What I’ve Got – Paula Scher’s Design Outlook

Since her career began in the 1970s, Paula Scher has continually pushed the boundaries of graphic design. She gave a provocative Ted Talk in 2009, where she outlines her career successes, failures, and creative process. Referencing a 1978 New York Times article by satirist Russell Baker, Scher describes the critical difference between solemn design and serious design. Solemn design, for the most part, effectively addresses a problem, is socially correct, and is acceptable to the parties involved. Serious design, or serious play, on the other hand, is often spontaneous, intuitive, accidental, and comes from a place that does not necessarily make much sense. Serious design is innovative and rebellious, and thus often imperfect. Not everyone will like a serious design.

Scher’s most successful designs were those that originated at the intersection of ambition and ignorance. With more education, more exposure, and more demand for her work, Scher has had to intensify her efforts to engage in serious play. I recommend her Ted Talk, available here, as it makes me question how I think about desirability. Perhaps if my designs are too widely accepted, they are not pushing the envelope far enough. I will end with Scher’s closing remark, about what she realized as her map paintings became increasingly popular:

I found that I was no longer at play. I was actually in this solemn landscape of fulfilling an expectation for a show, which is not where I started with these things. So, while they became successful, I know how to make them, so I’m not a neophyte, and they’re no longer serious — they have become solemn. And that’s a terrifying factor — when you start something and it turns that way — because it means that all that’s left for you is to go back and to find out what the next thing is that you can push, that you can invent, that you can be ignorant about, that you can be arrogant about, that you can fail with, and that you can be a fool with. Because in the end, that’s how you grow, and that’s all that matters.

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