Stealing From Paula Scher

Today was our first day of class. In addition to reviewing the syllabus, covering introductions and defining “average” we also covered CCA’s policies regarding academic integrity and reasonable expression. CCA’s Academic Integrity Code provides guidelines for responsible expression. It also addresses plagiarism. Surprisingly, I had to define the term. Also surprisingly, one student asked, “Is it ok to steal from Paula Scher?”

At first I was taken aback by this question, but I realized that what he was really asking was whether someone owns style. Scher’s memorable posters for The Public Theater are a good example of an iconic style that I often see imitated by students. Much of the language of those posters is wholly original — to the point where one no longer has to read the content to be reasonably assured that they come from Scher/Public Theater. The basis of the visual language Scher employs, however, is rooted in her study, observation and interpretation of preceding visual styles. She remixes influences from Constructivism, Dada, Futurism, the Bauhaus, even the lowbrow vernacular typographic style of classic boxing posters — see how seamlessly the latter fits in with three Scher-designed posters:

In each case Scher’s work is informed by historical styles, but she doesn’t seek to recreate them. Rather, she deconstructs the elements that combine to make those works compelling and uses lessons from those observations to create a legitimately new work. This is work I’d classify as “inspired by.”

A perhaps grayer area is that of homage. Again, we can turn to Scher as an example. Her 1985 print ad for Swatch was an obvious (and some say too-direct) nod to an earlier work by Herbert Matter:

While designers generally recognized the historical reference, the average Mademoiselle reader likely didn’t. Whether this qualifies as homage, parody or plagiarism has and will continue to be debated. Many give Scher the benefit of the doubt—she is a high-profile, well-informed designer making a very direct reference to another historically-significant designer’s work. To many though, Matter is a relatively esoteric reference point, which is where the gray area comes in. Unlike artists who ape Andy Warhol’s style or create derivative riffs on the Mona Lisa or American Gothic—which exist as part of our common cultural canon—it’s reasonable to assume that most viewers won’t be knowledgeable of Matter or his work. In fairness, the ad/poster was credited as “Koppel & Scher with Herbert Matter” when it later appeared in design annuals, but to remove any public ambiguity, the prudent choice would have been to acknowledge the source somewhere in the design. (It should also be noted that Scher obtained permission from the Matter estate to use the work as the basis for the ad).

Often lost in the debate over Scher’s work for Swatch is the fact that it was part of a series. The other ads were also parodies of other Matter posters which hung in the Swatch headquarters. This helps resolve the issue of intent, though it doesn’t mitigate the designer’s responsibility to acknowledge their sources.

Without weighing in on the Scher/Matter matter, Milton Glaser recently criticized Shepard Fairey for the many unreferenced references in his artwork, specifically citing the image above which is clearly derivative of another swiss designer, Josef Muller Brockmann. Fairey has long been criticized for basing a large body of his work on that of other artists, almost always without acknowledgement. The current lawsuit being brought against him by the Associated Press alleges that he used a photo by photographer Mannie Garcia as the basis of his iconic HOPE poster for then candidate Barrack Obama.

The details here are a little more nuanced, in that there is obviously a substantial change in style and execution. The central issue remains, however, that Fairey used another artist’s work as the basis of his own. In his early defense he claimed not to know where the image came from, stating that he simply “Googled” an image of Obama and worked from that. (Note, just because you found it on the internet doesn’t mean it’s free or free to use). Later he claimed to know which image it he used and produced sketches and computer records to prove that it was not Garcia’s photo. Recently he admitted to falsifying those records, but maintains he has a right to use the photographer’s work without acknowledgement. The courts will hear the case beginning March 21, 2011. Meanwhile, and somewhat ironically, an entire industry has sprouted up around ripping off Fairey’s poster.

I’ll follow up tomorrow with some examples of some unintentional copying — including one of my own. For the record, though, the answer to the question, “Is it ok to steal from Paula Scher?” is a resounding, “No.”

Other sources for discussion on plagiarism online:

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  • kyle funk

    For the record, though, the answer to the question, “Is it ok to steal from Paula Scher?” is a resounding, “No.”
    Well can we also steal and derive from russian constructivists and , swiss design icons, and then say we were the second person to do that? The fifth, the thousandth, the trillionth designer to do that ? I mean come on. Can we use red, and yellow with dominant blacks? Shall i ask permission from Scher (because she is living , high profile, and important)? If she says no- should i still borrow or steal her idea?

    I think you are so full of it. Except that i also agree- Fairey is a hack- but that is jsut because his ideas bore me to death. But isn’t that also your point? Fairey is a hack because he can’t obfuscate and talk around his sources with some of that “process” jiu-jitsu ? Because he didn’t obey and ask permission ? (wink of course) Because he is not that skilled or schooled?

    Or is your point- should we keep finding new forms – and stop revisiting the and recycling past? I am not sure myself. Because there ain’t nuthin’ new under the sun. Just evolution, and variation upon variation. Give me a revolution- and i will show you the underlying continuum.

    Not that one shouldn’t talk about it .. or ask .. but i’m sure that the answer is not a “resounding” no.

    ( PS. I love how pentagram re-tweeted this … ew distasteful )

  • kyle funk

    ..and by paula scher being important.. i meant *self* important

  • Kyle, you seem to have a personal beef against Paula, and I’m not sure why.

    My point isn’t that Fairey is a hack, nor that he is unskilled or unschooled. This is really a post about first understanding one’s sources and second, acknowledging them. Even invented forms exist as part of a continuum in which many antecedent and concurrent forms inform and contextualize the so-called “new.”

  • Travis kyle


    I am more taking issue with your use of the word “resounding” rather than “no.” I agree with you for the very most part… yet in some distinct ways i disagree. I am questioning your certainty.

    Let me try and qualify..

    I really have no personal beef with Scher. She does what she does and promotes it. Kudos. Just don’t think its fair to say that she has more free access to design historical techniques and ideas because she acknowledges and contextualizes them. She was established at a time when only a designer would really get and check her historical references. She already has the luxury of highbrow design fame. Furthermore she is living. Who wants to cross paths with her ? Only thee bravest of designer souls! I kid of course.. she is a person and designer just like any one else. She has her faults, poor choices, bad logos, awful pitches -i am very sure.

    My only knee-jerk is to the tendency in high brow design elitism to obfuscate
    the usage of art historical references by using a sort what I call “process jiu-jitsu”
    The professors and promoters of design elite love to weave some sophisticated spells with basic words like process ,reference, and contextualization. In reality the end result is only different from Fairey because they “paid their dues” and can really do it with skill and subtlety of craft.

    So I do happen to think that Fairey is indeed a hack- and i am unafraid to say it. You may not and that is ok too. I believe he is a one trick pony. His whole schtick is a kind of melding of repetitive (get the word out) street art ethos ( a disdain for the unwritten rules of design) and a somewhat clever subversion of form and word. Stealing, subverting and making a “new .”

    I think somewhere a long the line his desire to get the word out over shadowed the realities of his message . In other words – what does he really mean by treating Obama in the same way that an early 1900s poster designer might treat a propagandist ? Why did he do that ? As an educated designer myself .. I certainly think he is confusing. Ad hoc mixing and matching of the past to fit his own new uninformed vision of persuasive propaganda. There is no respect and no acknowledgment.

    -But then- why should there be? I think he thinks of himself as an artist -using the tools of a designer. I am relatively sure he loves Warhol. -Yet- he also has a design company.. that uses the same style as his art ad infinitum but devoid of the ‘edgy’ political implication. Even more confusing.

    I heard him speak at a conference once. I was not impressed in the least. His fame seemed accidental. On stage he was lost in his words- glossed over really basic ideas of propaganda and “obey” and the meaning of that. I think his notoriety came at a time when street art was pushing itself into mainstream design vocabulary in a big way and he unfortunately never really developed his meaning / message before he realized just how much he could capitalize on his medium. Post facto- he would say that that is the point. But i call bullshit.

    Now, I am not even touching on the use of the Obama image he found on the google and pretended he didn’t use at first. I think that is abhorrent. Couldn’t he at least say he was sorry , fess up? He is quite the idiot for that..plain and simple talk.

    What are we left with if this whole thang came out slightly different? If Fairey had just simply acknowledged his use of the image, or if he didn’t use the photo, or if it wasn’t political in nature, would anyone really call him out on a blatant misunderstanding of design history? Probably not too much . Which is why the premise of stealing from Paula Scher or any other designer is sort of a red herring. Or at least is a sidelong glance into something that opens the door to criticize all usage of the past. I think this is folly, furthermore, impossible. We are of this earth. And It seems we are in agreement on this.

    I realize it was the student that asked the question. But maybe it begs an even deeper question.

    The real question, to me, is why would you even want to steal from Scher to begin with?. This would be diluting the original source so much – that it would be silly. The meaning of a designer stealing from Scher could only really be as an attack on Scher and the idea of re-appropriation or alternately a love of Scher and re-appropriation . It can and should be done if one feels the need, however foolish.

    Which is why I say a “resounding no” is not a fair judgment.
    I prefer “not a good idea” and “but why and why now? and if you do- please do it with skill.”

  • rennyangel3

    Paula Scher ripped off Matter for her own personal gain. The posters weren’t an homage they literally scans of the originals with watches pasted into them.

    Copying great designs and turning them into crass lowbrow advertising doesn’t honor the source material, it desecrates it.