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Paula Scher

It’s embarrassing to admit you’ve only just heard of a person sometimes but I think I have an excuse in taking so long to discover design heroes and legends: I didn’t study design, and it’s a subject frustratingly undocumented in popular media.

In fact it was in wistfully googling ‘graphic design documentaries’ again that I came across the Netflix series Abstract: the art of design, and thereby the amazing Paula Scher.

I’m not entirely sure about the series. It’s extremely well made with high production values. It’s got that format of something like a BBC4 documentary about a music icon (I kept thinking about the one they did on Blondie, perhaps it was the New York connection and the slightly new wave aesthetic of Scher’s work). It works wonderfully for a subject like Scher because it gives her plenty of time to talk and she is very articulate in describing her own work. She has a TED Talk, in fact.

Like Chip Kidd, she is a very experienced communicator after a career full of collaboration and teaching and, of course, dealing with clients. She knows how to talk design to laypeople.

But the subtitle of the series already had me nervous and while the format f the series allows a great communicator like Scher to carry the episode, it also indulges the egotistical and the self-absorbed (mentioning no illustrator episodes).

I long for a documentary that understands what design is and doesn’t try to treat it like art. I don’t know, maybe the very cerebral process of problem-solving isn’t a good visual subject, but I long for a programme that understand why great graphic design is great.

Anyway, never mind, because this show introduced me belatedly to Scher, whose work is so influential that it pretty much established one of the major design tropes that has dominated graphics from the mid-nineties (the mismatched, anarchic typography-led approach as seen above).

She is an absolute master. She also provided a very helpful graph describing the process of any meeting with clients which I shall be trying to bear in mind.


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