scher realizes, as she believes one of her most standout qualities is her intuition—an essential tool for any continual risk-taker.

“What I can do instinctively, which has served me very well for a very long period of time, is isolate a central feeling about something that will connect to other people. I know what the emotional button is that can trigger a response in somebody else about a specific thing and get a message across. It’s my form of quantitative reasoning.”

This skill forms the basis of the creation of a graphic identity at Pentagram that starts with a multitude of questions.

“A classic proposal for any identity generally has three phases. The first is the phase where you’re meeting everybody, you’re learning about the institution, you’re finding out about their history, you’re finding out the gossip. In playing twenty questions you find out who they need to be.”

The most important question being: “How do you create the spirit of a brand that is also something recognizable?”

“The second phase,” Scher continues, “is where you experiment to try to develop that by applying images and words and colors and motifs and various things to create the impression that you’ve just defined. An organization exists within a milieu. You’re moving them to a direction where they can be recognized, they can stand out, they can be distinctive and still be recognized as viable within their milieu. Then the third phase is getting it made. That, to me, is the hardest phase to get right and the one that matters the most.”

Even though the challenges of successfully executing a product or identity can be formidable, what continues to motivate Scher are those projects that provide the opportunity to extend the conversation beyond a single yield.

“As a designer, where I think I’ve made a lot of headway is in the work I’ve done for twenty years with the Public Theater. It’s had high points and low points. I don’t like everything we do. I think there are periods that have been better than others. But I like the relationship and the output and the opportunity to continue to try to make it better. That’s really great.”

This forward momentum is one that Scher believes must dominate a designer’s outlook.

“Life is fluid. Things change. I love being a designer. I like to make things, and I like to get things made. I like when something is out on a large scale and everybody sees it. It makes me feel great. But I know that I have to keep pace with an ever changing world and society. You have to pay attention all the time. You can’t do something that got great reviews and then assume the next one is going to be just as great. You’re only as good as your last job. That’s what keeps you functioning. It keeps you current.”

To stay at the forefront of the industry Scher believes that creatives have to think in new directions.

“A piece of design for a specific industry may not have to look like the other sorts of design that come out of that same industry. When you have the expectation of what something is supposed to be, it’s very limiting. You have to defy the expectations. We put expectations in front of ourselves because we’ve absorbed them or were taught them. You walk into a corporation. You may have 20,000 ideas, and they say, ‘Oh, no, it has to be blue. It has to be this big. No, we don’t do that here.’

I always say that the goal of design is to raise the expectation of what design can be.”

Explore the image gallery inspired by the conversation with Paula on Moodboard by iStock.
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