Play [pley]: verb 1. To engage in a childlike activity or endeavor. 2. To gamble.
"If you’re not doing both," says designer Paula Scher, who has crafted the brand identities of Citibank, MoMA and the New York City Ballet, "there’s probably something inherently wrong with the structure of [your work]."
It’s easy to read a designer’s advice about being playful and to think--simply--that it means you should have more fun at work.
But that’s not quite what Scher is driving at. In her view, the key to being playful--and all children know this without thinking about it--is to become more serious about your work.
Serious work, notes Scher, happens spontaneously, intuitively, accidentally, incidentally, through innocence, arrogance, selfishness, and even carelessness. "It is achieved through all those crazy parts of human behavior that don’t make any sense," she says. All of which makes serious behavior incredibly hard to replicate, but in her 2008 TED talk, she offers four tips for sparking serious play.
1. Rebel against something. For Scher, that something was Helvetica, the ubiquitous type face of the 1970s. Her drive for distinction drove Scher to unearth and take inspiration from nearly extinct typefaces found in Art Deco and Russian constructivism works. Her anti-Helvetica typographical album-cover designs sparked a new design movement and propelled Scher’s career to unseen heights.
2. Block all distraction. In 1994, when New York’s Public Theater hired Scher for a rebranding project, she dropped everything to "create a visual voice for a place in a way I’d never done before." She designed tickets, print ads, t-shirts, subway signs, every piece of branding collateral with bold, urban typeface patterns that were subsequently hijacked by popular culture.
3. Be totally and completely unqualified for a job. Around 2000, Scher was asked to work with architects on designing theater buildings. "I couldn’t read an architectural plan, I didn’t know what anyone was talking about, and I couldn’t handle it… but I fell in love with this process of integrating graphics into architecture because I didn’t know what I was doing." The results can be seen at the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum, Symphony Space in New York, and the Bloomberg headquarters, among other iconic buildings.
4. Do it just for you. Following her successful and exhausting work redesigning the Citibank logo, Scher retreated to the country and began "painting very big, very involved, laborious, complicated maps of the world"--not for any client, just for her own mental and physical health. "I was creating my own palette of information, and I was totally, completely at play."
As with most of Scher’s innovations, the maps proved to be a wild commercial success. Demand rose, production rose, they became political, and she was no longer at play but "in a solemn landscape of fulfilling expectations."
"When you hit that point," she says. "All that’s left for you is to go back and find out what the next thing is that you can push, invent, be ignorant about, be arrogant about, fail with, and be a fool with because in the end that’s how you grow, and that’s all that matters."