Designer Paula Scher on Drawing Inspiration From Uncharted Territory

The award-winning designer, a partner at Pentagram, discusses her work on the High Line logo, redoing MoMA's identity, and more. 

"Sometimes just ignore the brief and go and do it -- especially when you're not getting paid and it's Pittsburg and you have nothing to lose," the award-winning designer jokes in her presentation at the 99U conference. She's not really kidding, actually; for one particular project, this formula won the day. In the case studies she covers in her talk, below, she reveals the value in trying new things, even when it means skipping the initial brief or experimenting with a hybrid format. 

A partner at the renowned creative studio Pentagram, Scher describes how ideas can emerge from unexpected places: city landmarks or interpersonal dynamics. She begins by describing how she created the logo for Manhattan's High Line when the landmark was just a sparkle in its benefactors' eyes. From the logo, inspired by the railroad tracks that run along the structure, the fundraising effort took off and the iconic park was born.

About six and a half minutes into the video, she goes on to explain that redoing MoMA's graphic identity required not only a new design concept but a structural change to the way design decisions were made at the organization. She began the project by looking at the chaotic mix of brochures the museum was publishing: 

They look sort of similar and dissimilar at the same time. They all have ... artwork on them but they use the typography differently. If you walk into an institution and you wonder why that happens, it's because they're done in different departments, and the departments don't talk to each other and they're not functioning together as one brand and you gotta make them sit down and behave. I do this all the time, and it's sort of fun and interesting, but generally after I do it and we sell a new identity and we give them a fancy manual, the whole thing falls apart when I leave. And the reason it falls apart is that people tend to go back to their own behavior ... So I realized that after years of sort of watching these institutional identities semi-fail or make it, it would be good to operate from a whole other point of view. 

Her solution was not only to create the new identity, but to push the MoMA to hire an art director to centralize the decision-making process. The new design template, backed by a consistent vision, created a cohesive look for the museum for four years. Her lesson? "It's not the design, it's the people!"

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Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg is the executive producer for video at The AtlanticMore

Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg joined The Atlantic in 2011 to launch its video channel and, in 2013, create its in-house video production department. She leads the development and production of original documentaries, interviews, and other video content for The Atlantic. Previously, she worked as a producer at Al Gore’s Current TV and as a content strategist and documentary producer in San Francisco. She studied filmmaking and digital media at Harvard University.

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