Paula Scher needs no introduction. With nearly 50 years in the industry, notably 26 years at Pentagram, she somehow still manages to find time to teach.
With this in mind, and to better understand the person behind the success, we recently attended a night at the Type Directors Club, moderated by Peter Ahlberg. It was an intimate gathering of roughly 100 students, professors, friends and designers who had all made it through the rain into a packed warm room on West 36th St. The night was made up of an SVA-commissioned mini-documentary and a follow-up panel comprised of Scher herself and students spanning three decades. The documentary project “Paula Scher: Designer as Educator,” was light-hearted and humorous, depicting not only Scher in her role as professor and mentor but also the personalities she brings out in her students. The film successfully captured Paula’s teaching style – direct, honest and, sometimes, brutal. But all her students appear to agree the process left them more prepared for the careers they faced.
Nothing new or unexpected came out of the panel. Rather, it was a standard reminder of what’s expected of every student in art school. It would be remiss to say that Paula is wrong. In fact, she’s doing everything right and to the fullest degree. Moreover, you have to admire her drive – there’s no off switch.
For Scher, process is key, and the more the better. Her strategy is, first, to have a plan. This consists of obtaining information, distilling it and developing a visual communication through which it can be manifested. In other words, keep the initial idea for a brand simple and push it as far as it can go. It’s easy nowadays to copy and paste a design, making minor tweaks here and there. But great ideas always come from the initial hand-drawn development. Scher notes that she enjoys teaching for selfish reasons. She gets to see through the eyes of her students – how they perceive a design problem and therefore how they might approach it, which forces her in turn to reevaluate her own approach. That’s the reason she teaches, because it makes her a better designer. She learns from her students while they learn from her.
As part of her panel talk, Scher stressed that one has to be able to stay relevant. To keep up with what’s new and present. To her, a successful designer should able to move easily from discipline to discipline, always considering that the message has to be understandable in any form. No matter the design problem or format, everything must connect. It’s important to think about how we interact in the modern day, not only through physical applications but through many different media, including online.
At the end of the day, there seemed to be one simple takeaway – put in the work. A plan and process are key to churning out good design, and to do that you have to hustle and work hard at it. Paula Scher’s determination and drive is something that can’t be taught but rather achieved through hard work and perseverance.