A letter from Paula Scher


Found this great article from Paula Scher regarding identity design and had to share it. If you’re in this field, I strongly recommend it. If you’re not, I still recommend it as it might give you a better idea about identity design and understand what we designers sometimes have so clear in our minds yet becomes so hard to explain in single words…

What they don’t teach you about identity design in design schools…

… And what you can’t learn from blogs.

One of the most often repeated refrains on design blogs, in the critique of a new logo, is “Any design student could do a better job.” This ubiquitous comment is especially amusing to me because, well, it’s mostly true. If you judge virtually every new logo designed today by classical design school standards, the kids in school are doing a better job. This is because of the way logo and identity design are taught in so many schools, and what that exercise is meant to accomplish.

In design school, identity design is all about the form of the logo. A student will be given the problem: “design a logo for such and such organization,” and then the student may spend the better part of the next six months refining the form of a mark (or a wordmark), and then they sometimes transfer that word mark to a piece of stationery, or a shopping bag, or some other item (often a truck, and regardless of what school they attend, they all seem to magically use the same generic truck drawing.) And after six months of criticism and refinement, a good student will usually produce a formalistically beautiful logo. There may be some discussion in class about the appropriateness of the logo for the business. But the main goal will be to make the logo recognizable, with strong aesthetic attributes that will enable the logo to “stand alone.”

The design school exercise is indeed a good way to develop craft skills, and hopefully when the student becomes a professional he/she will learn to get fast at it, and achieve that work in the course of a week as opposed to six months. And there, any similarity between real identity design and a design school exercise ends.


Identity design, for any organization containing more than three people, is the act of diplomatically negotiating personal egos, tastes, and aspirations of various invested individuals against their business needs, their pre-formed expectations, and the constraints of the market place. Making something formalistically beautiful, while desirable, is a more private part of the process, something that the designer needs to achieve incidentally, not something that can appear to be an overt motivating cause. (This is because form is subjective, and not an easily argued position when a designer is trying to get their client to feel comfortable assuming a new identity.)

When organizations are larger, their identities often need to be designed as systems (kits of parts) that allow for complicated organizational subsets to exist and therefore give organizations and corporations the ability to partially personalize departments or sub-brands. Systems often demand that logos become more neutral so they can more effectively accommodate all necessary secondary information. A complicated logo design, one that might “stand alone” in a design class may simply look too busy in this real-world kind of context.

Often the identity of an organization that has many subsets can best be brought to life by the use of its supportive materials within the systems (promotion pieces, packaging, websites, signs, merchandising materials). This is an especially effective methodology because it can allow for a logo or identity system to gain resonance and recognition over time in connection to materials that are capable of being far more expressive than logos. For example the Nike logo, which has evolved over time into its current form, became a powerful symbol to the masses because of its effective use in advertising campaigns. The “cool” of the logo happened in connection to some brilliant campaigns by Wieden & Kennedy, and the effective positioning of the mark on merchandising materials. As pure form, if the “swoosh” appeared alone in a design school critique (or on a design blog) it would most likely have been dismissed as too thin, weak, and pointy, looking like a checkmark and not really conveying motion.

Logos become iconic over time, through their use and in combination with an overall perception of a brand. They shouldn’t be judged purely as form and out of context, as they are on design blogs, because it takes a period of time for a logo to establish itself in the marketplace, just as it takes a magazine a year or so to establish its personality.

Another thing they don’t teach you in design school is what you get paid for. Right alongside the blog complaint that “any design student could do a better job” is the comment that the designer at hand got “hundreds of thousands of dollars to design that logo that could have been better designed by a design student.”

I never knew a designer that got hundreds of thousands of dollars to design a logo. Mostly, designers get paid to negotiate the difficult terrain of individual egos, expectations, tastes, and aspirations of various individuals in an organization or corporation, against business needs, and constraints of the marketplace. This is a process that can take a year or more. Getting a large, diverse group of people to agree on a single new methodology for all of their corporate communications means the designer has to be a strategist, psychiatrist, diplomat, showman, and even a Svengali. The complicated process is worth money. That’s what clients pay for. The process, usually a series of endless presentations and refinements, persuasions and proofs, results, hopefully, in an accepted identity design.

Some branding firms employ strategists and account executives to manage the process. I’m in favor of designers doubling as strategists, or at least working extensively with them. I think the designer needs to be involved every stage of the complicated negotiation between the clients, their expectations, tastes, aspirations, marketplace concerns etc. The designer needs to be ever present because, inevitably, at some side meeting, something will be suggested that will totally destroy the form of the logo. Something can be suggested innocently, with the best of intentions, that will scuttle all plans, compromise all standards, and destroy the integrity of the design. The only person who can know this and stop this is the designer. And the reason that the designer knows it is… well, they learned it in design school. - Paula Scher


Now, for those of you who got this far and still wonder who Paula Scher is allow me to introduce some of her work and bio…

Paula Scher studied at the Tyler school of art in Philadelphia. In 1984, she co-founded the design firm Koppel & Scher in New York City and in 1991 she joined the world famous multi-disciplinary design firm Pentagram Design as principal. Scher has developed identity and branding systems, promotional materials, environmental graphics and packaging designs for a wide range of clients including The New York Times Magazine, the American Museum of Natural History, The Brooklyn Museum of Art, The Public Theater, Swatch, Sony and many others. Scher’s work is represented in the permanent collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the Zürich Poster Museum, the Denver Art Museum and the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. She has earned distinguished awards. In 1998, she was named to The Art Directors Club Hall of Fame.

Some of her work…






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