Pushing back: graphic design and illustration

“Double Portrait” opened at the Philadelphia Museum of Art Dec. 2.  Two artists, each claim opposite ends of the exhibit hall with a floor-to-ceiling letter A.

Graphic designer Paula Sher and illustrator Seymour Chwast came to Philadelphia to see the opening of their exhibit and to receive the Design Excellence Award from Collab, a collaboration of design professionals supporting the modern and contemporary design collections at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Sher sees her work as a designer as “pushing back” against the specific purpose of her assignment. “Design is an art of planning. A problem is presented, a conceptual blueprint is formed in response [and] a solution is achieved.”

The exhibit includes a wall of posters, three-dimensional objects in a case and a slide show showing the progression of her work. Sher is currently working with Microsoft and developed their Windows 8 Logo.

A graphic design can be too successful. Sher said that an identity piece may be so well accepted that it gets borrowed by others to the extent that it no longer uniquely represents the original organization like the heart in “I Love New York.”

Chwast contrasts his work as an illustrator to that of the fine artist as being focused by the literary work he is trying to depict.  For both the designer and illustrator there is tension between the creative urge and the idea to be communicated. The urge and the idea are then moderated by the client who commissioned the work. “When I get an idea I ask myself three questions: Is it beautiful, is it smart, and does it meet the goal of the end user and person who pays my bills?”

Both artists are getting push back from new media.  The exhibit includes two full walls of printed posters, but digital image displays are taking over the commercial space once taken by printed material.  Sher spent more than a decade designing album covers for CBS records that have become historical objects.

The exhibit itself is pushing back the traditional boundaries of the traditional art museum. The Collab collection contains more than 3000 works of contemporary art.  The current exhibit is on display in the Ruth and Raymond G. Perelman building which opened to the public in 2007 after renovation the 125,000 sq feet of what once was the Fidelity Mutual Life building located across the Parkway from the main museum building.

The real collaboration here is not Collab but the personal connection of Sher and Chwast.  They met when Sher had just graduated from Tyler School of Art.  Sher’s professor arranged for her to show her portfolio to Chwast.  Sher said she was nervous meeting an artist whose work had influenced her as a student.  The meeting led to two productive careers and marriage.

With careers in the same industry, the question arises does the couple collaborate on artistic projects?  “Impossible” says Sher.  They both admit reviewing each others work.  Chwast added, “Paula's terrific work affects mine. She challenges me and I benefit from everything she does."  With a well defined “his and her” side, the current exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is the extent of their formal professional collaboration.


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About Emily Myers

Emily Myers has lived and worked in Chadds Ford for over thirty years.  She founded the parent company of Chadds Ford Live, Decision Design Research, Inc., in 1982.  ChaddsFordLive.com represents the confluence of Myers' long time, deep involvement in technology and community. Myers was a founding member of the Chadds Ford Business Association and currently serves on its board of directors.  Her hobbies include bridge, golf, photography and Tai Chi. She lives with her husband, Jim Lebedda, in Chadds Ford Township.



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