Climbing the Creativity Staircase

AN INTIMATE CONVERSATION WITH DESIGN LEGEND, PAULA SCHER.

“Never take diagrams seriously,” Paula Scher chides as she puts up a single slide chart titled definitively: The Creativity Staircase. Paula turns and addresses a room packed with her enthusiastic fans, or more accurately graphic design groupies, during the Homo Sapiens, I Hear You event at A/D/O. She guides the enrapt audience through the probable trajectory of a career as a creative and in a conversation with her following the presentation she reflects on how her own life maps onto the staircase.

In her 20s

According to her chart, one’s 20s are a time of enormous leaps and bounds, propelled by discovery. With her matter-of-fact humor, she explains, “When you don’t know anything it’s easy to discover stuff, and when you know a lot, it’s hard to make discoveries.”

Her sage advice to the young crowd was, “Don’t be a wunderkind, be a peon.” Despite advocating for peon-hood as the key to avoiding burn-out, she self-describes as a “a bit of a wunderkind.” If you’re like me, and aren’t sure exactly what that is, Merriam-Webster will tell you “a child prodigy also: one who succeeds in a competitive or highly difficult field or profession at an early age.” She certainly did. In her 20s, she became known for record covers, pumping out around 150 a year working with artists like Bob James and Earl Klugh and a minimalist Gavin Christopher record cover.

In her 30s

Half pep-talk and half mentorship session, Paula suggests young designers can finally begin to expect some sort of recognition in their 30s. Later though, she admits the highs of her 20's were followed with a bit of a rough patch. “It was harder in my 30’s when there were competing designers who were younger and cooler.” Despite this modesty, she did well for herself, quitting Atlantic Records and going off on her own, creating well known works such as an iconic collaged Swatch ad. On the upside, she describes one’s thirties as a time where “You are not a peon anymore, you actually know what you’re doing.. You have developed some professional status which gives you some professional satisfaction and assuredness.”

In her 40s

At this point becoming known for her talent for telling a story with a typeface, Paula joined the design consultancy Pentagram where she turned to focus on fonts and graphics for companies and organizations like The Public Theater. Describing her process working with clients, she says, “We’re a little bit like doctors. You listen to what they feel and what they need, and you prescribe a solution that actually fits with what they’re talking about.” Her visual language is able to capture the identity and spirit of an organization using the shape and spacing of letters, synthesizing the essence of something with a font. When asked how she would imagine a typeface of her own self-portrait, she responds, “I would use a lot of different faces, one for every mood swing.”

In her 50s

A time of power is how Paula describes the fifth decade of life, a time when peers and clients from previous decades are now in charge, and can pass along work. It is a time to realize the dreams of youth, where “you’re actually using those things you discovered, probably sometime in your 20s, and actualizing them in your 50s.” She jokes that this is a bit of a depressing statement, especially when speaking to a younger and hopeful audience. Looking at the scale of her accomplishments, however, a few decades seem well-worth the wait.

The identity of companies linked to her logos are imprinted in the American consciousness: notable examples include Citibank, the Highline, Shake Shack, and CNN. When you start to take stock of the fonts, prints and graphics that surround us, it’s easy to feel like we are living in Paula’s world. What wasn’t designed by Paula?  

The 60s, 70s, and beyond

From here, Paula’s chart starts to sink, the chart of one’s later career becoming a bit bleak as peers begin to retire, and competition with younger talent becomes fierce. She describes one’s 60's as a time of waning power, one’s 70's as total decline, and ryely describes one’s 80's as a time for lifetime achievement awards. Despite leaving her 50’s, Paula is thriving, disproving the slump.

She does not see this life trajectory as cemented in stone. It is instead just a probability. “It is defiable by knowing it is probable.”

Text by Allegra Chen-Carrel

Images courtesy of Paula Scher