Behind the Scenes of Abstract: The Art of Design with Paula Scher
Netflix’s stunning eight-part docuseries, Abstract: The Art of Design, has started conversations about design around the world — and, we want to continue those conversations. In this editorial series, we sit down with some of the artists and designers featured in Abstract to go behind the scenes and gain a deeper view of their passions, their creative processes, and the role technology plays in their designs.
Paula Scher has been called the “most influential female designer in the world.” A principal at the New York office of international design firm, Pentagram, Paula has earned awards and renown for her work with design — specifically typography —since the 1980s. Her client list includes companies like Tiffany & Co., Microsoft, Coca-Cola, and Citibank.
Our Q&A With Designer, Paula Scher
We caught up with Paula to talk with her about inspiration, process, fame, technology, and her episode of Abstract.
Have you watched your episode of Abstract?
I have. I actually had to watch it twice. The first time through, I think I was a little too self-conscious about being on the screen. I was paying too much attention to what I looked like and what I was saying. The second time through, I realized that they had actually done a pretty good job with it — especially with the animations. I really have to compliment them on what they did.
Have you watched other episodes? Did you gain any surprising insights from learning about other designers?
I was really interested in the differences between Christoph Niemann (the illustrator spotlighted in the first Abstract episode) and myself. For instance, he finds inspiration alone in a room, but I have to get out and interact with people. Further, it was interesting to see not only the similarities between graphic design and illustration — especially since my own husband is an illustrator — but also how different the two ways of life are.
I also enjoyed the episode about Platon and how he draws inspiration from his children for his photography. I thought it was great to watch the other episodes and learn more about where other creatives receive their inspiration. I can see how some of their methods would work for me and others wouldn’t.
Speaking of your methods, have you ever had a creative block? What did you do to get through it?
I think blocks are common to all creatives. For me, the solution is to get up and get moving. I can’t just sit there and puzzle my way through; I need to get up and find new inspiration. I can do that by talking to the team, looking at a book, watching a movie — just about anything can turn into inspiration.
That’s one of the things that is so amazing about living in New York. I can go outside, take a walk, and see so many different things. Every building is different — even down to the numbers on the fronts. There is so much to see, so many people. I draw inspiration from all of that.
Do you find that technology helps with your creative process? Is it easier to do your job now than it was 40 years ago when you first began?
Technology is a critical tool in what I do. Many times, I’ll sketch something up on a scrap of paper and show it to my team. Then, they put it in the computer, allowing us to go back and forth, fixing little things in a way we never could have done before.
This is especially true with 3D work. The technology makes everything so much faster, and it really helps with visualizing things. Rather than having to just imagine stuff, you can use the technology to reimagine it in new ways.
What do you think is the biggest advantage of technology today?
Designing typography is a big thing for me, and recently, some new technologies have really helped with that. I think that’s the biggest advantage of the technology for me — it helps me correct my mistakes — sometimes, even before I make them. It’s great to dream something up and then see it instantly in space.
We once had to build 3D miniatures to get a feel for how things were going to look. Now, we can just put designs into the computer to get the same benefit — but without all the extra work. It’s much faster than it used to be.
Let’s say that a scrappy, young designer is watching your episode of Abstract. What is the primary message you want them to get from it? What inspiration do you hope they receive?
I think the biggest message is that you have to love what you do and stay positive. When you’re just starting out, you’re going to make a lot of mistakes, but those accidents are the things that will generate discoveries. As you get older, you’ll kind of learn what works and what doesn’t, but in a way, you’re also learning to restrict yourself. Starting out, you don’t have that. You can do anything — and that’s where the really creative stuff comes from.
So, you have to really love what you do to stick with it through the mistakes and come into your own. You’ll have bad days and crummy clients, but the design space is really getting better every year. The technologies — and, of course, the people — are making some really amazing things. I look forward to the future and what we’ll see there.