Why branding matters for governments: Five minutes with graphic designer Paula Scher

By on 11/04/2024 | Updated on 11/04/2024

Paula Scher, partner at Pentagram design agency, discusses her work as an artist and designer, including creating identities for government institutions. 

This is part of a ‘Five minutes’ series featuring speakers from the forthcoming Global Government Forum GovernmentDX event (Washington, D.C., April 18-19). During the conference, Scher will give a presentation on why brand matters for building trust in government.

What drew you to a career in the civil service? 

I am not a civil servant. I am a graphic designer and a partner of Pentagram Design, an international company with offices in New York, London, Berlin and Austin Texas

My father was a civil servant. He was trained as a photogrammetric engineer and was coordinator of the Nation’s Mapping programme. In the early 1950s he invented a measurement device called Stereo Templates which corrected lens distortion in aerial photography. Google Maps could not exist without that breakthrough.

My brother was also a government worker. He was a systems analyst for the Pentagon overseeing weapon procurement. After the Iraq war he worked on a method for calculating the likelihood and positions of landmines left in the Iraqi battlegrounds.

Both my father and brother worked for the government their entire adult lives until they retired.

Read more: Why a tech industry veteran joined the civil service: Five minutes with GovTech Singapore’s Chang Sau Sheong

What have you achieved in your career that you’re most proud of? 

I am proud of my achievements as a graphic designer and painter. I started out as a record cover art director at Atlantic and CBS records where I designed many classic album covers for artists like Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Bob Dylan and many others. My best work was for Jazz artists because the projects were less political and I had an opportunity to be more inventive in the work. As a result, I began to develop a serious reputation as a designer, particularly in the area of typography.  

For the past 35 years I have become expert at designing corporate and institutional identities for businesses, cultural organisations and government institutions. The identities manifest themselves as logos, design systems and environmental graphic design.

As a result of my experience, I have learned how to help untrained people to understand how an identity works. A graphic identity is a function of branding. The goal of the identity is to be able to make something be seen and recognised by audiences who then connect the thing they recognise with a product, or service, or institution or government, a person or even a country. The most recognisable part of any identity is usually the logo.

As a painter, I paint large information-laden maps. While my father was interested in accuracy, my maps are more impressionistic. They are information-laden, but the information is only ‘sort of right’.  You can’t navigate from the maps, but you do get a sense of place, geography and some social and political information, albeit opinionated.

Read more: US federal CIO Clare Martorana on ‘human-centred policymaking’ at the speed of AI 

What barriers or challenges have you overcome in your career? 

As a young woman I had to navigate my way through a corporation that was sexist. I had a boss who openly said that he liked hiring women designers because they were more talented for half of the money. It was actually true.                  

I made a conscious decision not to be affected by the sexism as long as it didn’t interfere with my work. I had the advantage of making something tangible and visible. I had authorship and the capability of making a reputation based on my work and not my sex.

What more do you want to achieve before you retire?

I want to continue to make things. If I can no longer design because the perception is that I am too old, then I will paint. 

 What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given in your working life? 

“Do what you do best and what you like most.”

If you could introduce one civil service reform, what would it be? 

Finish the projects that are started. Even if they wind up being failures. At least, you can learn something from a failure.

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