Paula Scher is a giant of modern graphic design. Before becoming a partner in Pentagram in 1991, she established herself as one of the leading American graphic designers of her generation. Her work is an remarkable catalogue of record covers, identities, and, perhaps most arrestingly of all, state-of-the-art Supergraphics.
Scher prefers to describe the work she does in the built environment as ‘environmental graphics’, yet in many ways her work is closer to the original spirit of 60s Supergraphics than much of what is routinely classified as environmental graphics. Scher dissolves space and creates a new volumetric reality with vivid colour and arresting typography. As she says about her seminal commission for the New Jersey Performing Arts Centre: ‘I essentially redrew the building in typography.’
What was the first job you did that could be classified as Supergraphics?
I designed an identity program for the Public Theater in 1994. James Polshek, the architect of the Public Theater building wanted to integrate my graphic identity into some large-scale banners on the exterior and interior of the building. That’s how I began designing signage.
In the same way that packaging designers often say that they were inspired by examples of packaging encountered in childhood, I wonder if there is an example of Supergraphics – signage, commercial messages, billboards – from your early life that subsequently inspired you?
I liked the giant Holland Tunnel sign on the entryway from New Jersey to New York, and the giant Pespi-Cola sign in Queens that is very visible from the FDR Drive in Manhattan. I liked roadside signs that said EAT; fantastic signs from Las Vegas (the old ones); and carnival and Coney Island signs. I had a Venturi view without knowing who Venturi was. I guess I was just another romantic post-moderninist.
I confess that I was fairly ignorant about environmental graphics. I was never especially interested in it. I found most building signage boring. I didn’t know Barbara Stauffacher Solomon’s work. I was aware of Deborah Sussman’s work for the 1984 LA Olympics and found that inspiring, though at that time I never thought I would work on 3D projects.
Graphic designers are often incapable of thinking beyond 2D – do you possess a spatial sense that allows you to think and work spatially?
It seems to come naturally and I don’t know why. I can barely read an architectural plan, and I hate listening to architects talk about their spaces, but I know how something is going to look in the space. So I guess the answer to your question is yes.
There’s a body of architectural theory surrounding Supergraphics, namely that by refusing to be confined to predetermined surfaces it creates the illusion of multi-dimensionality – in other words, it’s graphics that ‘go round corners.’ Do you have an interest in the architectural application of Supergraphics or are you purely concerned with the graphic communication potential of Supergraphics?
I love what happens to graphics in space. Sometimes at Christmas, when I forget to buy wrapping paper, I take posters I’ve designed and wrap presents with them. This makes the graphics better. It’s amazing what the turning of corners does to graphics that were designed to be viewed flat. The same thing happens to graphics in space when they are allowed to bleed over ceilings and floors, turn corners, run down staircases, etc. It creates a completely exciting environment, and that excitement becomes part of the communication.
Originally, Supergraphics was about shapes – undulating lines snaking across interiors and exteriors, circles, areas of flat color. You were amongst the first to pioneer typography above other forms of graphic mark making. Were you frustrated with typography on the printed page – or was it just an urge to work on a grand scale?
I love scale. I like making things as big as possible (maybe because I am physically tiny.) I enjoyed making big posters and billboards, and, well, buildings are even bigger than that.
When you work on a project – how do you plan the graphics? Do you work with scale models, scale drawings or 3D computer renders?
I do both. Lately we’ve been accomplishing virtual reality presentations, which I find very satisfying. Typically, to get approval for a project I would present renderings, models, virtual reality demonstrations, anything that makes it real for the client.
What normally happens when you get a Supergraphics project – do clients partner you with their architects or do architects choose you?
It happens both ways. The architects I mentioned hire me to do what I do with them. Sometimes I am hired directly by the client, NJPAC and our recent project with The Robin Hood Foundation were like that. Some of my clients are real estate developers.
So. You can have any building in the world as your canvas – which building and why?
I would like to work on a 1970s glass box building on 6th Ave. (A real big dumb one like the TIME LIFE building.) I’d like to cover the whole huge thing in white neon, against the glass on a grid, listing the tenants of the building, and contents of each floor, etc. I think it would be fabulous, and it would look especially terrific from New Jersey.
Well, I’d like to see that too, so I hope some developer reads this and gives you a call. OK, controversial and politically incorrect question coming up: why are so many of the leading figures in Supergraphics women?
I have no real proof of this but… women always get low paying jobs, jobs that have puny budgets. Supergraphics is the best way to get a lot of bang for your buck.
I hoped you might say that women have a superior sense of space and dimension than men. Or that women understand the effects of environmental atmosphere better than men. It is intriguing to me that four of the leading practitioners featured in this book (Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, Deborah Sussman, Morag Myerscough and you) are all female. I can’t think of another area of graphic design where this would happen. I can’t tempt you to fly the female superiority flag?
I want to tell you that I know the answer to the question, but I don’t. I never knew this was an area where women excelled. I wasn’t being disingenuous about my budget comments. That limitation can provoke a lot of creativity. I know that I began doing this because it seemed possible and achievable. Environmental Design, as a discipline has been, on the whole, a very bland territory. Most wayfinding signage is ordinary and unimaginative. Graphic designers are (mostly) not trained to do this sort of work. Only a few architects and clients really understand that certain environments need more specific personalities.
I find that architects and clients are now deeply in love with digital media as opposed to stationary environmental graphics because they can change it all the time and they don’t have to commit to something permanent. That’s too bad because often the digital media looks generic. Maybe women excel at what you are calling ‘Supergraphics’ because they feel the most oppressed by totalitarian spaces. I know, I do.
More reading: www.pentagram.com/partners/#/19/
This is an edited version of a longer interview that can be found in the book Supergraphics – Transforming Space: Graphic Design for Walls, Buildings & Spaces [Unit 02]
217 x 280mm, 320 pages, paperback
Editors Tony Brook & Adrian Shaughnessy