In her 41 years as a professional designer, Paula Scher has dealt with a lot of egos. That’s why she has become a mastermind of “client diplomacy”—drawing on experiences from her days designing record covers for moody musicians to her current job creating high-profile brand identities for complex bureaucracies including Microsoft, Citibank and MoMA.
Through books, magazines, frequent speaking engagements and even a recent Netflix documentary about her work, Scher is a superstar in design circles. A longtime partner at the design consultancy Pentagram, Scher, 68, has learned how to read a room and figured out how to tip client meetings in her favor. Her new 520-page monograph, Paula Scher: Works (Unit Editions) is as much a showcase of her award-winning creative output as her acuity with the psychology of boardroom dynamics.
One point she makes that applies far beyond the world of design: Knowing exactly when to end a meeting is a learned skill. From her four decades presenting her work, Scher has learned that a meeting’s final words matter enormously—they can even determine the fate of her work.
In a fascinating sequence from the Netflix series Abstract, Scher diagrams the emotional arc of a meeting, juxtaposed with an actual presentation of a design for New York City’s Public Theater.
After the initial gush of approval—with the response to the work going above expectations—a wave of doubt inevitably enters the discussion, she explains, and the perception of the work falls below expectations. An agile designer responds quickly by proposing a compromise, bringing the perception back up again.
Scher advises adjourning at this high point, instead of tapering off into awkward silences to squeeze out every bit of feedback. “What will happen [if it goes on] is the counter rebuttal to your offer will go below the reasonable level of expectation,” observes Scher. “[It] will continue on until you reach sudden death.”
A business meeting has archetypal characters, she says: “You can tell where the power is, because that’s where everyone’s eyes are,” explains Scher. “There are people who you might think are powerful, but they’re just saying a lot to impress the person in power. Then there are grenade-throwers…they lob a grenade just to shake things up.”
Presenters should learn to read a room’s power dynamic to know how to steer the conversation, she says, and that learning comes with experience. “I learned everything from working in the record industry,” says Scher in the book, recalling the decade she designed hundreds of covers, collaborating with the likes of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and the Rolling Stones. “I learned how people make decisions in power structures…I’ve been able to use the experiences my entire working life, because they are always the same, regardless of technological and even cultural shifts.”