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Cultural Identity Branding Legend
Episode 14

Cultural Identity Branding Legend

CI to Eye with Paula Scher

This episode is hosted by Erik Gensler.

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Erik and Paula talk about why cultural organizations need a cohesive design system, how the move to screens changed branding and identity work and how institutions can best work with designers.

Erik Gensler: Paula, thank you so much for being here.

Paula Scher: Thank you for asking me.

Erik Gensler: You describe yourself as an identity designer. What does that mean?

Paula Scher: An identity designer is someone who makes things accessible and understandable, and mostly recognizable to people. So, when people see an image that is part of a visual identity, they recognize it as a specific place that does specific things.

Erik Gensler: Why does a cultural institution need a cohesive identity? Why is this identity work so important?

Paula Scher: Well, most cultural organizations are talking to a lot of different audiences and different constituents. They’re the people inside the institution who tend to sort of gravitate to the areas in which they work and they may be divided by being within a big institution, because somebody may be in a division that does a very disparate thing from another division, and they may not even talk to each other. Often, when you go into an institution and you look at the materials they make, they may look like seven institutions, because these various divisions did this thing. This is a common internal problem and not just cultural institutions and government and at schools, in corporations. So that, one sort of understanding about what the place is and what the place looks like is good because it brings people together. That’s an internal reason. On the outside, people may know of something or know of something that was either a show that was put on at a place or some kind of performance or some kind of an event, and they may remember the event and not the place. And what an identity does is it helps people make a visual connection to what the act was, what they saw in relationship to the place. It’s just another way. It’s like getting a visual cue card of, “Oh, yeah, I saw that there.”

Erik Gensler: Right.

Paula Scher: That’s very important because that’s how you get return audiences.

Erik Gensler: Right. How does it work when you balance between an institutional identity and, say, show art? I’m specifically thinking about nonprofit theaters like Roundabout or Manhattan Theater Club, that are often competing with Broadway shows for an audience. How do you balance between the institutional identity and the show identity? Is there a risk of the actual production getting lost if you dial up the institutional identity?

Paula Scher: There is that risk and most I think, especially directors, feel more comfortable developing the show identity. The problem is that, most not-for-profit theaters, I wouldn’t say, not all of them are large, but they put out a season worth of shows and not all of those shows get picked up and reviewed, and not all the materials they made get scene. They may make materials that nobody saw and nobody remembers. So, they don’t really get credit for anything by the end of the year.

Erik Gensler: Right. Right.

Paula Scher: If they had one show that was a hit and it was designed in the style of that theater, all the other shows would start to become recognizable in relationship to that hit. You have to make a hard decision of do you want to design for the totality or do you want to design for the individual plays. And there isn’t really a right or wrong. It really has to do with what the nature of the places, but if you design specifically for the show, you have a harder time building an identity for the place.

Erik Gensler: It sounds like you’ve thought through that question or you’ve got asked that question before.

Paula Scher: Well, I actually lived it through the Public Theater, which I’ve been working on for 24 years, because when I began doing that idea, that identity, and it was the first time it had an identity, it was recognized by a series of posters that Paul Davis did. They are very iconic. Then what happened in relationship to his posters over a period of time was he began doing similar kind of posters for masterpiece theater. That was for Public Television and people thought that the Public Theater was part of Public Television. They began confusing it because the identity was an illustration style. When George Wolfe became the director, we gave them an identity, really, but it was this like a typographic style; it could be recognized. We designed more for individual plays, but within a typographic style and that you could recognize the style. So, one thing might influence the other, but still what got remembered were those shows that were hits, and those shows that weren’t hits you forgot about them and sometimes you recognize is the public. But then this terrible thing happened, and the terrible things was that, Chicago was designed. Chicago was designed in the style and typography of the Public Theater and it had much more money to spend on the play, because it was a Broadway show. All of a sudden, it kind of ate the Public Theater identity, like people didn’t know what they were looking at. Then the whole thing became a popular style. That was actually bad for it. I began changing it and I found that I weakened it when I went straight for the individual plays, and that to strengthen it, I had to find a balance to the notion of change and the ability for something to be recognized individually as a one-off thing. We came to the notion of really designing seasons so that you recognize the Public Theater style, but it changes each season so that the season has a look and you can remember a specific show within a given season, but it’s all the Public. That took me a very long time to figure out how to do. It was really trial and error.

Erik Gensler: It’s great because you see the evolution of it, but it’s subtle and it evolves, but…

Paula Scher: It’s still a place. It has its own language. You have to speak in that language, but the question is, “Where is the emphasis?”

Erik Gensler: Yeah. My friend who is an actor right now, I met someone who’s extreme, he’s actually on the podcast. He’s done a lot of work, he’s a well-known actor, and he said the best thing that ever happened in his career was being on one of those posters for the Public Theater. He’s now right in front of Astor Place now and under identity.

Paula Scher: He’s good.

Erik Gensler: You know about him, too. Was the Public Theater the first cultural institution identity you worked on?

Paula Scher: No. I think there was Bard Center for Curatorial Studies and they put on shows. It’s more like a gallery situation. Right before Public, I worked for the American Museum of Natural History in the 21st anniversary identity. There were other small things that I actually don’t remember, but I know that there were a series of them. The Public came in 1994 and then after that, then, that started to become… My partner, Michael Bierut had designed the identity for BAM and we did them in the same year. We began getting a lot of calls for that sort of work. It happened all at once.

Erik Gensler: I love to talk about some of the identity you’ve done for cultural institutions that I’ve not heard you talk about. New York City Ballet to me, I think, was so successful, because it was really the first time you saw a ballet company move away from that traditional bunhead look and you saw the dancers as these gorgeous individuals. I remember that first campaign. It was like a fashion shoot in the magazine and it was so incredible. I love to just hear about how that project came to be and what you remember from it.

Paula Scher: Well, I still love that project. It’s actually one of my favorite solutions, I think. Virtually, everything that I’ve designed is a collaboration with the director at the place, and that their input really guides what I do. I don’t think that’s ever not happened, even though when sometimes they think they didn’t say anything, but they always do. In this instance, Peter Martins did a couple of things that he was very specific about. He wanted to be flexible. He redesigned the thing all the time. He was moving it from City Ballet from which it was called the New York City Ballet. So, that was one thing. That was a big move in and of itself because it meant that the typography had to be even in scale. I’m always surprised when I still read it referred as City Ballet, and depending about how long the newspaper has been around. There was a deliberateness about the move and that it had to read New York City Ballet and it had to be able… so he could change it every year, because he hated doing the same, using the same logo each year. All it was, was a type system that revealed itself to be transparent in an overlay where it could be stacked, it could be in one line, it could be in two lines, and it could change infinitely. It could gradate from left to right and right to left, and that each year he could figure out the form of it, because we gave him that kit of parts. The second thing about it was the structure of the way these things stack and the overlapping. That actually came from seeing a Balanchine production, which I had never seen. I can’t remember what the dance was. It was essentially women in very strident outfits and there’s so many people on stage that had shocked me and they were in a progression. They were in a form of lines. It was very regimented in a way. I mean it wasn’t Swan Lake. I’m really not very knowledgeable about ballet, but I began looking at the way ballet always have to look. And they always looked sort of girly and swirly, is the way I describe them. I thought it would be nice to do something for New York that was the New York City Ballet.

Erik Gensler: Right.

Paula Scher: That it shouldn’t be turning in pure wedding. It should be this kind of solid thing that becomes emotional in the fact that it has transparency. Those were the things that drove the identity. I think I designed that in 2008 or something like that. So, it’s around and it really survived well.

Erik Gensler: When you rolled that out, I think it was rolled out along with that really progressive fashion shoot look.

Paula Scher: Yeah.

Erik Gensler: It was like they released the identity along with the imagery.

Paula Scher: Well, there were some outrageous things I did, something that Peter didn’t like and I never did again. First of all, I wanted to do it black and white because the logo was in black and white. So, the photo sessions were in black and white and that was strident enough. Then I did something that he said was a no-no, which was the cropping. The interesting thing was that, he says, “Directors never want to see their dancers crop because it’s all about the movement in the hands.” I’m thinking, “Yeah, but they’re running in and out of the stage.” So, you see them cropped as they come in and as they go out. There was an interracial couple dancing and she was half out of the picture and half in the picture, and I thought that what was so striking about it. Then, after that, they normalize it. Though, I still think they buy terrific photography.

Erik Gensler: They really do. I will say every organization needs to be a media company now, right? You’re a media company that does ballet. I think they have done such a fantastic job investing in killer photography. They now have the large internal video department. Their videos are stunning. And I think that identity sort of set them up to become that, where they… I think they were one of the first arts organizations that really, really invested in their visual identity in the 21st century way and that they’re leading with video and they’re leading with those kind of graphics, and they flex that system in a really great way. I just love that.

Paula Scher: First of all, Peter’s taste is very graphic. I think that directors… I found sort of a commonality with, say, Peter and George Wolfe and, really, everybody I’ve worked with who stages things. Because when you’re staging something, you’re composing form within a given space and grid. It’s not that different from what I do, if you think about it.

Erik Gensler: Right.

Paula Scher: So that the language, you show them something and they really understand why that thing is strong and when it isn’t strong. That’s a very special kind of client. It’s a wonderful client to have.

Erik Gensler: That’s a great point you make though about almost every dance company you worked with is very sensitive, understandably, about cutting off limbs. It’s like, “Well, you tell me how you’re going to get that on a banner that’s 728 by 90.” That’s really great. That’s a great point. You’re coming off the stage, guess what, there’s an arm.

Paula Scher: That’s right.

Erik Gensler: I love that. I’m going to steal that.

Paula Scher: It’s yours to use.

Erik Gensler: I’d love to hear a little bit more about your work with the New York Philharmonic. I don’t think I’ve you heard you talk about that one either across the plaza at Lincoln Center.

Paula Scher: Well, they weren’t very happy with that in the end, I think. That was because they’ve changed it. There was a new board and they changed it. I actually really liked that identity a lot. It was designed to the point, they had this kind of very, I would say, florid of identity that looked like I think it was… It symbolized the motion of the conductor, but I’m not quite sure what it meant. It looked kind of calligraphic and deliberately classical.

Paula Scher: Alan Gilbert had been made director and the New York Philharmonic has a very long name. It’s the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, really hard to get in the corner of a business card.

Erik Gensler: Right.

Paula Scher: It needs a mark, but the problem is that, when you make a mark and particularly if you make something that represents classical music, it never has the power of New York, and that Alan Gilbert wanted something that was reflective of New York, appeared to be modern, but also kept something of the tradition of the New York Philharmonic. In looking at the history of the New York Philharmonic, it’s really about the conductor. Philadelphia has a sound and Chicago has a sound. New York doesn’t really have a sound. It’s really what they play and what it sounds like is so much driven by who’s the conductor during any given period. I decided that it needed something that represented the conductor. What was tricky was figuring out how to get the name of the place which is very long and something small that was going to be mark-like. Then I centered on the notion of creating the circle of typography that was led by a slash. And the slash is the conductor’s baton. That symbolized the whole thing and it was the way of using it. It was very recognizable because you can make a small and large and it pattern very nicely, and it could be sort of a very easily useful item. I never felt great about that identity in the same way I did about the New York City Ballet because I wasn’t given the opportunity to help in the implementation of it. We gave some guidelines and some standards and it was done, operated by an in-house department that I didn’t have any relationship with, really. So, I don’t feel like it was every executed properly, which is why I don’t talk about it very much. The New York City Ballet, we did the launch. We actually put the pieces that came out and their built their art department. So, you set up a basis of who it worked.

Erik Gensler: Right.

Paula Scher: I did the same thing with the Metropolitan Opera. I just did it with the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and I keep an ongoing relationship with the Public Theater.

Erik Gensler: And Jazz, too, right?

Paula Scher: And Jazz at Lincoln Center, all those. I staff the in-house departments. I like that because I think that the designers that are hired to work in house are the manual. They’re like a living, breathing manual. If you create a manual for how something should look and feel, and you give it to somebody and they can’t see and they don’t have specific talent, they’ll do exactly what’s in the manual, but every time they have to figure something out, it’s going to be wrong. If you give it to somebody who’s a really good designer and they understand the premise of it, they don’t need a manual because anything you do is going to tie their hands and they’ll do it better getting it, knowing how to push it forward, because they’re well-trained designers. That’s what people should hire and that’s who should be those jobs. I’m a firm believer in that. With Julia Hoffmann, when she went to MoMA, she was just somebody who had worked for me for a long time. She had a one-page template.

Erik Gensler: That’s it?

Paula Scher: That’s it. It’s all she needed.

Erik Gensler: I feel like that’s a huge benefit if you say to someone, “Not only will we design your identity, but I will personally staff that role for that department.” It’s hugely advantageous. Do people see it that way?

Paula Scher: We haven’t figured out how to monetize that.

Erik Gensler: Sort of your recruiting fee.

Paula Scher: And they still want the manual.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, of course.

Paula Scher: I don’t know if it’s a good business decision on my part, but I think it makes the identities look better.

Erik Gensler: I love that. I guess let’s jump to a whole version of questions that I wanted to ask you about, which is about people. You’ve said it. It’s not the design. It’s the people. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Paula Scher: That’s right. Design, and people hate when I talk about it like this, in many ways, is accidental, because you’re put into a situation as a designer where you’re first trying to understand what is the place about and how do people make decisions, and why are things the way they are and why do they even… Sometimes they don’t even need you. Sometimes they’re absolutely fine and don’t even know it. But when you walk into a situation, and I alluded to this before when I said, “The different camps and they do different things. They’re not talking to each other,” you find out what the relationships are. Some leaders are better leaders than other leaders. Sometimes you find that really the marketing department is driving everything. Sometimes you find the director is driving everything. It’s really, really conditional. It depends upon how an organization feels comfortable running itself. What you want to do is understand what the temperament of that place is. The temperament is ultimately what drives it. Some organizations are very top down and there’s a very strong director, and the director makes decisions. Those things come out very well when you work with them. Then you may leave and it may be overthrown by somebody else. That’s not great. You need to bring everybody in together. I like to work with a director top-down in terms of understanding that I’m there to have positive impact, and then working broadly across the board to bring everybody along with it, because you get a better outcome. I like when the designs really live, because that serves my ego better.

Erik Gensler: Right. Right.

Paula Scher: It’s nice to see these things live and grow and then the institution benefits from them, and they are truly recognized as that place. That’s what you want to have happen.

Erik Gensler:

Erik Gensler: I think one thing else you said that I love, I love this quote, you said, “A designer’s key job is to teach a client how to see.”

Paula Scher: That’s true. That’s true because, mostly, that’s why they’re hiring you and they don’t even know that. If they knew how to it change it themselves, they would. They can describe who they want to be in terms that are not about what something looks like, but they will describe it in terms of to have sensibility. What you’re generally showing them is how the thing that you’ve made with them is really an interpretation of their sensibility that happens to be visual as opposed to a description or a tagline or something. It’s much easier for somebody to understand the tagline or a mission statement or a sentence. Then they look at something and they go, “Huh?” If the relationship with the client and the group is right, they will see it. You want them to do that and you have to teach them how to do that.

Erik Gensler: It’s great. My executive coach talks about level three listening. You just really listen and really understand what’s coming at you and then interpret it back to them. You really make sure in those meetings have to listen very hard.

Paula Scher: Sometimes you don’t get the right information. Very often I find that I might sit in three meetings and have totally gotten it wrong. It might have been that I got it wrong because the group wasn’t the right group, that sometimes you’re with people who don’t actually understand how that play should be interpreted. You need to go back and revisit and talk to more people.

Erik Gensler: The ethos of it, absolutely. Talking about talking to the people and doing some discovery, you’ve also said that people like to buy process. I think you said with the Citigroup logo, you figured that out in a matter of minutes, but they wanted the process.

Paula Scher: Right. Well, they don’t feel like they got their money’s worth if I just design it in a second.

Erik Gensler: Right, on the back of a cocktail napkin.

Paula Scher: That’s really terrible, but I’ve designed many things on the back of a cocktail napkin. Sometimes, my first ideas are my best ideas. What I find with the cultural identities is I don’t have the pushback about not having seen enough or not having done enough work or not, getting their money’s worth. I don’t think that that is actually something I’ve experienced in that realm. But I do think that there still is the process of bringing a whole big group along. Often, it involves getting approvals of 20 people, 30 people, 50 people on the board of directors. These things can be mammoth and you really have to be continually showing them how to look at this thing, which is teaching them how to see.

Erik Gensler: Right. Right. I don’t know if this is a fair dichotomy, but I hear a lot of arts administrations talk about, “Well, in the for-profit world there are more of this. They’re more organized and we’re streamlined. They’re more…” This sort of idealization of for-profit institutions for whatever reason. You’ve worked with Citibank. You’ve worked with the Quad Cinema, I’m so happy they’ve reopened and you work with them. Do you see major differences, if any, going from large corporate organizations to arts organization or do you feel like that sort of dichotomy is overdone?

Paula Scher: I really see very little difference in structure and personality. the idea of how people behave in groups is very similar; it’s not different. The fees are different. I think that, in many ways, entrepreneurs and people in corporations have much more at risk, because there’s more money at stake, and because it’s their money. That’s a very big deal. In not-for-profits, you’re always running up against development and fundraising and that form of perception. I think that’s its own sort of like political candidates having to fundraise continually to put out their messages. There’s something about it that you feel sad about that that has to exist. But I don’t think it’s as hard as actually having to really sell something to keep everybody going, like I think the Broadway theaters have a different road to home and are there for more complex to work with, in many ways, under individual plays, largely because they really have to put those asses in seats where they’re going to go under. They may, in a way, be operating with a little more fear or a little different part of their brain because there is this risk if this fails, the stakes are different. There’s this thing called bankruptcy if you failed. There’s this thing called putting a close sign, running a deficit. I mean you’re sort of out. It is different. I believe you have to be empathetic to that. But I think it’s wonderful when businesses and people who have money at stake take good calculated risks, because that elevates the possibility for everything else. That’s what really is great, is to see somebody invent a way of doing something that’s not the expected way because they took a risk, because they did it differently from everybody else. That’s the most exciting work. Mostly, it happens at not-for-profit. The risk isn’t quite as great.

Erik Gensler: We’re so scared of failure. I just think humans are so scared of failure and I felt like, as I’ve gotten older, I’m really working hard to try to move away from that. If you’re not failing at some point, you’re not trying hard enough or you’re not taking enough risk, then you’re never going to really change. I think our culture is taught to be very risk-averse and if you’re willing to take a risk, the payoff on the other side is so huge. Even if you do fail, you can still take so much away from that.

Paula Scher: I think that if you have nothing to lose, it’s easy to fail and if you have a lot already, you can have a failure. It’s the middle that’s rough. If there’s a conglomerate that has a million brands attached to it and they decide to launch something and take a risk and do something outrageous and it fails, so what really?

Erik Gensler: Right. Right.

Paula Scher: Because they’re going to survive. But if that’s all they’ve got, that’s rough.

Erik Gensler: Right. Right. I hear you. Yeah. We’re going to talk a little bit about back to identity. What are mistakes that you’ve seen organizations make when it comes to their institutional identity, their project you’ve involved in or things you just see, and you’re like, ” Oh, gees”?

Paula Scher: Well, there are different kinds of mistakes. I think the most tragic mistake is when an institution doesn’t bring in all their stakeholders, and when they don’t, the thing will ultimately fail. That’s the worst thing an institution can do, is to make a change and do something without bringing people who can block it or going to create difficulty later along. That’s just bad business. There are institutions that are just bland and they’re bland in what they look like, and they wind up being bland in what they do. There are institutions that I think do very good work and don’t look like they do, and that’s too bad. They should redesign themselves because…

Erik Gensler: Yeah. It’s always great when those people change their identity and they’re like, ” Oh, finally.”

Paula Scher: Exactly. Sometimes you go and you like them in spite of themselves. That can work too, which shows that maybe it is the most important thing in the world. I really believe that people should be recognized that you see that and you go, “Oh, that’s terrific. Look at that. I want to go there. I want to see that.” That really gives you a giant list. I think when the Whitney came out with a beautiful building and a beautiful identity, it’s phenomenal. There’s nothing better than that.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, it changed everything. Although, I had loved that old space that they were into, but…

Paula Scher: Well, that’s something else.

Erik Gensler: It’s not quite the same.

Paula Scher: It’s different.

Paula Scher: But it’s a new thing. It’s a new different location. It does something to that neighborhood. It’s right next to the High Line. It’s great.

Erik Gensler: It’s amazing. The same can be said for the High Line,

Paula Scher: That was great because it changed the neighborhood. Now, it’s often criticized because the change of neighborhood. You get it both ways.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, such has changed. When an institution rolls out an identity, it’s such a massive project and we talked about this. How should this rollout best occur? Meaning, one day do you switch everything or is it okay to have a gradual rollout piece by piece? What do you typically recommend?

Paula Scher: I want to try to get as much of a clump as you possibly can, because it’s terrible when it’s dribs and drabs because nobody gets it. It takes a long time to absorb itself. On the other hand, there are things that you can’t necessarily get all at once like an identity. A place may need to completely reshape its website and it’s going to take six months or a year after you’re going to get the identity rolled out. So, you might re-skin it and have that redesigned later. What you want to do is you actually don’t have the ability to do a big season all at once, and so that you create the effect of something happening, even though it’s happening later. We worked all those ways. Essentially, you have to be able to see it or look like an accident.

Erik Gensler: Right. Right. We just rolled out our new brand identity here and restarted that project in January and we’re finally starting to roll it out. We have a small marketing and design team.

Paula Scher: That wasn’t even a year.

Erik Gensler: Yeah.

Paula Scher: That’s not much.

Erik Gensler: I’m an impatient person. It’s a massive amount of work.

Paula Scher: …There are things that I’ve done where there was very little money and there was also not a lot of people involved in the decision-making process. You do something very quickly and it’s out there. That’s fun. Mostly, these things take a long time. Board of directors take a long time. As I said before, you have to bring everybody on.

Erik Gensler: Yeah. But even the physical rolling out and bringing everyone on board is like getting all of our teams here to use our new templates. There’s training and making guidelines and workshops. I think I, a little bit, underestimated the amount of effort that that would be…

Paula Scher: No. There’s a lot of work involved there. There’s no way around it. Even when I think and somebody tells me it’s a little job, no, it’s never a little job.

Erik Gensler: No, it never is. I always say, “Okay, this is what I think it is now, realistically, at 40%,” and then you’re probably closer. Let me talk a bit about the move to digital. You started designing record covers back in the…

Paula Scher: ’70s.

Erik Gensler: ’70s, yeah. You lived through this digital revolution over the past 20 years. How is the move to screens change branding and identity work? Meaning, now people are consuming so much on a tiny little screen, how has that influenced your work?

Paula Scher: The identities are really visual languages, and you’re always making this kind of kit of parts. It’s a way that you can telegraph something in a teenie-weenie space and have it instantly recognized. You can also do some kind of big side of a building or a giant screen and you’re going to recognize the spirit of that place as well there. It’s not just making something small and something big. It’s really adding all the elements that will give it the same spirit, but at different scales. That’s what we do and it’s a lot of fun, actually. I think it made my work better, because I started to think about a system in a way I didn’t. We designed typefaces and that’s exciting because you can create a specific character for somebody that they can own, and that’s really wonderful. You see the new school which is three different weights of a font that we drew a program together. You can recognize that without a logo, which is great. There might be a poster that’s up on the street and have some information about the school. You might not see the name of the school. You might not see the logo anywhere and you know exactly what it is.

Erik Gensler: That’s a successful identity.

Paula Scher: That’s what you want to have happen. So, that’s a lot of fun.

Erik Gensler: People talk about branding and clients will come to us and talk about branding. One of the things we started saying is, so much of your branding is now happening on Facebook. So, sharing an image or sharing a video, and the organization’s name gets attached to it, but the spirit of that video, that’s modern branding.

Paula Scher: Right. That’s right.

Erik Gensler: Does the work you get into, do you go that deeply into, “Okay, this is perhaps what video should be like or this is what…”

Paula Scher: Sometimes. Sometimes we do. Sometimes we do and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we hire a partner to do that for us. It really depends on the extent of it and how they’re going to get into it. Just creating the visual landscape and the rules around that is on anything that’s fairly sizeable is about a year to a year and a half process. There may be parts of it that, for example, Jake Trollback at the digital work for the new school, which was great, because he was a wonderful partner because he really adapted what we did and did another layer on top of it, which I love. We have a partner in London who does a lot of this work, our partner, Naresh, who is both a writer and a mixed films. Marina Willer does a lot of her own filming. But I’m not really a video partner. I don’t think I do it well. I hire it.

Erik Gensler: Okay. I’ve heard you talk about how computer has changed the design process, how it used to be manual, and a person talks with their hands. Now, computers…

Paula Scher: Right. Right.

Erik Gensler: You see, now everyone is designing on screens. Can you talk a bit about that?

Paula Scher: Well, I’ve been designing on screens now since 1990, so I can’t pretend like it’s a new thing. I don’t design myself. I work with other people who are working through my direction and with their input and we’re collaborating on these things together. I don’t physically push the buttons, but I very much physically start the process, makes sketches, modify with them and we’ll encrypt. It’s a process of more like, I would say, the designers who work for me both design and collaborate under my direction, which is the way that works. I could see I’m an old-fashioned art director in that way, though I’m pretty hands on.

Erik Gensler: What is your leadership style? How do you like to work with junior people?

Paula Scher: Most of my staff were my former students. So, I kind of know them before I work with them, which I find really useful, especially with interns. I know what they can do. I like an informal style. I like a loud, sloppy, funny office. I like to hang with my staff and I like to work hard with my staff. It’s always been a really good part of my life. I have so many relationships with them for a long period of time. I know I’ve been influential to them and they grow up and go away.

Erik Gensler: Yeah. You have those relationships so much that you’re able to even staff your clients.

Paula Scher: Well, a lot of them do that or sometimes they’re my students or sometimes there’s somebody who worked at Pentagram, or there are a variety of people. There’s one, Luis Bravo. He was first at the Public Theater, then he was at the Metropolitan Opera, then he was at the New York City Ballet, then he went to Jazz at Lincoln Center, and then he went to the Philadelphia Museum where he is now. They’re all my identities. We’ve worked together now for, I think it’s… I’m trying to think when that started. It has to be 15 years, this sort of somebody.

Erik Gensler: Yeah.

Paula Scher: It always works. It’s wonderful. I have a number of those relationships.

Erik Gensler: Just quick advice for marketers or leaders that are coming to think about identity projects. How should an institution prepare for an identity project if they know, “Okay, this is starting to look stale where we’ll look like eight different institutions. I think we need to bring somebody in”? What have you seen people do well or not so well?

Paula Scher: Well, I think it’s okay for them not to totally know. If they knew how to do it, they would have done it. I find identities change for two key reasons. One reason, the bad reason is that a terrible failure in some capacity and another reason is they just got a new director has different ideas and has changed the direction of the place. They’re both valid reasons. If something has gotten stale and is failing and the group understands that it’s failing, then they can talk to a designer about it and they can talk about why they think it isn’t working. There might be financial reasons why it’s not working. There might be constituent reasons why it’s not working or it just may be that it looks dated and they need to refresh. Sometimes it isn’t a redesign. Sometimes it’s a tweak. A tweak can do a lot.

Erik Gensler: Right. Yeah. We have a lot of smaller organizations that listen to this podcast as well and I feel like our core clients, at least when we started, was much larger institutions. Over time, we’ve worked with a lot of small organizations, but I always get asked, “Well, we’re a tiny $3 million annual organization and we can’t go and hire a big fancy New York design firm.” How do organizations with smaller budgets do this?

Paula Scher: I think they should find partners. There are many young designers who would like the opportunity to develop that kind of work so they can show it. The way they can work with them is either at a very low rate or for free and they pay expenses, but then the designer has to have a lot of authority and power in that situation. Otherwise, it’s not worth it for them to do. Most of designing is, as I said, trying to teach people how to see, and that’s very exhausting sometimes. Some people don’t want to see.

Erik Gensler: Right.

Paula Scher: Sometimes they see things differently. Sometimes there are groups that see things differently. Sometimes, people are stuck in some belief system that isn’t operating in their benefit and it’s very difficult to persuade them. Sometimes groups are broken into five teams and the people are at war with each other. All these things are very tiresome and very difficult. If you don’t have any of that yet and you’re excited to get something terrific, you’re in a wonderful position to get it in a very inexpensive way, I think.

Erik Gensler: That’s great advice, really great advice. How do you know down the road, say, a few years later and you see your client’s work that you did, how do you know that something was successful?

Paula Scher: I think it’s when I even forget I did it, because it’s so much part of that place that I look at it and I go, “Oh, good. It’s still there. There it is. Yeah, I did that. That looks right.”

Erik Gensler: Where do you look for inspiration, meaning books that you read or publications or specific people or authors? Where are you looking these days?

Paula Scher: I look at fine art a lot, I have to confess. I find that those things that I’ve encountered in galleries and museums are the things that recently inspire me the most. I used to look at old design, but I had learned it too well. So, I can’t look at it anymore because I’ve just seen it too much. I think that I can get an idea from a book or a movie, but it’s not actually what inspires me. What inspires me is seeing a way of doing something that I haven’t thought of before it’s visual. It may come from just walking around looking at New York City. Sometimes it’s an accident or a mistake, or something that I figure I can use in some way. I think mostly it’s from fine art.

Erik Gensler: You’re influenced by New York City.

Paula Scher: Well, I live in New York City and there’s stuff here. There’s a lot to look at. There’s a lot to look at. There are a lot of different organizations. You can stand still on Fifth Avenue and just watch the traffic go by and see a lot. You don’t need to work very hard to be inspired. It’s already here. That’s why when I go to the country, it’s really beautiful and relaxing, and I love doing my painting there. But I wouldn’t get a single idea there. There’s nothing going on. I don’t paint trees. I don’t…

Erik Gensler: Right. You can’t map the cities.

Paula Scher: Absolutely.

Erik Gensler: What’s something you’ve learned in the last year or so that’s been profound in the way that you work or think?

Paula Scher: I know that regeneration is important to me and that I need to find periods where I reinvent myself, and that, usually, in doing that is by being a neophyte in a way where I put myself in a position where I really don’t know what I’m talking about. That’s sort of like dancing on a tightrope because you can really fail, and you also make discoveries, because you don’t make any discoveries by doing things you already know how to do, because you’re just repeating yourself. So, how can you learn anything? You make your discoveries by doing something you don’t know how to do.

Erik Gensler: Right.

Paula Scher: There are things I don’t want to do. I really don’t like designing specifically for screens, meaning websites. I don’t like bringing about the functionality of it that much. I’m not a user interface designer. I really don’t like doing that kind of work. What I really like doing is integrating technology into public spaces. That for me is incredibly exciting, because it becomes dimensional and sculptural and it’s not about how you’re interacting with the information. It’s how you’re moving with the information, which is a different form. That for me is very exciting, I have a couple of projects I’ve been working where I had a lot of fun doing it. By the way, I love doing the Quad. The Quad was great because it was such a little jewel box of a place and it really is all about signs. It’s about signs and the relationship with the way Hollywood use signs. So, it sort of fits in that capacity. I worked in ways I didn’t work before. We love the back screens. We like the hallway, the theater fields, the lighting design, all that stuff. That was fun to do because I never done it before.

Erik Gensler: And you worked on all that, the lighting design?

Paula Scher: Absolutely everything.

Erik Gensler: Wow. That’s cool.

Paula Scher: All the lighting on the ceiling. Everything is really typography. Each theater has its lights are giant Q-U-A-D. It was a lot of fun. It was a great job.

Erik Gensler: That’s cool. It’s interesting when you reach a certain level of success, people just assume that you have the answers. It’s really cool to hear that you try to push yourself in directions where you’re not just pretty comfortable, because how else you’re going to grow?

Paula Scher: That’s the only way you can really make a breakthrough. I remember when I first started working in environmental graphics, which I love, I didn’t know how to read an architect’s plan. I was really unqualified for the job. I absolutely didn’t know what I was doing. I started designing buildings, because when I first did the identity in 1994 for the Public Theater, the architect of record was James Polshek, and he liked the identity. He says, “Well, let’s just paint the walls white and we’ll hang up your things as banners all over the place.” All of a sudden, I was an environmental graphics designer, right? I’ve never done anything like that before. Then I started moving them around corners. That’s when it got exciting.

Erik Gensler: Yeah. I love that. You did the New 42, right?

Paula Scher: Yes.

Erik Gensler: All that.

Paula Scher: That was out of the Symphony Space, the New 42, the public roll around the same time. Then there was Bloomberg, which was a much bigger enterprise and much more complicated. It involved a lot of digital media and that was really exciting, and the materiality became interesting to me. I began to realize that you could build things out of anything and it’s a very cool thing to do. I don’t understand why more graphic designers don’t get involved in that, because it is a great way to work. It’s another way to work. That involves screens, but it’s not like designing for the screen. It’s designing the screen within the situation, which is a different way to think about screens.

Erik Gensler: Right. I think Lincoln Center went through that, the steps and the movement, and all the blades. That’s really a combination of nine organizations to work that.

Paula Scher: Right. That was a political nightmare. I was on the Design Commission when were presenting all that stuff. So, I saw the whole process and how they made those decisions up at Lincoln Center. It was quite…

Erik Gensler: It’s tough.

Paula Scher: It was tough.

Erik Gensler: I was exposed to this as well.

Paula Scher: That’s a lot of people to please.

Erik Gensler: Where do you think you’re really good at and what is one thing you’ve acknowledged that you’re working on?

Paula Scher: Well, first of all, I got to figure out what I’m good at. That’s sort of difficult. I think I have a natural intuition about how to define somebody visually, and usually a group of people. I really understand spirit in relationship to typography, and that when you combine form and words, it really creates a certain kind of spirit and I know how to play that game, and I love doing it and I never get tired of it. So, that’s great. What was the other question?

Erik Gensler: What is something you’re working on improving?

Paula Scher: I’m working on improving? Neatness skills.

Erik Gensler: Like your desk?

Paula Scher: Like everything.

Erik Gensler: Okay. That’s fair. So, just come to your final question. This is what we call your CI to Eye moment and you can take as much time as you need to think about this, but if you can broadcast to the executive directors and leadership teams and boards of a thousand arts organizations, what one piece of advice would you provide to them to help improve their businesses?

Paula Scher: Understand who you are, understand your audience, get them to line up.

Erik Gensler: Great. Thank you.

About Our Guests
Paula Scher
Paula Scher
Graphic Design

For four decades, Paula Scher has been at the forefront of graphic design crafting identities for renowned corporate brands and cultural institutions. From Citibank and Tiffany and Co. to The Public Theater, MOMA, Jazz at Lincoln Center and New York City Ballet, her identities have become case studies for the contemporary identity of American brands.

Read more

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