Monday, February 22, 2010

P*S* interviews P.S.

Today’s post is a significant diversion from the regular format, and one I am very pleased to be taking because today I’m sharing my interview with Pentagram partner, and design legend, Paula Scher. For anyone who needs a little background on Paula you can see her bio here and here.

I want to thank Paula for doing this. It was great fun, and very insightful. And without further ado...

Pr*tty Sh*tty is about “everyday” design. What everyday designs are you responsible for? Anything out there that might surprise us?

A few years back, my team and I did the packaging for Pro-Foot, a series of products that sit in blister packs (yellow and green backgrounds) in Target, CVS, Walmart, etc. They sell products for things like toe fungus, and go head-to-head with Dr. Scholl’s who owns the category. It’s about as “everyday” as you can get. We also recently redesigned Renu, a contact lens solution for Bausch and Lomb, as well as their identity, and now, all their pharmaceutical products, which will be out in the late spring. Last year we designed, the packaging for Truvia, a sweetener made from the Stevia plant that was developed by the Coca-Cola Company and Cargill in a joint venture.

You’ve also done work for some of the great cultural institutions in NYC. Is there anything different about your approach for these types of clients? Any sort of high art/low art distinction in your thinking about, or execution of, the work?

There are the “high” and “low” graphic expectations of the clients. If you look at contact lens solutions, they all have swirly blue stuff on the package that, I think, is supposed to represent water. Cough syrup has the same swirls on the packages, except they’re red. It’s very difficult to get clients in this arena to feel comfortable with change. There is so much at risk. They are terrified of losing customers. Mostly, you can get them to change incrementally. My packaging for Renu was incremental, not radical, but it was a huge improvement and elevated the category.

I have designed identities for almost every constituent of Lincoln Center: Jazz, Metropolitan Opera, New York City Ballet, New York Philharmonic. There are the same kind of expectations from these clients within their own milieu. They are really afraid of being too different from one another. There is a certain fear of being too smart, or too populist, or too radical, or too conservative, or really too anything that’s very different from their counterparts. They are very, very conservative when talking to donors, and downright huckster-ish when they are trying to sell seats. In all instances, when designing their identities, I’ve found that I end up creating some vehicle that is a differentiator, and then find a methodology that allows them to maintain some consistency (always the weakest link because it is dependent on them hiring a good in-house department and listening to them). In the end I would say that I wind up making the same incremental improvement in that milieu as I made for Renu, only I think the Renu improvement is more valuable because that arena is so depressing. People have to buy contact lens solution, and any improvement is a victory.

My most radical work for a cultural institution was for the Public Theater. When I first redesigned it the nineties, it really changed a milieu. That was a rare opportunity that I hope I have again sometime with someone else.

So, do you think clients like Bausch & Lomb come to you thinking they’ll get a fresher variation on their usual blue swirls. Or do they come to you knowing you’re going to push them toward a new, elevated aesthetic?

I don’t think companies think like that. I think they go to people they know, or have heard of, and assume they have the expertise to do a good job for them. The person who recommended me to Bausch and Lomb was a strategist named Fran Gormley who I had worked with previously at Citibank. She liked working with me and thought she got a good result then, so she recommended me to B+L.

Sticking with the theme of the blog… any recent examples of “pr*tty” design from your everyday experience that come to mind? Anything you’ve seen that’s made you wish you had done it?

Right at this minute, I am drawing a blank. I think this has been a bad year for design, in general, and I’m not sure what I’m seeing lately. Mostly, I feel like I am witnessing the total abandonment of graphic design. It’s as if the whole industry is yelling out:
Seems just like the political times we live in, no?

Is it possible what you’re seeing in our industry is just as easily seen in every other industry... simply a symptom of economic uncertainty?

During periods of economic uncertainty, I notice that my junk mail gets incredibly ugly. It happened after 9/11 and it is happening now. Also, billboards and bus shelter signs, as well as newspaper advertising, get really bad. What bothers me most is how ugly the design industry junk mail is, both electronically and in print. I’m talking about mail for design and marketing conferences, or industry news. It’s as if the whole community has decided that promotion is a necessary evil, no point thinking about or wasting time on it, let’s just send out any kind of garbage.

How about “sh*tty” examples from your everyday experience? Anything you’d like to take on as your next big (or small) project?

I’m always ready to take on anything and everything, if the client has an open mind and doesn’t want a repeat performance of something that I did before, or that is already in the marketplace. I love to design, and I am still hoping to do my best work.

Is this conviction to not repeat yourself something you feel every designer should have, or is it simply a personal goal that keeps you motivated?

I can’t make rules for other designers.
Personally, I feel depressed if I don’t think my work is evolving or if I am not making discoveries. I find I tend to work in cycles where I make a personal breakthrough, evolve it for a period of time, get known for it, and then try to abandon it and find something else. Sometimes, when I’ve abandoned something and I try to find something new, I do my worst work. My teacher at Tyler (School of Art), Stanislaw Zagorski, once told me that you have to get worse in order to get better. I think this is true. The period of bad work is always terrible until I figure out the next breakthrough, but I think it’s still preferable to standing still.

I think a lot of people would be surprised to hear you describing some of your work as bad. Would you share an example of something that falls into that category? And is it something you felt was bad at the time, or only in retrospect having arrived at a “breakthrough”?

I was really talking about bad periods of work, not individual pieces of design. My “professional” work is rarely “bad”, it’s mostly mediocre or a “B”. That’s because I am too experienced to deliver a terrible job, and I know how to create something appropriate for a given milieu that will function appropriately. There is a TED talk I gave on this about “serious” work versus “solemn” work. Serious work takes place in extraordinarily rare circumstances. That’s when real breakthroughs are made. Sometimes the breakthroughs aren’t that well crafted because when something is new, it isn’t totally refined. It takes the second or third version of it to get the kinks out. Then it just becomes “solemn” work. For example, I think my early work for the Public Theater was “serious” and my work for the Lincoln Center institutions was “solemn”.

The “bad” work I was referring to is process work that the public never sees. To make change, I try things that are just horrific. Sometimes I feel like I don’t know how to design anymore. I put together techniques and genres that don’t really work. I lose my sense of scale or color, I try things that are awful by any standard. If I’m working on a project with a deadline, I’ll finally abandon the failed experiments and fall back on something I already know how to do (solemn work). You can coast through a career like that, but you won’t grow.

Sometimes amidst the bad stuff I see something in a new way. That’s what I’m looking for.

There are so many relevant design approaches and styles, each with their own distinct merits. How can we be sure what “good” design is? What transcends styles and personal taste and makes design good?

I will always argue that the role of good design is to raise the level of expectation of what design can be. That makes what’s “good” different for different milieus and audiences. Style is relevant only in context. I think the question of milieu is the best criteria for judging design.

There’s been a sentiment repeated in recent comments on my blog that the Pr*tty examples I show have a “premium” or “corporate” look. Such comments often go on to argue that the Sh*tty counterparts are intended to appeal to a different demographic, and therefore it’s unfair to compare the two. But I maintain that shitty design is not a means of appropriate communication... that just because people are used to shit, doesn’t mean it should be the acceptable vernacular. Maybe I’m wrong... is there a time and place for bad design?

No. What matters is audience and intent. Something can be designed to deliberately look “bad”, i.e. vernacular design. If the intent, purpose and craft (meaning really looking like what it is supposed to look like) is right, then the design is good.

Usually when something is bad, it has nothing to do with the audience. What makes things bad is usually craft and scale issues. Too many big lines of typography, poorly chosen type and bad spacing, or something that is hackneyed attached to the design that was not intended to be a joke. Usually, somewhere along the way, the client asked for something, or it was a stupid recommendation that came out of a poorly run focus test.

Massimo Vignelli often speaks of something like this... the vulgar vs. the beautiful. But I think vulgarity does have an appropriate context. For me “bad” (which I think is rooted in thoughtlessness and carelessness) and “vulgar” are not the same. Would you agree?


I use a couple quotes of yours to sum up some of my own motivations and philosophy behind this blog. When I contacted you about this interview, you said those quotes were never more true than now. Why is that?

Many talented young designers today have abandoned their roles as improvers of the general visual environment. Many only want to work on cultural work, or not-for-profit work, or on projects they perceive as “good-for-society” which may have a high profile within the design milieu, but don’t really reach ordinary people. These designers are afraid to get involved in mainstream packaging, promotion or corporate work. They forget that these are the products and messages that most people really encounter in their daily lives, that these products and services are at the heart of the American condition, and that there is responsibility for us as designers, always, to raise the expectation of what design can be. We are responsible for that daily experience. These “ivory tower designers” leave the job to others (ad agencies, schlock shops, etc.) who are simply doing it for the money, and are often cynical about the outcome.

What do you think has perpetuated that pattern?

I think the design community has caused it. The “First Things First” manifesto inspired a lot of young people to move away from corporate branding, advertising, promotion, packaging (except for books and magazines, as if they are somehow more noble). If “responsible” designers who care about society and our environment refuse to work on branding, advertising, promotion and packaging, then just consider, who will? This line of design-thinking has been perpetuated in so many design schools and grad programs and it is perpetuated by the AIGA and other design organizations. It’s easy to inspire young designers this way as it creates a real calling for them: “down with corporate America”, etc.
But, ultimately, it creates a design society
where it is OK for designers to
abandon most of American communication.
Good God!

Any thoughts about how we re-invigorate the design community to improve our general visual environment?

I’ll do my part. You do yours. I guess blogs like this can help.

Do you think the rhetoric of “responsibility” only serves to perpetuate a view among clients that designers are frivolous creative types whose worth is best tapped via contests, spec work, or (at best) a small payday?

I think clients don’t have any kind of informed, or even general view of designers. Some clients know they need design and don’t know how to hire a designer, and some clients don’t know they need design. Some clients have good taste, some clients don’t. Some clients have graphic recommenders in their midst who are sophisticated. Some clients just want to look like other businesses. Some clients don’t think design should cost anything.

Most of my clients don’t think in terms of “social responsibility”. They think in terms of profit, or if they are a not-for-profit, they think in terms of success, meaning getting people to go to their museums or plays, etc. If a designer is “socially responsible”, that’s nice. The next question is, will it help them sell their products or get people to go to their museums, etc, without costing them anything extra? The answer is, yes, sometimes.

The client’s real responsibility to themselves is to keep themselves going, so they can grow and create wealth, which ultimately means employing people, and contributing to the general economic health of society. We need this. It makes for a better society. I like full employment. Of course they shouldn’t cheat, steal, pollute, etc. But if they are looking for intelligent ways to compete to make their businesses successful, and they are hiring people as result of it, they are heroes in my book.

So have you done your best to only take on those sorts of heroes as clients?

I haven’t really controlled who my clients are. I mostly respond to new business calls that come to me. I started working almost 40 years ago as a record cover designer, and if you trace almost every job that’s come to me personally at Pentagram, you can trace it’s roots, either on subject matter or personal relationships, back to the entertainment business. Even if it’s a corporate client, in some way, they are connected to my roots.

Mostly, I like my clients. I’ve worked for some bright, wonderful people. Others have been exasperating. There have only been a few projects I’ve really had to turn down because of the subject matter, such as cigarettes or right wing political tracts. Almost everything else is fairly neutral. Mostly, I find that my clients work hard, are fair, and care about other people. Ironically, a lot of my worst clients have simply been inconsiderate and, sometimes, incompetent people working for supposed good causes.

And what about in the design community... based on a similar criteria, who have been your heroes there?

I say in all honesty, now, that my design heroes are my partners at Pentagram. They run their businesses, they are fair, they keep people employed in rough times, and they care about their work. All of their work.


  1. What a terrific interview. I'm a fan of Paula's work, but more to the point, her straightforward, sober assessment of the design business in these horrid economic times is spot on.

  2. Amazing interview. I have a lot of respect for Paula Scher. Not just for her amazing talent, but for her amazing ability to be truthful. Granted, without knowing her personally I cannot confirm this to be true; but, from the interviews of her that I have seen, she seems very genuine.

    Thanks for the interview.

  3. Most honest interview I've read in a while. Thanks for the great read.

  4. The interview for me fell apart here: "Many talented young designers today have abandoned their roles as improvers of the general visual environment. Many only want to work on cultural work, or not-for-profit work, or on projects they perceive as “good-for-society” which may have a high profile within the design milieu, but don’t really reach ordinary people."

    What an absurd statement Paula makes here. I seriously doubt designers who are working to improve the social good (as Jorge Frascara argues) are scared of working in a more corporate/competitive environment, and make things that never get to the intended audience (see Project M and Project H for success stories here). More likely, they are simply in favor of making LIFE ACTUALLY BETTER for the common person as opposed to simply LOOK BETTER.

    In simpler terms her logic is this: when a disenfranchised, homeless or unemployed person walks the streets in despair, the site of perfectly kerned type on a poster printed with silver metallic inks on the latest stock of Neenah brings a smile to their face as they realize instantly that there is great looking design in the world. S/he doesn't need a better designed system of health care distribution, quicker access to information about a nearby food pantry, a means to find clean water, a better designed education system that can train him/her to improve their lives, or etc. at nauseam.

    Instead the designers that work in this area of "social good" should abandon their efforts so the common man can know through flashy websites that "life is beautiful".

  5. Actually Eric, I don't Paula is saying that at all. I think Paula, and myself, feel strongly that responsibility for the visual environment is an important thing. She explicitly points out that if designers don't work for corporate clients then some other putz will, and they'll only build on the visual pollution we see everyday.

    She does not advocate "perfectly kerned posters printed with silver inks" as a means in and of themselves. What she advocates is designers helping businesses look better so they can stay in business so they can employ people and keep the economy strong, which has just as much value as anything Project H or M does.

    I'd also point out that social activism is also benefitted not just thru better design thinking, but also thru better looking design. A responsibility for the visual environment is not something that only benefits the corporations of the world. I've seen far too many shitty looking non-profs to believe there's no value in simply making them look better, and therefore more legitimate.

    And dude, if you don't think there's value in making the visual landscape more beautiful (and by extension more understandable, more navigable, and more peaceful), then we need to talk.

  6. Hmmm. I don't think anyone's arguing that there's not "value in making the visual landscape more beautiful."

    Scher's dismissal of "ivory tower designers" is a pretty nasty way of framing the work they do. And frankly, her suppositions about socially responsible designers are completely misguided and unfounded.

    - We're not afraid of packaging, advertising, etc.
    - We're not afraid of making things look nice.
    - We're not afraid of helping clients succeed.
    - We're not afraid of supporting the economy.

    It's one thing to defend working for corporate clients--Paula's made a great living at it. But to imply (no, outright say) that it's the only way to reach "ordinary people" smacks of design elitism and privilege. Not to mention the delusion that simply employing people somehow makes you a "hero."


  7. Paula recently gave an inquisitive talk at the RCA in London, to which I was in attendence. I was shocked at the ridulous ageneral attitude of the communication students at RCA as to how much they value themselves for being as Paula stated "ivory tower designers" it's absurd. Afterall design is a service, you become morally irresponsible when you choose NOT to work for corporate clients.

    Jess - Unfounded not so, completly witnessed at the one the 'worlds best design schools' - which was scary to encounter, it was proof of a complete lack of machurity, experience, even knowledge of the bigger picture.

    At this current time - yes. It is important and noble that companies like Pentagram continue to keep their employees.

  8. Enjoyed the interview Josh; good luck with the blog

    Here's one of my favorite quotes in a long list of Paula favorites:

    "Could look good. Could look like shit." - Paula Scher, SVA portfolio class, as told to Henry Sene Yee

  9. Ilona: Maturity.

  10. I feel designers do have an obligation to their employer to the best job possible. If that means making something more beautiful so be it, however, that is only one form of critique (aesthetics). You can also critique via function, ethics, critical, historical relevance, and social impacts. A designer could, using Paula and your argument, create a beautiful set of posters, billboards etc. in a downtown business district delighting visitors, but consequently through the use of paper, printing and manufacturing destroy ecosystems, pollute water and air thousands of miles away. The visitors to the downtown area love what they see, but those living near a bulldozed forest in British Columbia may not love their "visual landscape" as much.

    This is where the flaw in her argument lies. She and you are ONLY looking at one fact of creation. The designers working in the "social justice" world are just simply trying to find ways to clean up your mess. As eventually those beautiful printed creations are thrown away for the next round of sales encouraging us all to buy more, and those living near the landfill where the posters go find their "visual landscape" even less appealing. Yes we need to keep our jobs. However the way were going we won't have many at all. Business understands it has to survive and therefore be sustainable. They are enacting measures that reflect this by trying to solve environmental and social justice issues so they can continue.

    Essentially for you to continue making beautiful things, you have to address the consequences. Designers are no longer in the artifact business, they are in the consequence business. If you don't acknowledge this issue, our resources will eventually be gone and the fun ends. Who really cares then that Michigan Avenue in Chicago has great sale signs?

    Wal-Mart for instance has set forth goals for ZERO Waste, and 100% renewable energy use. Designers will surely be affected. It has to be beautiful but it also has to function in a new world where ethics and social values are as integral or more so.

    And in terms of my belief in a beautiful visual landscape. I find that in the wisdom of the forests, or by the lake with some buddies. And yea I'm a designer.

  11. Eric, I really value your input. Truly. It's good to have your voice in this conversation.

    But I still think you're seeing Paula's words in a harsher light than is needed. There's no question responsibility for social and environmental causes is a new and vital part of the design profession. But that said, there's a still a need for good design in every aspect of our lives. We can't sacrifice one for the other.

    I'd also like to clarify. This blog, and I hope you'll spend some time here to see this for yourself, is not about making things "pretty." The name is a convenient way to describe design that sits in contrast to the ugly shit that is so pervasive right now. But it has more to do with critiquing designs based on the criteria of sound design fundamentals and strong thinking (and yes, beauty too), which has a place alongside the sort of responsibility you champion.

    I like forests and lakes too. But I think beauty and wisdom should be found everywhere.

  12. I love what she stands for, and the fact that she picks the right people to help design, but not everyone can live like that unfortunately.

  13. I admire this woman and what she stands for in design and in life. She shed a new life on social conscious work and work that ordinary people come in contact everyday. Such a valid point. I agree designers need to care more about the work they put out. I've seen some pretty awful stuff but a lot of truly inspiring work as well.

  14. A genuinely fascinating interview. Thank you.

  15. I'm loving this lively debate, and oddly enough (since I'm an eco-designer and consider Eric and Jess good friends), I see both sides of the equation: the desire to "improve the visual environment" and the need to be respectful of the impact that our choices as the creators of said visual environment have on our natural resources and ecosystems.

    My thing is this: life, in all of its facets, is about balance. One thing that this new wave of, to use Paula's term, "ivory tower designers" is teaching us is that every action we take has some sort of ethical choice behind it - and it's our responsibility not just to enhance the visual environment, but help shape it in new ways that are beneficial to all.

    Where the argument Paula makes falls apart for me is when she asserts that these socially conscious designers are somehow afraid of or unwilling to work on corporate branding, packaging, etc. In fact, among myself and many other designers, we're absolutely working on branding, packaging, and promotion - we're just choosing to do it for companies that practice conscious capitalism. It's not about not making money, it's about making money while also doing good in the world, enhancing and creating communities, and doing what's right.

    The idea that this somehow means that we're choosing to "abandon most of American communication" is absurd. If anything, we're creating a new era of American communication, one that says that you can run a business and also do some good in the world.

  16. Dani, a valid and interesting point. I do like the idea of creating a new era of American communication. But it does beg the question whether or not it's really businesses that are changing and therefore in need in new forms of communication and designers are simply meeting that need. Which is really no different than designers doing what they should always be doing... helping clients.

    I think rhetoric that somehow suggests designers are the driving force for change is what makes that "ivory tower" grow higher. Certainly designers have a stake in it, but claiming ownership for social betterment is boastful at best, and I think that is what Paula is reacting to.

    And circling back a bit... if "responsible" designers choose to only work for "responsible" businesses, then that still leaves most of American communication looking like crap. If anything, responsible designers should be challenging *all* their clients to think more responsibly, even if it's a small change like using FSC certified paper stocks. The incremental changes in aesthetics that Paula describes are possible for a business's ethics as well.

  17. I am a corporate designer. I make design for companies who sell stuff. Most of the people I work with are nice; some are not. Nevertheless, Paula and I work in the same general arena. What I’m trying to say is that I’m not one of those “ivory tower” folks by any stretch of the imagination.

    As I work through this interview, though, I wonder if there’s a generational divide worth contemplating.

    Paula, if you’re reading this, I certainly don’t intend to belittle any of your work. It’s lovely and visually innovative. I admire that, as many do. In many respects, I’d like to follow a similar career path. All of that beautiful visual work ties up into a nice bundle, and I (like many others) would love to someday have the packaged monograph documenting such achievements.

    The problem is, I can’t… and I think that’s largely a matter of exposure.

    Should I have graduated from art school when Paula did, I wouldn’t have been burdened by the same (admittedly bothersome) considerations we’re aware of today. I would have simply obsessed over type, tried to “push visual boundaries,” and explored the discourse surrounding design. And I would have loved all of that.

    I’m of a generation that isn’t so lucky, though, and future ones are even less so.

    Few of us can look at those blister packs and not see that there’s a cost to them. Sure, the manufacturer will never have to pay it, but “ordinary people” will. Meanwhile, it’s hard for me to not imagine the seas of waste created by those (handsomely designed) contact lens solution packages. I’m not criticizing Paula for being involved in this work—these are simply considerations that would weigh heavily on me, should I be tasked with such projects. (Again, this is a bothersome predilection, but ignoring it makes the concern no less real.)

    I’d like to stress that I don’t intend my comments here as an attack on Paula. She is part of an era in which a purely corporate sensibility was by far the norm. Meanwhile, even if she felt differently, it would likely be quite difficult for her to answer these questions in any other fashion, given the nature of her client base. I simply can’t imagine Coca-Cola and Cargill being particularly impressed if she said, “The design solution is beautiful, but I have misgivings about working for companies with such dubious histories.”

    I worry, though, that her observations are somewhat narrow in scope.

    Paula notes that few of her clients think in terms of “social responsibility.” Perhaps they should. Many are as powerful as governments (some arguably more). Is it really so strange to expect that they maintain a certain level of accountability amongst the people who buy their products, and the planet, which allows them to prosper? Paula says, “Of course they shouldn’t cheat, steal, pollute, etc.” but sadly, many of them do exactly this. The measure Paula seems to claim “heroic” is one of financial prosperity—of making their “businesses successful” and “hiring people as a result of it.” While both are fine things, they can’t be looked upon independently from broader social implications.

    I don’t expect Paula to personally stand up against these corporations, but she seems to imply that economic prosperity is the single most important measure of an organization. To me this is very old (and likewise very dangerous) thinking.

  18. continued:

    But as I read this interview, I keep thinking that there are two views of design at odds here that don’t need to be. Paula’s is a world born in the arts (in which aesthetic sensibilities are paramount), tempered in a business setting (in which the notion of profit is supreme). The thing that’s missing here is that these two concerns, while important, don’t exist in a vacuum. There are simply larger considerations that must be taken into account.

    And this, in my mind, marks a generational divide. If I may attempt to speak on their behalf, I believe that what designers like Jess and Eric above are asking is how we address the concerns Paula sees as focal (good visual design, coupled with effective client solutions) with work that does no harm, or is perhaps even beneficial for the greater populace.

    But I’m not sure that Paula quite sees it this way.

    She seems to imply that there are two pockets of designers: ones that create work for the “ordinary people,” and those “ivory tower designers” who are “afraid to get involved in mainstream packaging, promotion or corporate work.” But this is horribly polarized and inaccurate. Many of us do that mainstream sort of work, but see that design’s power is only partially used by employing it in purely corporate pursuits.

    So some designers (but likely still a small percentage) also think about how they can do some kind of “good.” This isn’t a fringe activity, nor is it one we should relegate to the sidelines. It doesn’t even need to threaten anything that Paula does. In fact, it enriches design. This notion of good design, as Paula discusses, can still remain concerned with issues like, “too many big lines of typography, poorly chosen type and bad spacing…” but it can be so much more. She expresses concern that, “Many talented young designers today have abandoned their roles as improvers of the general visual environment.” Yet, in no way do these things need to be seen as mutually exclusive.

    Where I agree with Paula is that many of these “good-for-society” projects just don’t reach as broad a populace as they should. This, however, doesn’t diminish the need for such messages and exercises—it is simply indicative of how small a part of the dialogue non-corporate efforts are. This is for good reason: these designers simply don’t have access to the many billions of dollars to spread such messages, like multinationals do. As a result, designers have to work doubly hard to reach these “ordinary people.” Because, frankly, the last thing the “ordinary” person needs is another sweetener or toe fungus remedy. These “good-for-society” messages, which Paula seems to admonish, probably have more to do with most people’s lives than any other new branded product.

    The part I love in all of this, is that Paula seems to almost see some kind of a threat, in these designers wishing to do “noble” design, as they might somehow deplete the pool of designers ready to take on corporate work. I, for one, am quite convinced that this will never be a concern. For every designer ready to address social concerns, there will be an army of others much more interested in taking home a nice paycheck. (Really, don’t sweat this one a bit Paula.)

    Paula feels there is a responsibility for designers to, “raise the expectation of what design can be.” In my mind, that’s exactly what the current and next generations of designers are trying to do.

  19. Guilherme Maglio06 March, 2010 13:12

    Nothing personal against her but i think that, apart from the obvious self promotion Paula tries to pull off, her opinions only show how archaic she really is.

    If young designers are choosing to work more responsibly, maybe to clients or projects they truly believe (or sometimes are a part of) and giving up on that old ass-kissing corporate b*llshit, i can only congratulate them.

    We, young people, are tired of marketing people sneaking up on us, telling what to buy, what to do, what to listen, who is going to be the next big thing, and here is a message to you Paula: the more you work to these people, the faster you are going down with them.

    We are not going to be fooled by great looking packaging and proper spaced types. People are turning back to local and genuine options rather than buying something from a company we don't agree with (even if the visual language is not so appealing).

    And believing that it is up to graphic designers to make the world look more beautiful, personally i think it's quite egocentric.
    The world is already a beautiful place (maybe you could see that if you removed all the billboards and neons).

    PS: Regarding to design, i think her work exposed here looks dated, something between late 80's and early 90's.

  20. I feel the interview is a mixture between inspirational "experienced" advise and bitterness.

    @ Eric Karjaluoto - right on.

    I want nice packages and ads for the things i consume, but I also get tired of seeing these things have the best designs while the local homeless shelter, literacy organization or community aid have to compete for attention or disposable income. Mainly because 9 times out of 10 their designs and branding strategies is complete shit. Most because community efforts are low-budget yet high-impact. If those organization had an affordable, cost-effective and budget sensitive branding campaign, "consider" what that could do. Sometimes as a starving designer, our economy comes in the form of man-hours rather than dollars. I can't always afford to donate a significant amount of life-changing money, but I have time and a powerful skill that can generate much more than I could give monetarily.

    It's about balance, but most of all it's about people. And as much as I want people to have jobs too, I want those people with shitty jobs to eat and have a home and be able to afford Pro-Foot insoles.

  21. Love Paula Scher's work. Loved reading this interview... but loved the commentary following it even more. I am a self-employed designer and mother of a two year old. Everyday I battle between paying the bills, getting things done quickly and being 'socially and morally responsible' in my work so that my child (and her children) will live in a healthy, beautiful world for many years to come.

    Where several years ago, my main focus was to work for large, corporate companies and change the 'visual landscape' for the better, get published, yadda yadda yadda... I now have a very different perspective on my responsibility as a designer and communicator.

    Whether it's a corporation or the local arts council, I personally enjoy helping both. It's developing the proper creative solution that I crave and sometimes I don't have a 'choice' in who I do work for. However, I do feel that it is my responsibility to share with potential or retained clients, solutions that are more environmentally and/or socially sound. I literally cannot look at an overly-packaged toy these days without thinking of the possible consequences my kid may someday endure. We live in a world today whose resources are being sucked up by junk mail and bubble wrap. If we don't make an effort to change, we're just plain stupid. Kids who want to be designers need to understand this.

    Who is anyone to say that young designers are wrong for wanting to do something right? Is that an 'ivory tower' mentality, REALLY? One could argue the same for desiring a resumé full of high profile clients and accolades.

    The truth is, life and career is an evolution. A young designer may start off headstrong ready to change the world (good for her!) and soon realize she can't pay her NYC apartment rent, and have to work for a pharmaceutical advertising company. Practical? Yes. Rewarding? Not so much. Or there will be those folks who do stick to their guns and work for only who they believe in and what they are passionate about, making barely a paycheck, and thank God for these people.

    Everyone is on their own journey. I feel that the goal here is to get designers (and clients/consumers) to understand the power we as designers hold, no matter who we are working for. I think we CAN be a 'driving force for change' as everything... everything is designed. Even the slightest choice, can make a difference.

  22. Here's another interesting take on the issue by Jon Tan

  23. i can attest that i felt scared after my 2009 graduation to work for any large firms or agencies, and set my sights on small studios with moral agendas that matched my own (so i give paula some cred there).

    i can't say i'm fired up by the portion of what paula said that is being debated here -- i think there is a lot of ambiguity in phrases like "general visual environment", "most of american communication" to the point that i can't take a stance on the issue until those phrases are defined.

    is the obama campaign considered part of the "general visual environment"? then i would say *win* for having many socially conscious designers on the side of "most of american communication"

  24. Obviously, it would be wrong to set the rule for everyone, but I agree that doing work that resembles past projects (either ours or someone else's) is lame.

  25. While reading this interview, I found myself experiencing a wide range of emotions. I agreed with many of her points, disagreed with others and was even mildly offended by others. I acknowledge that her years of experience make her a pretty reliable source on most things design, but I find her lack of faith in other designers, the current generation of design students and big corporations alike a big appalling. I have to agree that the recent economic times are the cause of the decline of a lot of design, but certainly not all of it. Maybe my junk mail is ugly, so what? It’s called junk mail for a reason. Nobody other than a designer is going to notice the quality of their junk mail and I wouldn’t doubt that there are some designers out there that don’t notice either because of the fact that it IS junk mail.

    Maybe the economy has graphic design on a decline, but I don’t think it has been abandoned at all. Are there many designers out there that are poor and scared? Sure. Stupid? Sure, but their works we probably don’t see as often. I don’t think that bad design makes you stupid, either. Misinformed? Maybe. Fear and lack of finances likely also facilitate bad design but I feel you’d be hard pressed to find designers that are flat out stupid.

    The part of design that bothered me most was the fact that she seems to look down so hard on the younger generation of designers. Are there a lot of student designers that are only interested in not-for-profit or cultural work that they consider “noble” and whatnot, but we certainly all are not like that. I want to work in advertising. I think this whole “hipster culture” is to blame for designers not wanting to work for large corporations. I think that its partly due to the older generation of designers self-importance, making design into this profession that is so much better than all others, full of super intelligent people. Speaking of self-importance, its not surprising that Paula couldn’t make this observation from way up on her pedestal. As a student designer interested in advertising I am also very concerned about the environmental impact of the packaging that I create. If I have to sacrifice some of the “prettiness” of my design to make something that minimizes waste, then so be it. Call it bad design, call it whatever you want but there are things that are more important.

    I think that we are very much the same as the corporate people, we just think in a different way. They do things that we can’t and so we have no right to look down on them for that. When we are designing for them we have to think like them, as in how many of this product can I sell using this design? Companies are a lot savvier than we think. Since I was sixteen years old, I’ve worked in retail. When the economy declined I noticed more than ever companies were rallying to change their packaging, some more than once in a year in order to stay competitive. I certainly don’t think that companies don’t realize they need design. I think they know a lot more than they are given credit for in this interview. The only products I noticed that didn’t change their packaging were ones that come from smaller companies and maybe, due to the economy they can’t afford to change it.

    Upon more reflection I find that I disagree more than I agree with Paula. Despite the economic times, I think there is a lot of progress being made in design that she is willfully ignoring. Its hardly the doomsday situation she makes it out to be. Bad design is everywhere, sure, but good design is too and both serve their purpose and that, at the end of the day is what its really all about especially for advertisers.

  26. Paula mentioned how ugly junk mail and other advertising outlets have been recently, both in print and in email, and although I have not noticed this so much myself, the connection between this trend and the economy was an interesting one to make, and it definitely makes since. I am sure that businesses that are in trouble want to cut out whatever they feel is “unessential” and unfortunately design is probably one of the first things to go, specifically for smaller companies struggling to stay afloat. This goes along with another point she made about how some companies and clients “don't know they need design,” which I do not think is completely true (or they would never hire designers), but some may not understand exactly how important it is.

    But “ugly” advertising may also have to do with fewer designers being interested in print or web design. As Paula and others have mentioned, a lot of young designers are headed more towards humanitarian work, trying to solve social problems in third world countries. And don't get me wrong, it is not a bad thing. If they can make a difference that is great, and they should continue helping as much as they can. However, I know there have also been concerns that western design views are not always welcomed, and are sometimes interpreted as interfering. We have seen western interference outside of the design world many times throughout history, and we need to realize that sometimes when we think we are doing the right thing according to our cultural norms, we are doing the opposite in the eyes of the cultures we are trying to help. We just need to make sure we see things through their eyes before jumping in.

    And, as Paula's main point was, more designers doing humanitarian work takes away from the numbers doing “mainstream” work such as packing and advertising, the things you and me see everyday. I suppose these some of these young designers feel that they want to make a difference in the world, and do not think mainstream work will ever have that kind of impact, and although I do not agree with that view, I can see how they might get that sort of idea. I am sure that the not-for-profit humanitarian work that these designers are gravitating towards feels like it makes more of a direct difference, and a lot of them work closely with the people they are trying to help and get too see the impact that they have on these cultures, making the influence they have more real in their own minds. It is nice to have that feeling, and I can certainly see how that would be appealing, but I also agree that we cannot simply ignore design and communication at home, nor should we feel as though they are always completely separate things (although Paula seems to). We need to realize that the everyday things like advertising also make a difference and are capable of reaching a much wider and diverse audience than directly humanitarian work, even if it helps the same efforts. Advertising here can help gain support and raise money for efforts there, they do not have to be complete opposites.

  27. When I started reading this after her first points I was a little what the rest would hold for me, from a design standpoint. When see started talking the profoundness of her contact solution design the outlook was grim. But as I read on I started picking up on things that I found really true, and found something very important in it. I found many of the points about her design process very truthful and insightful, and much in reflection of my own style of working and feelings toward design. Now, there were points I did not agree with, but I found this interview very helpful, on a grand scale, of an artistic way of thinking.

    I did disagree with some of what was said. She talks a lot of advancing design, and these breakthroughs she goes through in her own design, but with all this advancement she seems to feel it will stop at her. She doesn’t trust other designers to help carry on the advancement and further the design process.

    “We’re Poor, We’re scared and we’re stupid.” sticks out in my mind too. She has a very negative outlook for the future of designs. This is something that I strongly disagree with. As a student in this field, naturally I think the best yet to come. With designers like Paula Scher opening more and more doors in design for designers like us, I feel design is evolving into something great everyday.

    The junk mail argument I also disagree with. Junk mail’s function is to catch attention, and even though the designers strive to make “good” design the realization that its called junk mail is ever present. You cannot judge the current world of design from junk mail. Junk mail does its function, getting people to glance over it, if their mind registers what it is saying they hold on to it. A beautiful, smart, and informative design would only be wasted if it were put on a piece of mail destined to fill landfills.

    I think the strongest piece of this interview, for me at least, was her rules, or at least her description about her rules. I found this connecting to my own style, and the way I work. She talks about her work becoming stagnate, and working through this much to finally make a breakthrough. The quote “You have to get worse in order to get better” is something I really dug into. I really liked this idea. This “bad” work will always mean something, and if you can find your break through is it really bad, and if you do find that breakthrough it will be more important than one thousand pieces of bad work.

  28. I find it difficult to comment solely on this interview given the extent of discussion following it. As with anything, I feel there are things I can agree with and things I disagree with. But the discussion seems to be the most thought-provoking and engaging text on the page.

    Reading through both the article and the following discussion, I’m noticing a definite difference of opinions, tonality, and thought processes between the two (or three) generations represented here. Obviously the perspective of those who began working at the same time as Paula Scher are based on their life experiences in a time, an economy, and a society that welcomed designers. Conversely, the perspective of those who are just beginning to work in the field are the result of a time, an economy, and a society that does not value (good) design and thus (good) designers.

    I agree with Eric Karjaluoto: “should I have graduated from art school when Paula did, I wouldn’t have been burdened by the same (admittedly bothersome) considerations we’re aware of today. I would have simply obsessed over type, tried to ‘push visual boundaries,’ and explored the discourse surrounding design.” Nevertheless, I feel Paula Scher’s statement, “some clients don’t think design should cost anything,” is vital in understanding design (and the motivations of designers) today, right now.

    Firstly, how can anyone blame the designer for the (evil) intentions or environmental impact of a company? Designers are people. People need to eat. People need to pay for rent. People need to pay off their enormous debts for going to university in America. So how are people (designers) supposed to pay for these things? Do the debts just disappear? Not in this country (unless of course you’re a bank or hefty corporation).

    Tiffany Handshoe Bachman, thank you so very much for your wisdom. Not all, but many designers want to work for causes they believe in. However, you “soon realize (you) can't pay (your) apartment rent, and have to work for a pharmaceutical advertising company. Practical? Yes. Rewarding? Not so much.” Of course you can try to do both, but then you’re burnt out from working six jobs.

  29. [Continued]

    John Chaka, your point of view is one I hold truly: “I want nice packages and ads for the things I consume, but I also get tired of seeing these things have the best designs while the local homeless shelter, literacy organization or community aid have to compete for attention or disposable income….I can't always afford to donate a significant amount of life-changing money, but I have time and a powerful skill that can generate much more than I could give monetarily.”

    I can’t really phrase that better. I work as a designer and quite frankly, some of my clients’ intentions I could care less about (but I do the job anyway and to the best of my ability), and some of my clients’ projects I find exceptionally rewarding. However, when I design for women’s shelters or food pantries or other non-profit organizations, I’m not getting paid to do it (yet I design with the same skill and professionalism as for projects I get paid to do).

    I would *like* to design for organizations whose sole purpose is to help people, not just ones that say they “donate 10% of the profits to _____ charity” (if the consumer returns a piece of packaging) et cetera et cetera. I would *like* to work solely for companies that are completely environmentally conscious already, not ones that ‘set goals’ to be. In a perfect world, everyone would be able to work for companies or causes or whatever that they believed in. But we don’t live in a time and age and society in which we can do that easily. Shit sucks. Thus, I cannot blame the designer for working for ‘evil’ companies.

    Eric Benson, I completely agree that “function, ethics, critical, historical relevance, and social impacts” are extraordinarily important elements to consider when critiquing design. But, when designers “create a beautiful set of posters, billboards etc. in a downtown business district delighting visitors, but consequently through the use of paper, printing and manufacturing destroy ecosystems, pollute water and air thousands of miles away,” is it really the fault of the designer? Were they not given the parameters (i.e. design what’s going on this box) by the marketing team of a company? If you feel someone is at fault, blame the company, not the designer.

    Guilherme Maglio, if you really are “tired of marketing people sneaking up on [young people], telling what to buy, what to do, what to listen, who is going to be the next big thing,” why do you listen? Go buy from the local, genuine options instead of the companies you don’t agree with. No one says you can’t. Take personal responsibility. I do my part at shopping locally and making my own things, even though the very vast majority of people in my social class don’t.

    Finally, if anyone truly holds the belief that young designers today are screaming, “we’re poor, we’re scared, and we’re stupid,” then go teach.

  30. I'm going to first respond to the discussion of sustainability/responsibility that has started in the comments section.

    I don't think better, elevated design in corporate situations and design that works to be socially responsible have to be separate. If you're in the role where you've been hired as a designer and are basically a living graphics computer that is told to "make it pretty," then yes, you probably have no control in the matter. But Eric, you've mentioned that some companies, IDEO for example, have started to employ designers in a more active role. They've started to use designers in the development stage of projects. In this role, the designer has the capability to lead the project in a more socially responsible way, as well as guiding in the direction of a better aesthetic.

    I do tend to agree with Paula on the subject of everyday design that we ignore. DIY is a big trend right now, where pretty much anybody with a computer can hop on Photoshop and throw some shit together and print it out. This can be anything from a poster on the street to a company's actual logo. Bad design can permeate even big companies. Just look at Gap's new logo redesign. Terrible! Is the Gap a place I need to go to get help with my taxes now? I see design and design choices that make me speechless. My girlfriend can attest to how worked up I get sometimes. The poor girl has learned to recognize Papyrus because of my angry and all-too-regular rants about the typeface. I can't seem to get away from it!

    So what is the solution to ugly design that we see everyday? I don't have an answer to that one. In a world where I'm worried about finding a design job after college, I'm not quite sure I'm able to make much impact. If all but the biggest companies are looking to cut costs and pink slip designers, how can I affect this trend? Can non-profit, responsible, design projects that supposedly won't reach most consumers be the only way to change the status quo? I guess only time will tell.

  31. When you consider the state of artistic creation in this generation, you are left only to wonder whether some of the most celebrated artists of the current time and whose brands gain prominence in the pop cultural lexicon are actually truly artists or rather savvy marketer’s or ‘cover artists’ who subsume and repackage the work of the original artist, only to then turn around and seek copyright protection of "their" semi-original works. Is a "cover artist" entitled to copyright protection simply because they learn how to COPY - RIGHT? Darrell Hammond on Saturday Night Live may have done an excellent impression of President Bill Clinton but nobody would have put him behind the desk in the oval office were the original somehow be unavailable. And should such derived works resonate prolifically should not the estate of the original artist be entitled to some form of royalty, unless such work is a joke or a parody and references or acknowledges that original copyrighted work? A fascinating thing is when the “cover artist” starts getting paid rather prolific sums, enabling a multi-millionaire lifestyle usually far eclipsing what the original artist may ever have achieved in terms of financial security, she can then purchase the right type of public relations or gallery representation to enhance and extend her brand so that a future artist down the road were he or she to be similarly motivated would no longer answer to the original copyright but that of Paula Scher. And in the end that is truly the most troubling aspect of the over glorification and celebration of the knock-off artist or Plagiarist.