Thursday, 4:13pm
28 June 2012

Paula's got a big bad book (text in full)

Paula Scher: Make It Bigger

Princeton Architectural Press, &pound;32<br>

There’s a Seinfeld episode where Kramer hits on the idea of producing a coffee-table book about coffee-table books. I wonder how long it will be before somebody makes a design book about design books about designers. The past few years have seen a flurry of huge ‘vanity’ monographs by and about the likes of Milton Glaser, Bruce Mau, Tibor Kalman, Stefan Sagmeister, John Maeda and Vaughan Oliver. This has nothing to do with some sudden glut of designer famousness, but everything to do with a peculiar combination of professional hubris and the economics of publishing.

If these books function primarily as a way to showcase the achievements of their subjects, then they should also be understood as a rare opportunity for personal reflection: a vehicle through which a designer might publicly come to terms with his or her own oeuvre, weighing key projects for their relative longevity, and perhaps attempting some kind of provisional settlement regarding the work’s significance in relation to the cultural and political times from which they sprang. At their best, these books should provide us all with genuinely insightful commentary, reflected and refracted through the biographies of both the designers and the design work being spotlighted: in sum, then, to have value beyond their capacity to ‘show’, these books must really ‘tell’. The alternative is merely to witness an endless stream of glorified portfolios that simply stroke the egos of star designers, while also weighing down the shelves of aesthetes and wannabes.

It would be grossly unfair to heap all the shortcomings of these ‘big books’ at Paula Scher’s door, but it is also true to say that Make It Bigger, like most books in this genre, does very little to challenge them. Its title is a reference to Scher’s struggles with one particular client over the size of its logo on her famous Swatch poster, as well as her preference for designing record covers rather than CD packaging (‘I prefer to work bigger’). It also references her signature style of floating oversize type across the limited space available on posters, walls, floors, the exteriors of buildings, and the covers and edges of Make It Bigger.

Finally, it can be interpreted as a declaration of ambition. Many designers will appreciate the gathering together here of many of the highlights of Scher’s ascendancy, from her days as a relative ‘minion’ at CBS and Atlantic Records – replete with elaborate organisational charts showing her position in each hierarchy – through her adventures in publishing and teaching, to her justly celebrated work, as a Pentagram partner, for projects such as The Public Theater and Ballet Tech. The biggest surprise for some readers might be the extent to which Scher has explored her own recent fascination for producing staggeringly elaborate, hand-lettered posters and artworks.

The book’s title can also be interpreted as a reference to Scher’s concern with scale. This is most obvious in her inclusion of an oft-reproduced essay called ‘The Boat’, in which she thinks out loud about the potential significance of her role as the only female partner at Pentagram, and her relationship to feminism. She gathers these comments around a snapshot of a Pentagram boat-trip: ‘The photograph has made me look at my own professional situation and those of other women today as a matter of strange scale. I’m in the picture, but I’m not blown up in proportion to the new position.’ In sum, however, I still find the article maddeningly obtuse: Scher is willing to recognise the significance of gender at work, but not to the degree that it might have political consequences. Apparently, any kind of action on anybody’s part runs the risk of being labelled as tokenism, and is therefore unwarranted.

While it can be said with certainty (and certain relief) that Make It Bigger lacks the intellectual pretensions of a big book like Bruce Mau’s Life Style, it betrays a variety of anti-intellectual pretensions. I mean this in several ways: in the essays and footnotes that accompany reproductions of many of the most vivid highlights in this distinguished design oeuvre, Scher draws extensively on a kind of trade lore that produces one crushing binary opposition after another. For example: ‘Most publications fall into two basic categories: coping and craving’ (later, she characterises design writing in exactly the same way); designers must either ‘sell up’ or ‘sell down’; and, after George Lois, ‘There are smart people and dumb people. There are people who have energy and people who are lazy.’ While these handy-dandy adages might provide some measure of comfort for clueless young Turks, they seem dread-fully thin as the accumulated wisdom of a phenomenally successful designer with over 30 years’ experience.

This deep suspicion of the merest whiff of complexity and nuance is further illustrated by Scher’s abhorrence of the specialised languages and ideas of scholarship and criticism. This is most emphatically presented in her article ‘Back to Show and Tell’, a well known essay also reproduced in Make It Bigger. As is often the case with designers and design writers, Scher conflates the labels routinely attached to various stylistic fads (deconstruction, postmodernism) with the rather more substantial theories and terms of analysis to which these words also refer. (This pervasive tendency is vividly illustrated in a recent comment by Steven Heller, in which he deftly wraps two lively avenues of theoretical debate inside three dead-in-the-water design styles, and then chucks the whole lot into the trash: ‘Now that postmodernism, deconstruction, and grunge are history, the next new thing has yet to emerge.’ Introduction to Looking closer 4, Allworth Press, 2002.) By contrast, Scher is drawn again and again into what becomes, for her, the only admissible arena for complexity (aside from her positively Baroque hand-lettering projects) – designer/client relations. For example, with respect to both ‘coping and craving’ design writing, she says: ‘Neither addressed the complicated symbiotic relationship between designer and client.’

A piece of graphic design is one thing – the purported rationale provided by its creator is quite another. For example, instead of letting her (in)famous Swatch and Manhattan Records homages/rip-offs/parodies/ pastiches (call them what you will) sink or swim on their own, Scher attempts to post-rationalise her creative choices – but largely succeeds only in digging a hole for herself. Of the Swatch posters – a literal updating of a series of Swiss tourism ads by Herbert Matter – she says that ‘they were all simply crying out for a Swatch Watch. Better still, there were roughly the same number of letters in the word Schweiz as in Swatch. It was a natural match.’ Worse, she claims ultimately that it was all just a joke meant ‘for a very select audience’. Similarly, in adapting Piet Mondrian’s 1940s painting Broadway Boogie-Woogie for a record company’s graphic identity, she tells us that the ‘strongest attribute’ of this important piece of modern art ‘was that the painting’s color blocks could easily be reconfigured for a multitude of uses.’

As eye candy, Make It Bigger joins a venerable, if cloying, tradition of publishing; as brain food, it disappoints in many of the now-familiar ways we have come to expect of the genre. This is a ‘compromised form’, as Rick Poynor has noted. ‘It mingles motivations – the desire for critical credibility, the need for self-promotion, the urge to show off to colleagues and cut a dash – that cannot ultimately be reconciled.’ (Trace 2, June 2001.) The only way to make these publishing ventures really matter in any larger sense is to wrestle editorial control away from the stars concerned. Of course, this kind of argument is likely to elicit an ‘over-my-dead-body’ response from most graphic designers, and the evidence available implies that this is, quite literally, the case.