After the flames of modernism became mere embers, the design community started to turn to something with more warmth.

People were after something comfortable — a song buried in memory.

So designers of the eighties began looking back to move forward.

Digging through the archives and history books, designers searched for visual languages with more romance wrapped in their tones than what the clean lines and bold type of modernism offered.

Philip B. Meggs, Meggs’ History of Graphic Design, 4th edn., pg 481.Should a designer sit down and find novelty in a historical style, they wouldn’t set out to copy any exact piece. They would learn the language it spoke and use its “vocabulary of forms and form relationships, reinventing and combining them in unexpected ways.”

Looking Back with Paula Scher

By the mid-eighties, Paula Scher had become known as a designer producing original and clever work that sometimes spoke with the tongue of the past, emulating style and feel in interesting and new ways.

Doing this, Scher and her business partner Terry Koppel put together a promotional booklet entitled Great Beginnings.

Compiling the opening paragraphs of well-known novels, the booklet served as a great introduction to how one can employ design styles long gone in fitting and interesting ways.

Each spread was designed with nothing but type in a way that was suited to the times in which each novel was originally written. It was gorgeous.

Swatch Shopped for Style (and Got Brilliance Half-Price)

After flicking through the duo’s promotional piece, the marketing director of Swatch brought Koppel & Scher on board to help promote the Swiss watch company.

It comes as no surprise that they were asked to develop a campaign that was reminiscent of American 1950s advertising.

“All through the eighties clients seemed to believe
they were buying style, not thinking.”

Paula Scher — Make It Bigger, pg 68

After delving into magazine advertising from thirty years prior, the pair found a habit developing in the old ads — the products changed lives! Not only did soap make you cleaner, but it made you look younger and find happiness! Oven mitts keeping your hands from burning? They also make your meals taste better too! They had their catch.

It was a catch that was funny and memorable — a good one to wrap the contemporary and hip watch maker in.

The juxtaposition between the cool time pieces and the tacky photography and cringe-worthy tag-lines made sure that the ads were memorable and effective. The ads were clever, funny and cheeky, perfectly fitting within Scher’s body of work.

They were a hit.

Hello Herbert, So Nice to See You Again

Swatch found its home in the Swiss International Business Building, where upon the walls hung the work of Swiss design legend, Herbert Matter.

Herbert Matter (1907—1984) brought photography to the table of The International Style in a way that was fresh and interesting.

Matter was only 25 when he developed this now legendary campaign. Deep etching and contrasting photos, typography and colour (while keeping this modernly minimal), Matter developed a series of powerful and beautiful posters for the Swiss National Tourist Office.

While this was part of the same series, it seems as though the one below is the one most referenced.

Fifty years later, Scher held admiration for the pieces and decided “they were all simply crying out for a Swatch Watch.”

From singing the swan-song of the Swiss alps to voicing the marketing campaign of Swatch.

It was an utter joke. And that was her point.

The poster that got everyone thinking.
Herbert Matter’s original on the left, Scher’s on the right.

She got in contact with AIGA and Matter’s estate to seek permission and ensure that everything would be above-board.

The poster had to have some elements recreated — the lady in the ski hat was reshot at a different angle, with the title changed (and made bigger, then bigger still by the marketing department) and the arm dropped in.

It was credited to Koppel & Scher with Herbert Matter.

But Was it Parody or Plagiarism?

It went from magazine spreads to posters in shop windows, then into design magazines and annuals.

So naturally, when Scher spoke at an AIGA conference in Boston, she shared the piece with the audience.

It was greeted with laughter.

It isn’t that they all understood the joke (though many probably did), it was that earlier at the conference, Tom Wolfe gave a speech about what he called “the big closet” of design history that many creatives dip into to in search of ideas to “recycle.”

He showed the Matter/Scher Swatch posters as an example.

Then Tibor Came Along

“Designers abuse history when they use it as a shortcut,
a way of giving instant legitimacy to their work …
historical reference and outright copying have been
cheap and dependable substitutes for a lack of ideas.”

Tibor Kalman — Good History/Bad History

Expanding upon Wolfe’s ideas, Tibor Kalman believed in using design history in a genuine way.

To use it to understand how designers of the past thought about their problems and how they arrived at their solutions. It is not the study of pretty pictures that was the result of such thoughts that we should focus on — it is ideas and social context that is of importance — what pushed the ideas into reality. It’s what Scher had done so masterfully earlier in her career and was now doing it with less grace but with tongue firmly in cheek.

But generally, that wasn’t being done as designers weren’t doing it with Scher’s wit. Instead, the practice of pinching a style from history for nothing but superficiality had emerged. Designers were pushing aside context and looking at things through the narrowing view of retrospect and nostalgia.

What was once considered modern design that might have been ahead of its time, innovative and even boundary pushing, is now seen as quaint. Cute. Safe and familiar. But rather than employing the mentality of thinking ahead, innovation and discovery, many were just saying “oh yes, this is lovely, this will do. Ahhh, how pretty a memory!”

The resulting work is often pretty but dumb.

Tibor’s words drove people to ask questions (and subsequently answer them). Libraries of essays and discussions were written by students, lecturers and practitioners about the Swatch poster and others like it — is it really just a joke, a bit of parody?

Or is it simply plagiarism?

Do share with us, what are your thoughts?

We recreate what we are inspired by.

But the Swatch poster grabs and chokes the original through time and puts a plastic watch on it. It isn’t subtle by any means—it’s too obvious to be a mere reference.

Unlike the previous campaign, Matter’s original pieces weren’t departure points for Scher. The work of Matter became the work of Scher. But she intended for them to look exactly the same — that was her point, aiming it to be a bit of a joke for the company, for designers and those of the audience who would recognize her intentions.

So does Paula Scher get away with it because she is Paula Scher? Because of her reputation, because she was one of many doing it? Because it’s dramatically blatant? Because it’s a joke?

It raises an interesting question — what role does design history play for us today? Is it for mere interest? Is it something to bounce off? Something to recreate? Emulate? Ignore?

Personally, I get that it was a joke of sorts. Though, perhaps, not a funny one, but I’m not one for whom context plays any role – I was in diapers when Scher’s campaigns run.

But it is your opinion I think will be more interesting than mine. So please, do tell me, what do you think? Parody or plagiarism? What role does yesterday have today?


Good History/Bad History by Tibor Kalman
There is something enigmatically drawing about Kalman’s writing and this piece is no different. After reading it, you realise how important our history is and the benefits one can have from understanding the details, not just the pictures.

Make It Bigger by Paula Scher
In 2004, Paula put together much of her work and actually wrote about it all! A nice monograph as it is more than just pretty pictures, names and dates — she goes into detail about her process and thoughts on many projects. A must for your collection.

Looking Closer: Critical Writings on Graphic Design
The first in a great series that bring together essays, ideas and thoughts on graphic design. In this issue a reprint of the Kalman Good History/Bad History article is included.

Meggs’ History of Graphic Design
Oh I’m sure you have a copy! Why wouldn’t you? This link is just so you can … uh … give it to a friend, right? This is a pinnacle piece and one of the most important design books available. Buy it and I’ll buy you a cookie and we can laugh at those who don’t have their own copies!

I found the Great Beginnings shots here. I must say, one of the biggest rewards I get from researching online is stumbling over sites like this one — interesting and clever.