Studio Culture Interview: Pentagram

Studio Culture Interview: Pentagram

Paula Scher is a luminary of contemporary American graphic design. She began her working life at Atlantic and CBS Records designing album covers. Much of her work from this period has passed into pop culture cosmology. Later she ran her own studio in partnership with the designer Terry Koppel. But it is her work as a Pentagram partner that forms her most enduring legacy.

Scher is not only known for her distinctive and readily identifiable design work. She also works as an artist, although an artist whose work is imbued with the spirit and techniques of a graphic designer. Admirers collect her typographic maps of the US and other countries around the world zealously.

Scher is a sharp-brained observer of the contemporary design scene. Her book - Make it Bigger, published in 2005 - is a compendium of her best graphic design work, and also her wit and New York savvy.

The interview was conducted via email.

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You've worked variously as an in-house designer (at CBS Records in the 1970s) and as one half of a two-person partnership (Koppel/Scher in the 1980s). What were the key differences - good and bad - between each type of studio?

Paula Scher: At CBS Records in the 1970s there was a lot of work (I designed over 100 album covers a year) and a lot of money. The art department was very atelier-like. We experimented when we could. We had the freedom to make mistakes. Recording artists had cover approval, but you could make anything you wanted as long they were in agreement. Sometimes the recording artists wanted silly ideas and you were forced into designing something sub-standard, but that was offset by other cover projects. Classical and jazz albums were less political than pop and rock music, so that's where most of the exploration occurred. The CBS Records art department was filled with very talented designers and we collaborated and competed with each other. Some of them became lifelong friends. All of this was financed by CBS. It was the best of all worlds, and something I've tried to duplicate ever since without success. But in the early 1980s there was a recession, cutbacks, fear, and a very ugly atmosphere prevailed. Then it was the worst of all worlds. I quit in 1982.

After freelancing on my own for a year and half, I founded Koppel and Scher with Terry Koppel in 1984. I hated being on my own and wanted to duplicate the best years of CBS. Terry and I also developed a very atelier-like environment. Unfortunately, experimentation was less easy unless we accomplished the experimentation on free jobs. We were very concerned with supporting our overhead and constantly had cashflow worries. The environment was creative, but there was no room for failure, an important component of growth.

 

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Then you joined Pentagram - was that a big change?

I joined in 1991. The power, size and structure of the organization has afforded me the ability to be more secure financially, though I still continually worry about overhead. Having more partners, some in different disciplines, have expanded my own design opportunities and allowed me to stretch my own range. I wish I felt more comfortable with experimentation. The high profile of many of my clients sometimes forces me to discard the ‘experimental' in favour of the ‘established'. That's bad for my own personal growth. I try to experiment more on pro-bono projects.

With your experience you are extremely well placed to answer this question - what makes a good graphic design studio?

I think the best graphic design studio provides time for R&D. A designer should be able to experiment and produce professional work at the same time in a pleasant and reasonably secure environment.

Design history is written from the perspective of the individual designer - but it's a rare designer who works alone. Why do you think studios are neglected by historians and commentators in favour of the individual?

A succinct graphic point of view generally comes from an individual, not a collective. Sometimes it's two partners, like Milton Glaser1 and Seymour Chwast2 forming Push Pin3. They may influence a broad group of people who pass through a studio, but in the end the vision of the individual is what is definable.

 

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Can you describe Pentagram's unique structure?

Pentagram is a cooperative. It is essentially a bunch of small design firms, some with different disciplines, that share space, services and good fellowship. Each partner manages his or her own team, maintains their own client base, bills their clients and puts all the money in the middle. The partners draw the same salary and share profit. The partners are kept honest by the fact that no one wants to be the poorest performer, so they all work hard not to be. That peer pressure is considerable.

When you were invited to join Pentagram in 1991, why did you feel it was the right move for you?

After seven years running my own business, it became apparent to me that as a woman in business my design opportunities would be limited to things I had already done, that I would start to repeat myself, and ultimately stop growing as a designer. Pentagram afforded me an opportunity for growth. It was a bigger, more powerful playing field.

Like all Pentagram partners you have your own dedicated design team. What do you want from your designers - slavish, unquestioning devotion, or do you want them to have opinions and ideas?

I want the designers who work for me to have opinions, ideas, a sense of humour. I want them to inspire me, to have good judgement and excellent craft skills. And then I want them to accept the fact that I am the final word on everything.

What happens if a team member rebels and fails to toe the line?

I've always told my team that working for me is like being in a band. My team is my band. When you play on my team you get to learn, you get exposure, and you can grow, but in the end, it's my band. Ultimately, if you want to play your own tunes, you have to form your own band.

Do you see it as part of your job to educate and develop the designers who work for you?

I have tried to be a mentor to most of the designers who have worked for me. I have done this for 35 years. It's part of my working life. I am proud of almost everyone who has worked for me, and that's a lot of designers.

How do you find talent?

For many years, I taught at the School of Visual Arts in New York and I hired my students. Sometimes I hire my friend Carin Goldberg's4 students because I like how she teaches them. Often, I'll be working with an intern who was hired temporarily by someone at Pentagram, and I will find them to be talented and productive, so I will hire them. I don't think I have ever interviewed a total stranger and hired them based on their portfolio.

Do you expect them to stay for a long time, or are you happy with a regular turnover of staff?

I expect my staff to stay with me for as long as they are still learning from me. They are usually hired directly out of school. Sometimes, I promote them to positions of greater responsibility, so they stay longer. The average entry-level designer stays about two and a half years without a promotion. The longest anyone has stayed was nine years, when I made them an associate. But, the turnover is usually good for both me and the designer.

What would you say to someone who wanted to know what the benefits are from working in Paula Scher's team at Pentagram?

If you work for me, you get to know what I know. That may be limited, but I find it catapults my staff into some very good situations after they leave.

 

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How do you deal with administration at Pentagram?

Administration at Pentagram is shared among the partners. Each partner in a local office is responsible for a given shared area of responsibility, such as PR, accounting, tech, etc. Every partner has a project coordinator who helps manage budgets, collects timesheets, and compiles billing information from each individual team. The coordinator serves as a conduit between the individual team and the local Pentagram office.

Can you tell me how studio space is organized in Pentagram?

All of the partners in the New York office sit in a row in open space on a mezzanine level at Pentagram. Our teams can sit near us. My team is a half level up from me, in open space where I can see them all. Other teams may be located on a different floor (we are in a small, vertical building) and in those cases, the partner retains an extra desk within the team.

How important is the physical space you work in?

I've become accustomed to working in open space, but really no physical space at all, and in utter disorganization. I can't see my own work over a course of a year (it gets put away) and don't remember a job after it's finished. I have absolutely nothing special in the way of tools, unlike my architect partner Jim Biber, who has really nice pens. If I had nice pens I'd just lose them.

 

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I'm curious to know how working in a busy studio at Pentagram contrasts and compares with working in your home studio in the country where you paint and make personal artworks?

My painting studio in Salisbury, Connecticut, is the opposite of my workspace at Pentagram. I have real space, a view and I don't share it with anyone. I often paint all day without talking to anyone, even my husband. My paintings take a long time.

At Pentagram I'm with people every minute, I have no space and I work very quickly. I need both extremes. Maybe one day I'll strike a happy medium.

You have written and spoken eloquently about the value to be found in rejection and failure. You stated that: ‘You have to fail in order to make the next discovery. It's through mistakes that you actually can grow.' I agree with this strongly, and I can see how it works in a personal context. But how does it work in a group setting? When the Paula Scher team fails at something, how do you stop the group imploding?

Group failure is not the same as my individual failure because in my team the designers in the end are not responsible for the failure, I am. I think the failures can be more demoralizing for the team because they have less control. I am the only one who can really stop a client from screwing up work. I am the only one who can change the direction of a project gone wrong. I am the only one who can push the design, or the projects we take on, in a new direction.

My team serves as advisors. They warn me about problematic clients or sticky political situations that arise while they are working. They find vendors like printers or software developers, or signage manufacturers and often introduce me to new materials. The young designers on my team can make design mistakes that are corrected by me, or my senior designer, but these are craft issues, and part of any young designer's early experience. They are not major failures.

When we fail big time, I'm at the heart of it.

 

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