Make it Bigger

Paula Scher

An attractive tight-back bound book with edge-stained pages, Make it Bigger is at its heart a survey of Scher’s work from the 70s through the 90s. Yet it feels more like a memoir or a study of process than just a portfolio of her work. I loved her discussion of discovering how to “sell down” designs at CBS Records (get the highest decision maker on your side and everyone else will fall in line). The various hierarchies of her different positions and the diagram of a meeting are some of my favorite parts of the book.

I felt she was a little more humble than some in talking about her career — Chip Kidd often sounds a tad self-congratulatory in his, not to mention that he called it Book One, implying that the world will obviously need further volumes!

Women are still pretty absent from the rockstar level of the graphic design world; Scher is one of the few women interviewed in the recent Helvetica documentary (a film that also features not one person of color, unless I somehow forgot the token non-white person), which maybe indicates she is the most famous female designer in the world. She doesn’t touch much on her experiences being a woman in design aside from a reprint of her essay “The Boat,” originally published in Print magazine in 1993, in which she expressed “conflicting feelings.” The essay centers around a photo of the Pentagram partners on a boat, where the diminutive Scher appears out of scale. It doesn’t offer any definitive declaration on women’s place in design, which is probably why I appreciated it so much.

A profession that has long been dominated by men is changing. There are simply more women. There are more women who are terrific designers, more women running their own businesses, more women corporate executives, more women changing the scale of things and appearing out of scale in the process.

There are also more underpaid women, more women juggling careers and motherhood, more women who feel squeezed out in a bad economy, more women going to art school and going nowhere afterwards, and more women who are resentful of their lack of success “because they are women.” There are more women in design groups, more women’s panels, more women mentoring women, more women who want women to mentor them, more women looking for women role models, and more women who don’t like other women’s success.

Though Scher wrote this at least 15 years ago now, I think much of this change is still crawling along towards an obvious equality. (Even in the web world, the lack of gender diversity at conferences has been heatedly discussed as recently as last year. And what about racial diversity in the design world? That’s also something to talk about too.)

What’s so interesting about her discussion of scale in reference to gender in design is how it ties into her work. The title Make it Bigger refers partially to a specific incident where a client made that request, but bold, large designs are also a recurring feature within Scher’s oeuvre. The book itself, despite being pretty small for an art book, features huge type that can’t even be contained within the pages.