Episode 36: An inside look at design legend Paula Scher’s influential career
Episode 36 of Overtime features one of the most influential graphic designers in the world—Paula Scher. In this episode, Dan and Paula discuss her early work at CBS Records, the joy of typographic expression, and creating opportunities for yourself. They also go behind the scenes of her vast collection of work including the stories behind identities for The Public Theater, Microsoft Windows 8, and more.
This episode is brought to you by Wix. Push the limits of design and start creating beautiful, impactful websites that are uniquely yours at wix.com/dribbble.
Links Mentioned in Overtime
- Paula Scher
- Pentagram on Twitter
- Pentagram on Instagram
- See Paula Scher’s Classic Album Covers Featured on Spanish Vogue Press
- Victor Moscoso
- Terry Koppel of Koppel & Scher
- Microsoft Windows 8
Dan: Welcome to Overtime, Paula Scher.
Dan: Hi. It’s such a pleasure to have you, a real honor. I want to thank you right off the bat for just taking the time today to talk with us. I’m a huge fan, I know there’s a lot of huge fans out there of your work and your career. It spans just this large breadth of amazing stuff you’ve done. It’s almost difficult to decide where to start. I think I’d like to just start with your time at CBS Records as an album cover designer. You spent, I think it’s 10 years there in the beginning of your career.
Dan: There’s a couple things I wonder, one is, what a great job, what an awesome job that probably is for someone starting out. Also, was music a big influence on your life prior to that? I also heard that your style for the album cover designs was born out of a hate for Helvetica. I wanted to start there, with something controversial.
Paula: There’re a lot of questions there. First of all, I was in the record industry for 10 years, from 1972 to 1982. It was a little bit circuitous because I was originally hired to be an advertising designer at CBS Records, which was a band department. The work wasn’t especially good. I wanted to design record covers. Because I designed ads, I was hired at Atlantic Records. I was hired to do their advertising, but they did the covers and advertising in the same department there.
Paula: I made about 25 record covers at Atlantic, many of the ones that were very early. They won awards. CBS hired me back for the cover department. I was in the industry for 10 years, but I wasn’t at CBS technically for 10 years.
Dan: I see. Right.
Paula: That’s just a clarification. Then, you asked me about Helvetica and my record covers.
Paula: When I was in college, Helvetica was part of the visual landscape in design school. Designers would make images that were in a modernist style, and they would buy press type that had Helvetica on it, and they would run Helvetica down in the corner of whatever the assignment was, whether it’s a book jacket or record cover. It would look very clean and very good, except for it all looked the same. I was much more inspired when I was in college, by really exciting album cover art, things that were done by MouseStudios on the West Coast, or Victor Moscoso, of even Hypnosis, but things that had much bigger and individualism attached to them. What I became interested in were those things that were influenced by historic faces. And to me, Helvetica was the enemy, it meant you were slick, you were commercial, and it was politically questionable because it was the language of all big corporations that were supporting the Vietnam War.
Paula: As politically active as I was in those days, you didn’t do that because you didn’t want to look like that. And so I think this is true of youth culture all the time, that you attach meaning to things that don’t really have that meaning, they’re neutral, but you see them in the context of living within a certain milieu and you make a value judgment. The period that I’m describing is later described as post modernism. But none of us knew that. None of us called it that, we were just not doing Swiss International Style.
Dan: Yeah, I remember hearing that you learned a ton on the job doing all those covers.
Paula: I would say probably the biggest point of it maybe, from 1976 to 1980, at the height of the record industry and success of the record industry, I used to responsible for 150 covers a year, out of which-
Dan: Oh wow.
Paula: Maybe were good and three were excellent.
Dan: Wow. That’s amazing. Typography became important to you at this time as well. Going from large photos of the artist perhaps, to more of a typographic lens on the cover. How did that arise, your love for typography and how it related to the covers that you were designing?
Paula: Well there were two separate things at play. In the beginning, I was an art director. And my job was to make images for these recording artists, who’d come in my office and explain what they were about. I’d listen to some of their music, and the band usually was off the title of the album, or something that the band held dear to them, that we would express. And largely they were photographs. I art directed a lot of photography, and a lot of it was terrible mediocre. A lot of it was hiring stylists and picking out clothes for these mostly guy bands and they were more or less interchangeable.
Paula: And then there would be the big recording artists that would come and would be getting more albums done, and they would have a lot of power. Like Bruce Springsteen handed me two shots that were the images for Darkness on the Edge of Town, and really they were Polaroids taken by his butcher.
Paula: I put typewriter type on them. Or if I was working with Cheap Trick, and there was a photographer named Jim Houghton, who would shoot them all the time. We would have to cut up all the photographs and put different heads on different bodies because the band never liked what they looked like totally in any given point.
Dan: No way.
Paula: It was crazy stuff like that.
Dan: Wow. They were their own bodies or different bodies completely?
Paula: Their own bodies. The worst instance of it, it started from the moment I started working with them. I think I did five covers with them. There was an album called Dream Police, and they were all handcuffed to themselves, and they were wearing both police uniforms and regular street clothes. And in that image, I think every head and every body was attached. It was, you cut out a head from one picture, and you put it on another body. There was no computer. You were doing this by hand, and the retoucher would have to stand the photograph so you couldn’t see the line of the cut, it was quite a production.
Paula: But I found, as I started making these things, and a lot of them were illustrations as well that when the cover got finished, the person that always got the credit was either the photographer or the illustrator, and being an art director seemed to be not a star like position, you were playing in back field. And I wanted to explore things that were typographic. I began to make relationships with the project managers, the people that were the product managers, people that were assigned to recording artists to help them through the company to get their work done. These people were really great to me, because if I would cooperate and put up with a really obnoxious recording artist, they would give me an album cover to design that nobody cared about, I could do whatever I wanted. And that’s when I did most of my typographic explorations.
Dan: Which is great. You did that for years, and then left actually, right? Left CBS-
Paula: The record industry went through massive changes. There were a series of layoffs in the ’80s that, it was a compulsion. It was a business where one year had to do better than the next, since I think the ’50s, since the record was invented in 1948. Because people would acquire a 33 1/3 collection, and replace it with an 8-track collection, and replace it with a cassette collection, they would buy new albums from new artists until it saturated. And then CDs came in, and CBS really wasn’t at the top of its game, and there was a recession, and things stopped selling so they began laying people off one after the other. And it was a very oppressive time. Some of it was good for me because I was a type designer, I could accomplish an album cover without buying any outside art, so it was cheap for the company. That’s also a period I did a lot of typographic expression.
Paula: But by 1992, I’d had it. And also, I’d made about a mile of record covers, and I wanted to work on something that wasn’t a square.
Dan: I remember hearing that, you said you didn’t want to make any squares anymore, and try something new. And you also said something that’s interesting, along the lines of if you get really good at something, and become known for it, as you had, then maybe that’s the time to start something new and change it.
Paula: You have to, because when you do something very well and you’re an expert, you have nowhere to go but down. It’s very hard to reinvent an area where you’re really totally known for a thing, because whoever is coming to you is expecting you to do whatever that thing is, and that’s dead.
Dan: Yeah, that makes total sense. I think a lot of people get comfortable. I think that’s one of the things that’s striking about your career, is that you’ve gone through sop many different phases of it, and yet have really excelled in every aspect of that.
Paula: It was the things you never saw.
Dan: Right, that’s true. I haven’t seen anything like that yet. After leaving CBS, what happened then? You decided to start your own practice, I believe.
Paula: It was a little more circuitous than that. I reasoned that I would keep some of the relationships I had with the project managers at CBS, the product managers, and they would give me album covers to do on the outside, which they did. And at the same time, I had gone around with my portfolio and I met all these book jacket art directors, because I reasoned that it was a short hop between records and books, and that I could start a business. But what I really wanted to do was design a magazine. And I found, I interviewed for a lot of magazine jobs, but I had to take a job as assistant art director, which seemed to me to be a step down, because I had been senior art director East Coast of CBS Records with this mammoth amount of responsibilities, so I didn’t want to be an assistant art director at a magazine.
Paula: So I tried to get to design them freelance. I was asked by Time Inc. to develop a magazine called Quality, and Quality was a magazine about taste, and about upscale lifestyle, and about art, and music, and all these things. They had Mossimo designing a version of it, Mossimo Giannulli, they had Milton and Walter Bernard designing a version of it, and they though it’d be fun to give it somebody who didn’t have any magazine experience, so they gave one to me. And everybody was making prototypes. And Milton, and Walter, and Mossimo had big firms, and I was just a freelancer, so they had me come in and work on it in house. And then I worked on it in house, and they never launched any of those magazines.
Paula: But I had another idea of making a magazine for single women. And it was about lifestyles of people dating, and I think it was called Together or something like that. It was actually a terrible idea for a magazine. But I made a prototype of it and they decided to invest in it, and they were going to launch it, and so I had to put together a magazine department. I really had never run a magazine before, and I got really nervous about it. I hired a person I knew named Terry Koppel, I went to college with him. He was from the Boston Globe and he came back down to New York, he just moved to New York and he was looking for work, and I had him come up and work with me to put out this magazine. We were in magazine development, and we were locked in to this room, literally locked in, because it was top secret, nobody could know what we were doing. And it was actually a stupid magazine, and the whole place was a bit creepy, to be quite honest.
Paula: But we had a great time. We were just laughing in there all day long, making jokes about everybody and everything, and mostly the magazine we were working on. And out of it, we decided to go into partnership and start up a business. The assumption was he’d be the editorial designer and I would be the more identity promotion, cover designer. The business was called Koppel & Scher, and we launched it in 1984.
Dan: Wow. You mentioned earlier about creating album covers in the ’70s, there’s no computer that does this, there’s no Photoshop or anything to lean on. Was that the case too when you started, was a lot of your work analog as opposed to digital at that stage as well?
Paula: It was totally analog until about 1992.
Dan: Yeah, wow. What did it feel like in terms of-
Paula: I think about half and half. I think that it splits down the middle. That makes sense too.
Dan: I think a lot of your identity work in branding and type, you’re probably not required to use a computer all that much. Or are you?
Paula: No, I’ll just skip right over it. When you talk to the computer and it does what it tells you without touching a keyboard or a screen, I’m in.
Dan: I’m a little jealous actually. I think I’d love to do less computer work.
Paula: I turned out to be lucky actually. I’ve been teaching at the School of Visual Arts since 1982, a very long time.
Dan: Wow yeah.
Paula: I took a couple years off, but almost straight. I taught kids before the computer, and like Gail Anderson was my student then, and Drew Hodges, who founded SpotCo, they were all kids in my class. And then in the ’90s, they were becoming computerized in the early ’90s. In the ’80s, it was hard to make stuff because you spent a lot of time cutting things. And the kids were up all night, they needed the workshop, and they could get things stuck to their bodies, the waxing machine glued their fingers together, or whatever. You know, it was all about mess. In the early ’90s, it was about what the computer could do, not what you could make. Kids didn’t design type on it’s side, because the computer couldn’t do that. You would have to print it out of the computer, and paste it back on, and then re-scan it, and put it back into the computer. It was a big deal.
Paula: It was harder than just taking the type, cutting it, and making it mechanical. Or they didn’t have the font that was right. The school only had seven fonts, and I didn’t know where to buy the fonts. So the processes were all about this stuff that really doesn’t have very much to do with design. It has much more to do with what can this machine do? And I felt bad for those kids because they had to spend so much time with really crappy technology. And the early Adobe fonts weren’t very good, kerning on everything was bad. And some things were just poorly drawn.
Paula: When I think about those kids, what happened to them is that each year, if they didn’t grow, or find a position where they were in control of how something was going to be made and what it would look like, they would pretty much stay at a low level position. And the kids the following year would be more adept at the new software. So this would go on, and on, and on until the past three years. My past three years of teaching, the technology is truly an extension of these kids’ hands. And they can work equally facile on any myriad of programs, and they make things that are appropriate to the project and technology is actually irrelevant.
Paula: It’s not that they were saying, “I’m going to make this because this software program does this.”
Paula: Because they thought of it, and they can’t. And that’s not that different from me.
Dan: I remember reading you were saying don’t get trapped as a technologist-
Paula: Well it’s going to change.
Dan: Yeah, right, because it’s going to change. And I think that’s really great to keep in mind, I often get trapped I think. I’m guilty of that. You also said something that’s really great, is computers don’t smell like an art supply. It smells like a car, which I think is brilliant.
Paula: It’s this mechanical object. It’s cold, it doesn’t … If you go to my studio in the country, I’ve got paint brushes that are gooey. And they’re a tactile thing, and they involve smell, and hands, and you sort of use your body to do it.
Paula: That’s what I had missed, because when I was a record cover designer, I used to comp my own typography by taking a clear piece of acetate, and painting the type in the style of the typeface, as close as I could get, on top of what was called treated acetate, so you could see it on the record cover. All of that went away, so I felt for a period of time, like my art went away.
Dan: Huh. Wow, that’s fascinating.
Paula: That’s why I made MAPS.
Dan: Yes, exactly. And I want to talk about those for sure, it’s incredible stuff. Is that part of the reason you started painting the MAPS, is because you wanted to get back to creating stuff with your hands and that was an outlet for that?
Paula: There are three things that happened all at the same time. And it was the end of the ’90s. 1998 I designed the Citibank logo. I was working on that thing for a year, minor iterations of it, to get a final approval. It went up on and on and etc. etc. I felt like I didn’t make anything because I was all about this form of persuasion about something that was going to be global, but also a lot of minutia in terms of detail. It was depressing. I actually liked the people I worked with, I didn’t want to make it like a big client thing, because it wasn’t. It was really what happens when you work for a large corporation, you have all the traditions involved, there was this merger, and there were some different departments that didn’t agree, and that sort of thing. This went on literally for a year.
Paula: And at the same time, I found all around me, that the sort of business that seemed to require design was websites. And people were designing websites, and Pentogram was even looking like a backward firm because we didn’t really have a good website designer. I didn’t want to do websites because I really like things that were tactile and live. I like things that are on film, but I want to make sure the screen is really big. Working a website was just not that interesting to me. I had this desire, first of all, to make something physical. And that was where the painting started to be important. And at the same time, I wanted to find a different way to work that wasn’t dependent on the internet, and working in that venue. And I discovered environmental graphics, which were perfect for me because they were big, and they were outside, and they were tactile, and they last. They weren’t temporary.
Paula: And this all happened between say 1998 and 2000, where I began painting and doing these painted buildings, and things that you probably know, it was really in a very short time period.
Dan: Wow, that is a short time period. You mentioned Citibank, I also read somewhere where you said I drew it the back of a cab on a napkin.
Paula: It wasn’t in the back of a cab, it was I think at the end of a meeting.
Dan: Oh sorry, yes. I’m sorry, at the end of the first meeting.
Dan: Yeah, that was another quote I have here. But that was fascinating too, and you said I might have done it quickly then, but it took sort of my whole life of learning to get to that point where you can visualize it.
Paula: It isn’t just visualizing. It’s like it really takes 34 years, or whatever that quote was, isn’t just the knowing how to create the form of the logo. It’s not how to create the form or the logo and explain it, and argue for it.
Dan: Yeah, the selling of it to the client. You mentioned working on that for a year, I assume that’s because it was this giant brand project that touches all different points of the company? Or was it literally the convincing, selling, or explaining of what that was?
Paula: It was both. First of all, they weren’t committed to it, so I had to do a lot of exploration of different uses of it, or how it would lock up with some elements that they had bought, and all these sub-brands they had, and show evolutions of the thing, and then make accoutrements, whether it was stationary, or credit cards, or whatever. It was lot of demonstration. And then demonstration, and showing, and then questions and criticisms. There was a private bank, and a city mortgage, I had a lot of subsets.
Dan: It’s amazing because seeing the logo now, it’s a wonderful logo. And it makes a ton of sense, it’s been around, it’s so recognizable. It’s funny to hear that they weren’t committed to it. It just seems so right, now.
Paula: Yeah, I think the logo ran. One of my clients, actually both of them, there were two women who were our clients, and Michael Bierut, who went to a lot of the meetings. Anne McDonald, who was the director of global marketing and advertising, and Susan Avarde was global design, I don’t remember exactly the job titles. But they were terrific. They had to get all these divisions in line as well. And there was an ad that was scheduled, and Fallon was the advertising agent. The ad was scheduled, and the advertising campaign was approved, it was a live richly campaign, and they were just out of time. So they just took the logo that had survived everything from really the first meeting, because they kept turning up. Susan remembers that it was in the first four that we presented, and the arc needed redrawing. There was some glitchy things about it, but it survived this entire year of all these other things coming back, and it just kept staying there. They put it in the ad, and then it was the logo.
Dan: Wow. I’m sure they’re glad they did. Like I said, I can’t imagine another logo because …
Paula: It was so weird to them. I’m working on their corporate headquarters, they moved downtown. They’re still a big, messy corporation like so many are. But they’re very sweet about it. The logo is not 20 years old.
Dan: Wow yeah.
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Dan: I think I do remember hearing you mention about old identities that you’ve created. Some of them are maybe, Amy of them, I’m not sure, you can tell us, that you would go back and redesign it or tweak it, and in some cases, a large part of the population wouldn’t know. But you felt like you wanted to tweak it, or update it, or whatever.
Paula: Yeah, I redid The Public Theater logo three times.
Dan: Oh wow.
Paula: The original logo was pre-computer, and it was made out of this Morgan family of American Wood Type. It was corrected a bit so that the thick to thin part of the “Public” was balanced, and some of it had to be drawn by hand. But mostly it was taken right from the Morgan Library. And there’s a book by Rob Roy Kelly on American Wood Types, and within the book I saw these R’s in different widths that were drawn that were just beautiful. That’s where the idea came from. Then about ten years into it, it really was annoying because the fonts had been digitized. Jonathan Hoefler redrew a lot of the Morgan weights in something called Knockout.
Dan: Oh, right, yeah.
Paula: I changed the logo to … no, I did that later. There was one in the middle. It had a 50th anniversary and I thought they’d change it. And for the 50th anniversary, I decided to go against wood type, and I designed the type in Akzidenz-Grotesk. And I redrew the logo for Morgan weights with Akzidenz-Grotesk. Then we switched it to Knockout, so it’s really four times. We switched it to Knockout, and the Knockout version said “the public,” but the “the” I think was on the outside of the logo. And now we have it where it just sort of says Public period, and it’s horizontal, not vertical. It’s really four times.
Dan: Right. Wow. That’s amazing, I’m really familiar with Knockout and I didn’t know that that’s what it was based on. That’s interesting.
Paula: As principal founder of The Public, I use it on really everything. And we used it in all the different heights and weights, it’s got a lot of versatility, so you can really change it.
Paula: And when you see it all together, it all feels like one piece, but it’s also different, over different years you feel the change of it.
Dan: Right. That’s what’s so great about that. Tell me what it’s like to see that style, because you really pioneered that. It’s New York, but it’s also so recognizable using wood type in that way, and is it interesting to see other people kind of lifting that idea for other projects?
Paula: I’ll tell you, there’s a problem with it that I’m kind of glad happened, because it has helped me move things. There was a period when Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk was released, and this thing was all over New York. The play was a big hit, because mostly The Public there worked, but it’s a small theater, and not everybody saw it. They would see things that would be the sort of advertising that might be done for the Broadway musical Cats, or things that said The Wiz is a Wow. That’s what theater advertising is like. The Public Theater was very no nonsense, so big, bold, urban, just the facts. Here’s the name of the play, this is the date and time, and no bullshit line.
Paula: And it’s still like that. And when we did it, it was radical. And Chicago opened I think a year after Bring in ‘da Noise, and SpotCo did an advertising campaign that utilized a lot of the fonts. It wasn’t exactly like the public, it wasn’t quite as eccentric, but it had a look, and it emulated the way I did the newspaper advertising for The Public. Chicago had much more money, and was much more visible that Public Theater worked, so Chicago looked like that was their identity, and The Public looked like it was copying Chicago.
Dan: Oh geez, right.
Paula: That was sort of bad.
Paula: And then also, there were so many other things in New York that were designed like that, and it just became kind of a style.
Paula: So after that, I changed The Public Theater, I went to the most opposite type. I kept the logo and went to the most opposite kind of typography I could go to. But the problem was that thew theater didn’t do enough advertising, and that you couldn’t afford to do these sorts of grand shifts and expect to have real recognizability. There was a period, I would say of about five or six years where I really don’t think I did a good job for them. Not because the individual things I made weren’t good, but because I didn’t really understand how all of this worked together. I discovered it in about 2010, and now, instead of working to make images that were different for individual plays, I make seasons where everything is connected, and you can tell what season you’re in. And then the next year it’ll be a whole other season. And it’s been successful, The Public has really grown as an institution, so I feel like I’ve just learned os much from the whole experience of doing this for 24 years.
Dan: Wow. Yeah, that’s a long period of time to have a client, right? That’s-
Paula: That’s exactly right. It’s pretty amazing.
Dan: It probably speaks to a lot of things, but speaks to you and relationship with the people that run the theater.
Paula: I think there was a pretty amazing part. I was hired by a wonderful theater director named George Wolfe, who was a genius and had his own view of what the pubic should be. At a certain point in time I think there was a play that was a flop, and they put in a managing director to help them manage money, and then for a period of time there were the two of them, and then George left. And the managing director did not get the job, and they hired a director from a playhouse in Rhode Island named Oskar Eustis. And Oskar came, and he worked with the managing director and that was probably the worst period of the work because two of them were butting heads, and had different views about things.
Paula: The unique communication I had with George was gone, and it was more like an ordinary client. A couple of the Summer posters were nice, but the general output wasn’t as good as it had been, and I was worried about it. And then the managing director left, and Oskar Eustis called me up and I said, “Okay, here it goes, I’m going to get fired.” He invited me out to lunch and we had lunch, and he said, “I always loved when you first did The Public for George Wolfe, can you do it all over again for me?” And amazing that is.
Paula: And he has really grown this theater. I mean, it’s such a hotbed of creativity, and the Summer is much more ambitious, and there are more plays and programs, and they just build a new rehearsal space. It’s really quite an enterprise. Some of the best plays on Broadway are coming out, like Hamilton was begun at The Public Theater.
Dan: Oh, is that right? Wow.
Paula: Yeah, it’s pretty amazing. It’s been miraculous in that, I think what’s unusual about it, is not just the length of time but that there were two completely different directors.
Dan: It’s amazing. I think that with that work, you really had started a style that I think, to all the listeners, that don’t know your history, know where things originate from, and thank Paula for that. Also, thank you for Windows 8, and Microsoft work, yeah. I wonder if you could just tell us about that briefly because it was such a welcomed … As an Apple fan for my whole life, it was a welcomed site. I can’t imagine the breadth of that project, and how large, or difficult, or not difficult it was. I wonder if you could tell us a little bit.
Paula: To be honest with you, it wasn’t that difficult. The response to it was horrid. Not the tech writer’s response, but the design team’s response.
Paula: Yeah, I remember, well I’ll tell you the story of how it came to be and what happened. Microsoft had worked with Wolff Olins, who was their design firm of record to develop this thing called a principle based identity system. The principal based identity system, the notion would be that if you created a logo for one organization, there’d be a methodology that all the organizations would link and look similar. It was taking the logos that existed and creating some basis by which they connect. I saw what Wolff Olins did and it was lovely. There was absolutely nothing wrong with it. They had a stylistic way of drawing all the logos, so they didn’t really redesigned the logos, they drew them in a stylistic way and connected them. Apparently what happened was, the logo, the first person that was going to have to launch it was Windows, because they were launching Windows 8, and that this thing landed at Windows and there was this big pushback because they weren’t involved in it. It was developed in corporate under Steve Ballmer and not in the Windows brand.
Paula: This is actually typical of corporations that have subsets that compete with each other. And if you take Apple’s structure and you take Microsoft’s structure, they’re really opposite, and north successful for different reasons. Apple essentially makes objects of desire, that are beautifully designed, and that your status in having them, if you have the latest iPhone, you’re cool. Microsoft makes tools, Microsoft’s products are bundled into your Apple computer, and you’re not even aware of it. You don’t care, you give Apple all the credit for all that stuff inside.
Paula: That stuff was made I places like Office, that’s the name of a Microsoft company. And the Bill Gates philosophy about Microsoft was that he wanted to give the power to the individual engineers, so that they would be come innovators, and run their own divisions, and invent product. And that’s a good idea too. They’re both good ideas, it’s just the end result is that Apple is going to be more monolithic and carefully organized, and Microsoft, by virtue of the way their structure, they’re going to be a little more erratic.
Paula: Windows 8 was a significant departure because it was a flat color design system that didn’t have icons, but actually used a color system to direct, and to communicate information. And it was radical. I worked with a guy named Sam Moreau who hired us, and he hired us to come and take a six month period, and see if we could develop a system for them that could then be translated to the rest of the company. In that discussion of really what the difference was between Windows and Apple, it was clear that Apple made these objects of desire, and Windows made tools that people use from their own perspective.
Paula: And that perspective became a wonderful analogy about how to think about a whole system for Microsoft. And when I looked at the history of the Windows logo, the first logo was sort of an eccentric series of boxes making a window, and they weren’t equal. There was no real grid, there was a small one on a big one. It was just idiosyncratic. And then they started, you could tell almost what was said in a meeting. Somebody probably said, “Oh that window’s too static,” so they began making it look dimensional, or then somebody said, “But it’s digital, we’ve gotta show we’re digital,” so then our logo became Bitmap. It looked like it moved in Bitmap.
Paula: And then somebody said, “But we’ve gotta show a lot of color,” and then they broke it into four colors. Colors don’t mean anything. I asked what the colors mean, they represent nothing.
Dan: That’s good to know.
Paula: Then somebody says, “It needs some dimension,” so the wiggly thing that looked like a flag, it looked like either tile or a flag, that’s all I could say when I saw it. I said to them, which has been quoted, “Your name is Windows, why are you a flag?”
Dan: Yeah, right.
Paula: It was completely a result of something that happened in a marketing meeting. Somebody went back and changed it. And this is always how these things happen. I reasoned that they never meant to draw a waving flag, they wanted to show a window in perspective, and they thought if you drew a window in perspective, it probably would look too static, so they made it wiggle. I think they did that because at a certain point in time, the logo was only gong to be a static thing on the screen, because it wasn’t animated. But the minute you throw animation into the mix, you don’t have to think about looking like it’s moving, it can move.
Paula: What we did is we did a drawing, my team, of a perspective chart, and put the window in, a certain proportion, and then showed them what would happen to the form of the window when it moved through space. Sometimes it would be linear, sometimes it would be really wide, but that you do actually had permission to do that, but the window logo was a window drawing perspective.
Paula: Then what we did is we took the perspective chart and we began drawing other icons into it, and we went around to talk to different departments. And we worked with Office for a while, and we never could get them to buy anything. Then we went to another division, and they sort of pushed back. And then my six months was up, we left them with a perspective chart, and some rules of how to do this thing. Then Windows 8 launched, and then one by one, almost everything changed into the perspective chart, without me being there or doing anything.
Dan: Wow. Yeah, what happened there then?
Paula: Windows is like the 3,000 elephant in the room. Windows did it and everybody else thought it was fine. I remember Armin Vit found a drawing of the Windows logo from some Chinese pirated image. And he ran it on Brand New before the thing was even launched, and the drawing of it was bad for one thing. But everybody thought it was the most awful thing on the planet. I remember I was on vacation in the Florida Keys reading these hateful emails, and all this Twitter crap that went on forever, and ever. I was almost afraid of going to the house.
Dan: Oh geez.
Paula: That was the first time that happened at that extreme. After that it happens regularly, but then I wasn’t used to it.
Dan: Right. Well that’s terrible. It’s kind of one of those things, on a small level, I’ve always experienced with client work sometimes. But that’s a very public version of that, that I can’t imagine. And in the end, I think, to me, it’s a vast improvement. Like you said, it was a flag before, and it needed so much help.
Paula: And you look at all the logos you actually see at work. There are a few, they bought Skype, and I noticed that never followed it, but most of them do.
Paula: Xbox I don’t think will ever change. The in house art department adopted it, it became part of the standard and the company did it with the things bundled into it, the sub-brands did it as well.
Paula: It’s really quite cohesive.
Dan: It is, yeah. This is amazing. I could go on forever asking you about all these different projects you’ve done, because it’s just fascinating to hear. Thank you so much for being on here, Paula. It’s been an honor. I’m glad that our community, thew greater design community can hear a little bit more behind all these great pieces of work.
Paula: Well thanks for asking, it was fun.
Dan: Yeah, thanks so much.