The Great Discontent

Paula Scher

Paula Scher

Photo by John Madere

About Paula

Paula Scher has been at the forefront of graphic design for four decades. She began her career as an art director in the 1970s and early 80s, when her eclectic approach to typography became highly influential. Since 1991, she has been a principal in the New York office of Pentagram and has worked with a wide range of clients, including Bloomberg, Microsoft, the Museum of Modern Art, the Public Theater, the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Ballet, and others. Paula has taught at the School of Visual Arts for over two decades and has held teaching positions at Cooper Union, Yale University, and Tyler School of Art. She is a recipient of the National Design Award, the AIGA Medal, the Type Directors Club Medal, and is a member of the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame.

Interview date: October 31, 2013
Issue 110

Introduction

As Ryan and I walked from our Chelsea apartment to Pentagram’s Fifth Avenue office to meet with the iconic Paula Scher, we had one of those moments—you know, when you think, “Whoa, this is really happening!” We’ve interviewed quite a few people now, but having the chance to sit down face-to-face with a living legend like Paula was unbelievable—we were even a little nervous, although we had no reason to be. Paula was unassuming and charming as she recounted the path that led her into graphic design and, ultimately, to New York City. Surprisingly, Paula didn’t always know the path she would take. Like many of us, she struggled with belonging, even within her own family. But despite any adversities, Paula persisted in exploring her interests. She eventually came into her own and went on to create a prolific body of work that continues to shape how we think about design—and she’s not done yet! As you read on, be encouraged by Paula’s words: you might fail while you’re trying to find yourself, but it’s okay—that’s how you grow. —Tina

Interview

Describe your path to becoming a designer.

I drew a lot when I was growing up. I had a pretty unhappy childhood, and I used drawing as a reason to go off to my room and be alone. I find that I still retreat to that today: that’s part of why I paint now. It allows me to escape, and I feel better afterwards, but I find that when I’m really enjoying myself, I don’t draw (laughing).

When I was in high school, I took weekend art classes at Corcoran College of Art + Design, but I kept that to myself because it wasn’t a cool thing to do. It was okay later when I became the school publicity chairman and made all the posters for school dances and events.

In 1966, during the height of the 60s and the Vietnam War, I went to college at Tyler School of Art, and that’s where I came into my own. I went to college thinking I was going to be a painter, but I couldn’t really draw, so I tried other things. I couldn’t throw pots; I knocked my finger out of joint once when I took a metals class; and I rolled my finger through a printing press (laughing). It seemed like I wasn’t good at anything, but then, in my junior year, I discovered graphic design.

After graduating from Tyler in 1970, I moved to New York City. My first job was designing the inside of children’s books, but after that, I got a job in the promotion department of CBS Records. At the time, the promotion department was the “cootie department,” and the designers who worked in it weren’t considered as good as those who worked in the record cover department. In order to get a job designing covers, which is what I really wanted to do, I left CBS Records and worked at Atlantic Records because they housed promotions and covers in the same department. I worked at Atlantic for one year, and then got hired as the East Coast art director at CBS Records. I returned there in that new position when I was 25 years old.

For the next 10 years, I worked at CBS and was responsible for nearly 150 record covers each year. I approached work from what I would describe as a populist viewpoint: I designed things that mixed in popular culture with the goal of engaging people in the cover itself to make them interested in buying the record. That approach has continued to infuse everything I’ve done since. My current identity and environmental graphics work has the same approach to the work I was creating in the music industry. That early foundation was very important in solidifying how I think about things, even though styles and technologies have changed throughout the years. People often say that graphic design is ephemeral, but it’s not. Older designs are still seen in the mainstream; we interact with things that were designed a long time ago. I am amazed at how many people continue to remember the cover I did for Boston’s debut album 38 years ago.

Something else I learned from working in the music industry was how to present my work. Recording artists had contractual cover approval, which meant that I had to present the work to them, and they had to agree to it. I learned very early on how to explain my work to others, and how to get them to appreciate it. If I couldn’t sell my work, then I couldn’t get it made. That lesson has continued to be very important to everything I do.

When I finally left the record industry in 1982, I started a company with an old friend from school named Terry Koppel, who was a magazine designer. Our studio, Koppel & Scher, was a balance of editorial design and promotion packaging and covers. We worked together for seven years, until the first Gulf War in 1990. Then there was a recession and, suddenly, there were no magazines to design. Terry took an in-house job at Esquire, and I kept the business going by myself for about a year. Then Woody Pirtle, who was a partner at Pentagram, walked over to my studio and asked if I’d be interested in joining them. I was interested. I joined Pentagram in 1991 and I’ve stayed here ever since—it’s been 23 years.

Did you have an “aha” moment when you knew you wanted to be a designer?

I failed at everything else. As a child, I failed at everything but art. First, I was too scrawny; then I was too fat; my hair was never right; and I was never popular. But as the school artist, I was okay: that was the first place where I felt like I actually belonged.

At the end of my second year at Tyler, I had a teacher named Steve Tarantal, who later became president of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. He taught a sophomore course called Graphic Design, which was much different than the basic graphic design class I had during my first year. The first year course was taught in the Basel method, which meant cutting out pieces of paper, gluing them together, and moving them around on a page. I hated that because the exercises required me to be neat, and I was sloppy (laughing). When I took Tarantal’s course, it wasn’t about moving paper around on a page; it was about ideas—and I had them! That was terrific for me because I could make the things I thought up, and not worry about having good craft skills—and the more successful I felt in making my ideas happen, the better my craft skills became.

“In 1966, during the height of the 60s and the Vietnam War, I went to college at Tyler School of Art, and that’s where I came into my own. I went to college thinking I was going to be a painter, but I couldn’t really draw, so I tried other things…It seemed like I wasn’t good at anything, but then, in my junior year, I discovered graphic design.”

Have you had any mentors along the way?

A college professor named Stanislaw Zagorski was a very important mentor. He convinced me to move to New York and, in doing so, he changed my life and gave me my career. Zagorski’s’s class was a combination of illustration and design, which was great because I had always solved problems illustratively. At that time, the way to achieve typography in a comp was by rubbing down a piece of press type. Students ran out and bought Helvetica because there were good specimens of it available in press type. They would rub it down in the corner of the album covers they were making, but when I did it, it never lined up, and it bubbled and cracked and looked like hell (laughing). I didn’t know what I was doing, and I didn’t understand typography; I couldn’t see the form. One day, Stanislaw told me, “Illustrate with type,” and that was the best design advice I have ever received. Once I started to see type as something with spirit and emotion, I could really manipulate it. I never drew very well, so my ability to communicate feeling through typography became really important.

Zagorski sent me to New York to meet Harris Lewine, who was a book jacket art director for Random House. Harris asked if I wanted to meet Seymour Chwast, and I did. I met him, then we dated, and then I married him: I owe all of that to Zagorski.

Seymour was another mentor of mine in that he taught me a lot about everything. When I met him, I was really young—I was only 22. He’s 17 years older than me, so he was already established and famous as a partner with Milton Glaser at Push Pin Studios. They did fantastic work that influenced my whole way of thinking about life and design.

By the end of the 1970s, I had begun to come into my own as a designer. Around that time, I had a mentor who was an older female friend named Henrietta Condak. She was an art director who worked part-time because she was married with two kids, but she was the most brilliant designer. She and I sort of rediscovered 20th century modernism: the Constructivists, Dadaism, De Stijl—all the popular movements from 1914 to 1940. We began to work in those forms, and people started calling it “Retro Postmodernism” or something like that, but we were just experimenting with style. It was fantastic! That’s where I developed a lot of my visual vocabulary and created a lot of those pieces that are still well-known, like the “Best of Jazz” poster, which I designed in 1979.

[Tina] Did you move to New York right after college?

Yes. I moved to New York with my portfolio and $50.

[Tina] Wow. Tell us about that. What did your parents think?

You have to realize that I worked my way through college, so I was already fairly independent. I did not have a good relationship with my parents because nobody in my family was like me. I had felt like a complete misfit for a lot of years, until I got to Tyler, where I started to see people like me. I knew I couldn’t go back to live a suburban lifestyle in Washington, DC.

[Tina] Yeah, I was going to ask where you grew up.

I was born in Washington, DC. From there, my family moved to Arlington, VA; then to Fairfax County, VA; and then to Silver Spring, MD, where I went to elementary and high school.

My dad worked for the US Geological Survey, making maps. He was a photogrammetric engineer, and when I was a little kid, he invented a device in our basement. It was called stereo templates. The device looked like a piece of cardboard with three holes cut out of it. It corrected the lens distortion in aerial photography and enabled the government to make more accurate maps. Google Maps is based on his invention, which he gave to the government for $1,500 (laughing).

Whoa! So, what did your parents think about you moving to New York?

When I told my mother that I was going to move to New York, she said, “Oh Paula, don’t do anything like that. That sounds like it takes talent.”

[Tina] But you moved here anyway. Did you know anyone?

I had an aunt here, who I liked, because she was always so accepting of me. I lived with her in Queens for about three weeks. I also had a couple friends from college who moved here, so I lived with various girlfriends for the first two years. We lived in sublets, so we always had to move.

That inspired me to write a children’s book called The Brownstone. The book was about a bunch of animals who lived in a brownstone apartment in the city. There is a bear who wants to go to sleep for the winter, but a cat is taking piano lessons next door, so all the animals have to move apartments six or seven times to work everything out. The whole book is a cutaway of the building with illustrations of the animals moving furniture up and down the stairs. When I worked at Random House, I had met an illustrator named Stan Mack, and he asked me if he could illustrate it. I never had a text, so I gave him a set of diagrams of the cutaways. He took the story to Knopf to get published, and it was a hit. It stayed in print for 20 years.

I moved six times during my first year and a half in New York. Like every kid living in a studio apartment, I started accumulating more stuff each time I moved. Initially, I had nothing and shared an apartment with two or three people; then Seymour and I got married, and I moved in with him.

environmental graphic for Achievement First
Environmental graphics designed for Achievement First charter school in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn

“When I told my mother that I was going to move to New York, she said, ‘Oh Paula, don’t do anything like that. That sounds like it takes talent.’”

[Tina] I hear New York has changed a lot since then.

It was really rough and tumble, but it was also exciting. It was the time of Max’s Kansas City, and there were all kinds of clubs everywhere, but you could still be poor and live here—I remember living on 35 cents for a weekend and being fine.

I always tell my students that life is really just. When you start out, you don’t have any money, unless your parents support you. Why would you have any money? You’re just starting. Because you don’t have any money, you don’t have any stuff. At that age, it doesn’t matter what kind of mattress you sleep on, but by the time you’re 40, it starts to matter. But by then, you have more money (laughing).

There are things you can do in your 20s that you cannot do in your 40s, and certainly not later. In your 20s, you stay up all night without thinking about it.

[Tina] I can’t do that anymore (laughing).

I used to be totally nocturnal. You live your life like that, and then it changes.

Has there been a point when you decided to take a big risk to move forward?

Leaving CBS Records in 1982 was a risk. I quit a fantastic job as a cover designer to go out on my own. All the little risks I took were sort of like all the apartments I had moved into: I was finding the right spot. When I first got to CBS at 25, it was great. I designed covers that were square; I made the fronts of squares and the backs of squares; sometimes the squares opened up horizontally, and if I was really lucky, they’d give me a poster that was rectangular. However, as I grew as a designer, I started having broader expectations, and then I didn’t want to make squares anymore. I wanted to design something in another form—I wanted to do a magazine.

When I left CBS, I was pretty well-known as an art director and I had won awards from Communication Arts, Graphis, AIGA, and the Art Director’s Club. I would get my work into all of their competitions, and if there was a record cover category, I would clean up. I had also worked with every illustrator on the planet, which helped promote my work even more. I was a bit of a wunderkind: I joined the board of AIGA when I was 30, and I was the youngest person there. I met Massimo Vignelli; Colin Forbes, the founder of Pentagram; Woody Pirtle; and Michael Vanderbyl—and we became friends and compatriots. Unfortunately, I had visibility, but I didn’t have self-assurance. I wanted to leave CBS to do something else, but I couldn’t get a job as a magazine art director because I had no magazine experience—it didn’t matter that I had an incredible reputation in one area. The only way I could do magazine design was by on a freelance basis. I got a contract from Time to develop a magazine called Quality. They had hired three other designers to work on the project separately, at the same time, but they chose me because they thought it would be interesting to see what someone who had no magazine experience would do.

After that, I knew I had to start my own business if I wanted to keep moving. I was beginning to learn that if you get good at something and become known for it, then it’s time to change it. If you don’t, you’ll be stuck and people will get tired of it. You’ve got to grow. Sometimes that means putting yourself in a position where you might fail or do bad work for a while because you’re still finding yourself, but I’m prepared to deal with those sorts of periods in order to grow.

Another risk was moving out on my own after I divorced Seymour. I had always shared an apartment with friends or my husband, so I was living on my own for the first time in my life. I got my own apartment, bought my own car, went to therapy, and started my own business. I was finally being myself, but it took me a while. Seymour and I were actually married twice. We were married through my 20s, were divorced for nearly six years, and then got back together. But we dated in the middle, so it was a little weird (laughing).

[Tina] You mentioned your parents earlier. Are your family and friends supportive of what you do, or do they recognize your success?

My mom and dad were proud of me afterwards. They’d brag about it to their friends later on, but when I was growing up, they didn’t get it at all. My niece went into design and became an art director, but it was easier for her; I wonder if she would have been more ambitious about it if it hadn’t been easy. There’s something to be said for adversity.

[Tina] I do wonder about that.

It depends on who you are and what your personality is like, but I think adversity worked for me.

[Tina] It does seem to motivate some people.

I always had external political and philosophical feelings about what I wanted to do. For instance, I don’t think of myself as a feminist in the tradition of Betty Friedan, but I thought it was outrageous whenever somebody thought I couldn’t be a good designer because I was a woman. That is the most stupid, arrogant, and bigoted type of thinking. I thought, “Screw you! Get out of my way (laughing)!” I still feel that way—not because I think I’m part of the sisterhood movement, but because I think it’s outrageous! Why would anybody think that?

Some of it is still rebelliousness against my parents. They tried to pigeonhole me into an expectation of life with a suburban value structure. When I got to college, I was strong enough to analyze it, and that idea stays with me in all kinds of situations. I’ll walk into a corporation that has a certain mindset about what they’re supposed to look like or how they’re supposed to talk to their public, and I’ll say, “That’s stupid! Why are you doing that (laughing)?” I don’t have a problem blurting it out—with a little more charm than that, of course.

(all laughing)

“…if you get good at something and become known for it, then it’s time to change it. If you don’t, you’ll be stuck and people will get tired of it. You’ve got to grow. Sometimes that means putting yourself in a position where you might fail or do bad work for a while because you’re still finding yourself…”

New York Public Theatre poster
Promotional poster series for a theater production that debuted at the New York Shakespeare Festival/Public Theater in 1995
Bloomberg environmental graphics
Environmental graphics for Bloomberg L.P.’s headquarters located on the east side of Midtown Manhattan

Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something bigger than yourself?

Yes, I do. I think graphic design is an important profession because it’s part of what we put out into the world, and it’s what people see and perceive. It’s not just about doing design for the “public good.” The design community currently thinks that if you design something to help the victims of Hurricane Sandy, then that’s good, but if you design something for a bank, then that’s bad. I disagree. I think all design matters and all design deserves to be intelligent.

Obviously, we don’t want to advertise products that are horrible for people because that’s immoral. But if we can raise the expectation of what something can be, then we’ve done a huge service for our community. For example, consider the way most strip malls and shopping centers think they have to appear and behave: it’s horrible. Why can’t there be a different kind of experience? Why can’t we see them as something potentially terrific? There’s an architect named James Wines, whose Structure In the Environment architecture firm designed facades for a chain of BEST stores in the 1970s. He took big box stores and turned them into fantastic outdoor sculptures. He raised the expectation of what those experiences could be.

To me, that’s the most responsible design there is: taking something “bad” and making it terrific by raising the expectation. That’s what we do. I don’t know how to distribute water to people in India; I’m not trained to do that. I’m trained to make an intelligent piece of design exist in public so that people can interact with it. That’s my role, and I think that’s what the goal is.

[Tina] Are you creatively satisfied?

Sometimes. I’m never done. I’m more interested in what I’m going to do than work I’ve already accomplished. My favorite projects are the ones that I haven’t finished yet: I think they will be the best thing I’ve ever done before they get screwed up (laughing). There’s always a moment when I think a project is going to be really amazing—that’s the moment I love, and it’s what I live for. The best time is when you see what’s possible. When it’s over, it’s not possible, it just is. The future is always more interesting.

[Tina] That said, is there anything you want to explore in the next 5 to 10 years?

I have started a couple projects that I like. I did a mural for a public school that allowed me to marry environmental graphics with painting. I want to do more of that. Environmental graphics has become a much bigger industry than it used to be. I’ve been experimenting with all kinds of materials that I haven’t worked with before. My partner, Abbot Miller, and I are collaborating on a project of immense scale in Florida, which we’re excited about because we’re doing things we don’t know how to do.

Being in that position is wonderful. When I’m doing things that are repetitious—when I know what the client is going to say before they say it—then it’s depressing. I’ve been in that position too many times. I’m happiest when I don’t know what the day will be like. I like it when I can walk around, free-fall a little bit, and free-associate, because that’s when I do my best work. I live with a balance of design, painting, and teaching, and those are the three things that I’d like to keep in balance.

What advice would you give to a young person starting out in design?

I’m worried about what happens to designers with technology. I think I’m really lucky because I’m not a part of any computer software generation—I was already a mature designer when the world computerized. I have students who are in their 40s now, and unless they become thought leaders in some form, they’re almost unemployable because their skills with software are minimal. Then I see students from four years ago, or interns from SVA, who are faster and know more computer programs, so they have more than just rough skills to bring to the table.

I think it’s very important for young designers to do two things. One: spend the first one to five years learning how to design and present design from somebody who is terrific at it. Having that basic understanding will carry you through the rest of their career. The second is this: develop the ability to explain, defend, and promote your work. Those are the two most important things.

If a young designer’s software skills are spectacular, but they’re assisting all the time, then they won’t get anything out of it. They have to be able to take that next step, which might mean going out on their own. The danger is getting trapped as a technologist. You need to be able to ride past the technology by understanding what it can do, who you are, and where you want to take it. You don’t want technology to lead you; you want to lead it, but it’s very hard to do that when you’re in the middle of it.

[Ryan] That’s great advice.

[Tina] It’s amazing what young people can create on a computer.

[Ryan] Yeah, but if the business sense isn’t there—

Then they can’t convince somebody to buy it.

[Tina] That’s why it’s so ridiculous to meet people who are good with technology, but have no leadership or interpersonal skills. It doesn’t make for a very balanced person.

I’m suspicious of people who don’t understand those skills. My team collaborates with me, but I’m the team leader. There isn’t a team doing things in and of themselves: somebody has to lead. I collaborate across disciplines, and if I don’t know how to do something, then that’s where collaboration really happens. I think the notion that you’re just going to sit and create a singular design within a committee is crazy—it’s going to be homogenized and turned into Muzak. The notion that a group of people can sit in a room and make something better by sticking a bunch of Post-it notes describing attributes on a wall is silly (laughing). I’m sorry, but nothing well-designed comes out of committees.

[Ryan] No, I love it (laughing).

[Tina] We appreciate the honesty. So, you’ve lived in New York for a long time: how does it impact your work and creativity?

To a degree, I think New York has made my work look the way it does. People are impacted by where they’re from. Some of it is the influence of their collective community, and some of it is the landscape. A lot of my work is very architectural; I use type in all caps and make it long and thin, powerful and loud. My work is structured like New York and is very gridded and sometimes angled. In the 80s, Stephen Doyle said, “It’s funny. If you saw April Greiman’s work next to my work, you’d know that she was definitely from LA and I was from New York.” The sensibility of each city is inherent.

[Tina] You must have some great stories about New York. Is there anything that stands out in all your years here, personal or professional? What was it like being here for the first time?

People said outrageous things (laughing). I just remember being hit on in funny ways and being asked for money. I was walking down the street one day and everyone was asking me for a quarter. When I got to the next corner, I had a guy ask me for a dollar. I said, “Wait a minute—it was only a quarter a few blocks back (laughing)!”

Here’s another thing I’ll never forget. Close to 40 years ago, I was standing on a bus, holding onto the pole. There was a little old Jewish lady in front me, and next to her was a young woman who was loudly chewing gum. The young woman went on smacking her lips for about 20 minutes until, all of a sudden, the little old lady yelled out, “Enough already! It’s disgusting! At least close your mouth (laughing)!”

[Tina] People do speak their minds here.

During my first year in New York, I had to take three subway trains to Random House from where I lived on the Upper West Side. At first, I thought, “Here I am with the community of New York on the subway. Isn’t this romantic?” A month later, I thought, “Oh God, I’ve got to change trains again on this damn subway (laughing)!” Later, I moved so that I could walk to work because I never wanted to have to take the subway again—the romance of it had faded fast.

[Tina] People see New York on TV and it does feel very romantic. Once you live here, it feels very different. We’re not out sight-seeing all day.

I work for a lot of theaters here, so I can get any seat I want, for any Broadway show, at any time—and I never go. I never do anything; I get out of town on the weekends, but I never do anything in the city. When my childhood friends come to town, they ask, “Ooh, can you get tickets to this show?” I can, and I do, but I don’t go. Because I’m in it, not on the outside watching it.

[Tina] Ryan and I haven’t been to a Broadway show yet, and we’ve barely been to any of the museums here. On the weekends, we’re just trying to unwind from the work week.

I work with MoMA, so I go there for meetings, but I don’t have time to go to the museum. Because of my relationship with the people there, I can go through it at night by myself with a guard. I’ve done that a couple times, and it’s amazing. But whenever I’m in London, which is about three times a year, I run over to the Tate Museum, thinking, “I’m in London! I’ve got to go to the Tate!” I just don’t do that in New York (laughing).

[Tina] I always forget that we have all these amazing resources at our fingertips in New York. I didn’t grow up having that, so I need to take advantage of it here.

It isn’t that you have to take advantage of it. You just have to know it’s there, because God forbid it isn’t there. What if you wake up in Omaha and it isn’t there? When I’m coming back into New York from traveling and I see the skyline, I always realize how much I’ve missed it.

[Tina] Agreed! Is it important to you to be part of a creative community?

Yes, it’s very important. My partners at Pentagram stimulate and inspire me; I compete with them, and I like the intellectual stimulation. I was president of an organization called Alliance Graphic International for the past three years, and I have friends all over the world who are terrific designers. I’ve learned a lot from them and they make my work better.

[Ryan] What does a typical day look like for you?

I have a project coordinator named Sarah, who sets my schedule up, but I balance three major things: getting business, doing business, and educating. If I’m getting business, that means writing a proposal or meeting with a client, showing them Pentagram’s work and talking about whether or not there’s synergy. If I’m doing business, then I’m designing. And if I’m not doing business, then I’m doing something like this.

[Tina] Are your hours pretty routine?

I get to work around 9:30am and usually go home around 7pm. I used to work much longer days—my staff still does, but I don’t. I’m mostly directing my team, whether I do it in person or am phoning in from a project location. I talk to my team about what they should be doing, they send me work, I give them a critique, and they do more work.

[Tina] You mentioned having a work-life balance in one of your talks. Some people tell us they don’t separate their work from their life, and others say it’s important to make a distinction. What are your thoughts?

I think everybody has a different prescription for what balance is. Pentagram is collaborative and social, but my weekend life with Seymour is private and removed, and that balance works very well for me. I do my paintings in that balance. I’m generally in New York four days a week and in the country for three. I don’t have children, but if I did, my schedule would probably be different: maybe that part of my life would have been spent another way. I think everybody makes their own decisions about how they make that balance work for them and what makes them feel the most comfortable. For me, I have to have change and stability. They seem like opposites, but they’re really not: the stability is knowing that I have familiar places, and the change is mixing up what’s going on in those places.

[Tina] That keeps it exciting.

I worry when I read things about work-life balance. I don’t think of design as a job. I think of it—and I hate to use this term for it—more like a calling. If you’re just doing it because it’s a nice job and you want to go home and do something else, then don’t do it, because nobody needs what you’re going to make. I design because I love it. There’s nothing I’d rather do than embark on something I haven’t designed yet, and try to figure out how to make it. I think it’s totally fun. Maybe it’s selfish to say so, but that’s why I do it. I don’t do it because I’m trying to make money or fill eight hours of a day.

[Tina] There are plenty of jobs that let you fulfill eight hours of a day (laughing).

I was told about a study from an organization called Taproot. They ran research on various professions to see how certain creative people felt about their careers. Product designers and architects thought they lived creative lives, and fine artists thought they lived very creative lives, but graphic designers scored about the same as people who work in human resources.

[Ryan] Really?

I’m not surprised by it after actually thinking about it. There are so many people all over the United States who are designing banner ads for websites.

[Tina] You mentioned that your husband also does creative work. What is it like being married to another creative person?

I don’t know if I would have worked as hard or as long if I hadn’t married him, because he has work habits that are unbreakable. He’s a genuine artist: he gets up every day and draws. That’s who he is. That’s the norm. We don’t go skiing together or anything like that. I used to play sports as a kid and sometimes I think, “Maybe there’s a sport that he and I could do together?” I garden, but he doesn’t garden; I swim, but he doesn’t swim. Don’t we need a sport (laughing)? I don’t feel like a real American in that sense.

Do you have any favorite albums you’ve been listening to?

I like a mix of things. I began to love classical jazz a number of years ago. For painting, there’s nothing better than jazz. It actually puts me in another mindset, and all of it is great, whether it’s classical jazz or Miles Davis’ fusion stuff. I also like the Robert Plant and Allison Krauss album, Raising Sand, which is just incredible. I didn’t know what to expect from Led Zeppelin and Alison Krauss, but it’s terrific. I also like rap music, but I don’t listen to it unless it’s already on. In the car, The Rolling Stones are the best (laughing). When it comes to driving with rock and roll, nobody does it like they do: the first licks are always great. Springsteen is good in the car, too, but the Rolling Stones are better.

Do you have any favorite movies or TV shows?

Like everybody, I love Mad Men, but I don’t watch a lot of TV, because I’m usually out late. Generally, I work until about 7:30pm and go out to dinner with friends, so I don’t get home until 11 or 11:30pm. When I get home, I’ll usually watch The Daily Show and The Colbert Report before I go to sleep.

I probably watch more movies than television. I don’t like the responsibility of having to watch a show at a specific time. The way we watched Mad Men was by buying the whole series and watching it in three days. I like what that show is: I think it’s the best story around, and the characters are well-developed. If I’m bouncing around channels late at night and The Newsroom is on HBO, I’ll watch that. And I’ll watch some of Girls because I know Lena Dunham—I went to school with her mom. What’s great is when Seymour and I go away to a place without television, like an island vacation, and just watch shows on our computer the whole time we’re there.

[Tina] That’s what we do when we take a vacation, too (laughing). Do you have any favorite books?

Of all-time or right now?

[Tina] Either.

If I read a book, it tends to be political, but at this moment in time I can’t think of any. I read something last year that I can’t even remember the title of, but I really liked it. I read Keith Richard’s Life—but that doesn’t count (laughing)—and I read Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. I read the big ones when they come out, but I read them on airplanes.

I’m not really reading now, though. I’m a political junkie, so I read a million magazines and newspapers online. I’ll either get up in the morning and read them or read them before I go to sleep at night. I do that more than watching television. I used to read novels, but I totally stopped. I think I just got subsumed with Internet reading. I’ll go into strange fits of obsession when I read about things online. For instance, I was totally obsessed with the debt crisis and with how dysfunctional Congress is. I was reading about that all the time, getting outraged, finding another story that outraged me even more, and then talking about it all the time. I can’t do anything about it, but I’ve got to see what happens!

[Tina] Are you still following the debt crisis, or did you give up?

I’m interested in the backlash about it. I’m on every political mailing list, so I got a petition from MoveOn.org that said they were going to sue Congress for sedition. It was interesting to me because it kind of was sedition: they willfully disrupted government and caused the economy a lot of trouble. I felt affected by the economy in 2011 because I feel the economic repercussions of my clients. They get really tight with their money, they don’t assign projects, they hold back, and it gets artificially slow. Then it loosens up and everything flows again. It’s not the client: it’s the government doing that to the economy. Actually, it’s not government—it’s five people in one party. It’s really disgusting. I think it’s outrageous and I don’t understand why we’re not all out in the streets screaming about it. I’m obsessed with that kind of stuff.

What is your favorite food?

Artichokes.

[Tina] In what form?

I liked them fried; I like them boiled; I like them whole with a little bit of butter; I like them sliced into a salad after they’re cooked; and I like them with various meats and fish. They’re amazing.

What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?

Oh, God—I’m just trying to get through the week (laughing)! I don’t want to be burdened with having to worry about that. It’s hard enough to get the job done.interview close

Maps book
The cover of Paula’s MAPS book—which features 39 paintings, drawings, prints, and environmental installations—unfolds into a poster

“I don’t think of design as a job. I think of it as—and I hate to use this term for it—more of a calling. If you’re just doing it because it’s a nice job and you want to go home and do something else, then don’t do it, because nobody needs what you’re going to make.”

Merlin Mann GMUNK