Graphic Design Legend Paula Scher Launches New BBC Maestro Course

  • by

There are some figures in the world of graphic design that everyone is simply in awe of. Bonafide luminary Paula Scher is indisputably one such designer, with a staggering body of work to her name including the brand identities for MoMa, Coca-Cola, Disney, and Microsoft. Scher was also the first female partner at Pentagram, and has taught graphic design for decades at the School of Visual Arts (SVA), as well as at Cooper Union, Yale University and the Tyler School of Art.

Suffice to say it’s no wonder the folks over at BBC Maestro came calling for Scher to teach a course. 

Graphic Design was released on BBC Maestro on October 29, and is now available for graphic designers of all ages and experience levels to take advantage of. The online course explores the techniques that are central to successful visual communication as told by Scher, who draws personal insights from her four decades of working in the industry.

I had the privilege of speaking with Scher directly after Graphic Design was released, to learn more about the course and her relationship to teaching.

(This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.)

Designing is one thing, but teaching design is a whole other. What is it about teaching that you enjoy so much?

What I like about teaching in person, in a real class, is that I can see how I can teach someone else how to see. They get a certain kind of knowledge from that, which improves their work. As they improve, I crit the work, and the work gets better. I see where they were when they came in the door, and then I see where they are at the end of the year, and it’s very satisfying. 

Often I have long relationships with my students. So many of them have worked for me; my associate is a former student, the highest person on my team is a former student, another member of my team is the former student of one of my students who was the associate here before my current associate. It’s like a very long, extended family that existed through SVA, to a large degree, because I was teaching there for 39 years. 

Since your BBC Maestro class is virtual, how has that felt different for you as a teacher? 

I wanted to make sure that everyone understands that I can’t make them improve purely by taking this course. They should really take the course in conjunction with studying design with a teacher who’s present. What the course does is it provides things that I wish I had been able to give my students but I never had the time to because I was too busy crit-ing them. It’s a wonderful adjunct to a class. 

What the course does is it broadens what you understand visually, particularly if you’re a young student and you’ve only been looking at contemporary annuals or Instagram— God help you.

Paula Scher

How would you describe the course?

It’s a guide for seeing. What’s really in the course is lots of references and design history. There are two lessons on poster design in relationship to typography and relationship to style. You learn that things that you recognize as quite contemporary were actually done a long time ago. You understand what forms work for certain types of topics, and you see how this thing started in 1850 and goes to the present. And then I did the same thing with logos. 

In the editorial design part, I show some examples but I really talk about three sources of looking, who are all people: Willy Fleckhaus, David King, and Derek Birdsall. They are the authors of three books that if you have them and read them, they will teach you almost everything you need to know about how to think about editorial design. 

I include a few case studies of my projects so that students can see something from start to finish. I have my partner Michael Gericke and my partner Emily Oberman both doing lectures on their fields of expertise, which for Michael is environmental graphics and for Emily is animation. 

What the course does is it broadens what you understand visually, particularly if you’re a young student and you’ve only been looking at contemporary annuals or Instagram— God help you. I was speaking in Toronto at Design Thinkers recently and a group of the students who were in line to get my book told me that they bought the class and that they binge watch it because it’s cool stuff!

Did you have a teacher or take a course in your past that you still think about, and that you maybe try to emulate in your own teaching?

I had a magical teacher named Stanislaw Gorski, who was a Polish illustrator. He had a very thick, Polish accent, and he spoke in very few words. Either he’d like something or he’d say to me, “Probably you should do over for me better.”

I had a lot of trouble with typography as a young designer, and I wanted to be an illustrator, not a typographer (even though I ended up much stronger as a typographer). But he said something to me that made incredible sense. I was making book jackets and record covers in his class, and when it was time to design the typography, I did what everyone else in the class did: I went out and I bought press type, which was the prevailing technology of the day. I would rub it in the corner of whatever I was working on, usually with Helvetica—which I hated—and I would rub and be sloppy with it and it would break and peel and look terrible on the covers. He would look at it and say, “Illustration okay, type is terrible.” And then he said, “Illustrate with type.” 

I didn’t understand at first what that meant, and then I realized that type had character and personality if I hunted for it. I could make the typography come forward, and I didn’t have to be rigid in a Swiss style in the corner of the cover. 

He gave me my whole career.  

What makes the best graphic design student? 

It’s interesting with students and even with young professionals: people have their own time of getting it. You come in and you have prejudices, you have preconceptions, and you have to break some habits. You don’t really have a firm idea of a firm idea of what works and what’s terrific and what isn’t, but something inspired you to be there. 

In the first couple of years you’re just learning how to see. How to notice things. A good teacher will get you to notice them. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.