I was first introduced to Laura 13 years ago on the steps of the California Academy of Sciences, where she was working on branding and signage for Pentagram. I was writing a piece on this new Renzo Piano museum and comparing it to the Herzog & De Meuron de Young Museum across the way in Golden Gate Park. Our paths often crossed in the Pentagram offices, where I have frequented since the ’90s, working with Kit Hinrichs and his associates. Over the last ten years, Laura and I have become close friends as we share interests in art, design, film, food, mountains, friends, biking, dogs, coffee, beaches, politics—all of it. We have never worked together on design projects, but her signage and branding projects for Equator Coffees, Anderson Collection at Stanford University, and California Academy of Sciences are frequent local reminders of her talent.
Rob ForbesMany designers confess that they knew they were going to be designers when young in life, before college. This does not seem to be the case with you, given your majors in English and Art History. What was the inflection point that moved you into the design profession?
Laura ScottUp until college, I thought I wanted to be a pediatrician. My first biology class began with my professor putting two large glass canisters on his lab table filled with the placentas of his children. So I quickly moved on to Beowulf, The Faerie Queene, and The Odyssey. I was always focused on majoring in English, but my double major actually came as a surprise. To take a break from endless reading and critical writing, I started taking studio art and Art History classes—design, painting, printmaking, ancient Greek and Roman art, Romanticism, Realism, Fauvism…. I then lived in Paris for a semester abroad to study French contemporary art and literature and had the incredible opportunity to wander through the Louvre on private night tours and hang out in the Pompidou before it opened. When I was filling out my paperwork for graduation, I found out that I’d taken so many classes in Art History that I earned enough credits to double major. It wasn’t until I was working in communications for an education association in Washington, D.C., a couple of years later, that I became aware of graphic design as a possible profession. At the time, I was the editor of the association’s monthly newsletter. I’d always cared about the story, but suddenly I had one of those lightbulb moments: graphic design was the perfect synchrony of words and visuals—the synthesis of my two majors.
RFYou moved to the Bay Area from the East Coast in the early ’90s. What brought you here? Was it the design profession world and the three Michaels, the trails of Mount Tamalpais, or what?
LSWhen I realized that I was interested in pursuing graphic design, I started looking at MFA programs that would take me somewhere exciting and new. I was married at the time to a whitewater kayaker, and we were both avid mountain bikers (he was actually riding a Marin bike at the time, aptly founded in Marin County, CA), so we were immediately drawn to programs in the Bay Area for its access to trails and rivers. I applied to the Academy of Art College’s (now the Academy of Art University) program under Paul Hauge, was accepted, quit my job in D.C., and drove west. I traded one set of East Coast “Ms” (Michael, Milton, and Massimo) for a West Coast trio of Michaels. One of my first interviews after graduate school was actually with Michael Osborne, but I didn’t get the job.
RFYou have worked for a broad range of clients that range from a small coffee brand to a large venture capital firm. But most of your work seems to be in the education and nonprofit areas. I assume this is by choice? What criteria do you look for in prospective new clients today?
LSOur clients and their passions are diverse, and this keeps our studio continuously learning. But despite the range, there is a clear commonality—each organization we work with is socially responsible and striving to make a difference in people’s lives, be it through developing revolutionary plant-based foods, opening a person’s ears, eyes, and heart to music and dance, improving the quality of life in coffee growing regions, celebrating those who support cultural and intellectual exploration, or nurturing the next generation of leaders and innovators in the fields of law, business, and technology. This client criterion is why so much of our work falls in the education and nonprofit sectors. We immerse ourselves in our projects in order to understand the nuances of the design challenge—we live them—so we owe it to ourselves to be selective. And if we’re going to invest our creative thinking and time and care, we only want to do that with courageous, resolute clients who understand the value of collaboration and teamwork.Knock on wood—it’s been so long since we’ve had a bad client experience, and I think it’s because we do say no and heed any early “bad project/bad client” warning signs.
RFThere is an obvious theme running through your client's list, that of supporting community and causes. Where did this sense of social responsibility come from? Is it a reaction to our commercial world?
LSSupporting community—investing in others—is something that was ingrained in me at an early age, thanks to my parents: If I receive, I must give back; if something isn’t right, it’s up to me to change it; don’t just try to make things, but try to make things better. My father is a doctor, and my sister and I would accompany him on his weekend hospital rounds as kids. We were often around people who were sick or struggling, and that exposure had a profound impact. It made me really see people and taught me the pricelessness of even the smallest acts of kindness. My sense of social responsibility is absolutely a counter-reaction to our commercial world, but it is more the recognition of what fulfills me personally.
RFI know that you have a passion for films of all types. The only documentary film I have seen on graphic design was Helvetica. If you were to direct your own film on graphic or communication design, what would be your point of view?
LSYou’re so right: I do love a good movie. There have been several great films and series on designers recently. Three that I keep coming back to are the Netflix original Abstract: The Art of Design featuring the uber talented Paula Scher; Design Is One, the beautiful documentary on Lella and Massimo Vignelli; and The Happy Film, where Stefan Sagmeister turns himself into his very own design project. Though very different in style, all painted revealing and inspiring portraits of some the world’s most influential designers. As for the documentary Helvetica, I love that someone dared to make a feature-length film with a Swiss typeface as the protagonist in such a witty and wonderful way. It was brilliant. Personally, I’ve never thought about directing a film, let alone a film on graphic design—so it’s an interesting question to muse on. I think it would be fun to make a film that fully plays out the Mac vs. PC ad campaign, but I’d rather write the screenplay and design the titles and leave the directing to Phil Morrison.
RFWhat do you do for design inspiration today? How has this varied over time? If you had a flock of interns and a generous budget, where would you take them to see great design?
LSFor me, design inspiration comes in the strangest of forms sometimes: from a perfectly plated meal to the palette of grays spanning sea to sky on a foggy San Francisco day. But it most always comes when I’m really looking at things, especially when I’m traveling. I start to see connections that I hadn’t seen before. I love to see exhibitions and attend lectures or take classes—just being exposed to as much as possible—that makes me think about things in new ways. I like the thought of a flock of interns…but maybe a colony of interns is more appropriate? With a generous budget, I would take them to Paris to explore Le Marais, taking in the Musée Picasso, the Centre Pompidou, Atelier Brancusi, the incredible architecture of La Place des Vosges, and the Parisian sense of style…while sipping a Kir Royale.
RFI know your social “style” more than your professional “style.” You walk fast, bike fast, return emails fast. Do you design fast? Do have a specific design process or approach that you adhere to?
LSThat’s funny. I’ve never really thought about me being a speedy person—but you’re right. I even eat fast! I’m definitely efficient, and I guess that often translates into speed. When it comes to design, I execute fast, but with ideation—that’s always in its own time. Sometimes a concept or solution comes to me quickly, and other times it needs to be coaxed out or discovered. I always start designing sketching on paper—that’s my only rule. I never go directly to the computer, where you can become myopic at a stage that should be unrestrained.
RFHow would your staff describe your overall direction?
LSI hope they would say that my direction comes with a light, decisive touch. I like to give as little direction as necessary to help the idea blossom or inspire new thinking.
RFYou put in ten years working at Pentagram, beginning in 1999, a time when the graphic design profession was in great change because of the advent of the internet. What was your experience like there? How did your experience there prepare you for the future?
LSI joined Kit Hinrichs’ team at Pentagram in the thick of the dot-com bubble. We were so busy designing branding for unconventionally-named internet companies that seemingly appeared overnight—a cybersecurity company named ArcSight, an IT consulting firm named Vectiv, an interaction agency named Organic, an online payments system named PayPal. It was a crazy and exciting time. And then the bubble burst and there was a big readjustment in clients. Working at Pentagram and with Kit was incredible, so much so that it’s hard to put words to. It was this perfect mixture of talented people working on interesting projects in a cool, SOMA space. The Pentagram diaspora is wonderfully tightknit, and I am so proud to be a part of it. Actually, it was Pentagram that introduced me to the AIGA, giving an AIGA membership to each designer as part of their employment package. And Kit was a true “giving back” role model through his involvement with and support of the local AIGA chapter and greater national organization—hosting studio tours, reviewing portfolios, lecturing, sponsoring and participating in events. He was recognized for this commitment in 1999 as the first AIGA SF Fellows Award recipient—the year I joined Pentagram. So I feel especially honored to be following in his footsteps.
RFHow do you describe what you do and your unique point of view in design? If I asked you for a quintessential Laura Scott design solution for a client, what would it be?
LSI think I would describe myself as a visual solutionist: I listen and take everything in, and then extract the kernels that spark the design process. But the work our studio creates isn’t about me or about us, it’s about finding an answer to a client’s particular design challenge. We ask a lot of questions, and we push our clients to do the same. There is no quintessential Laura Scott design solution—each is thankfully completely its own.
RFMany graphic designers I know are obsessed with fonts, kerning, leading, and the details of the craft. Do you have similar obsessions?
LSAs the vehicle we use to convey our thoughts and ideas, typography deserves the utmost respect. We talk about type in our studio like we’re talking about people: sweet but with an edge; friendly, but maybe a little too friendly? Bad kerning makes me particularly insane. As does the very thought of Brush Script. I could go on and on….
RFYou are an athlete: lacrosse, field hockey, sea kayaking, competitive mountain biking. How do these activities fit into your lifestyle today? Is this something that informs your work?
LSI think I have to say that I was an athlete. But now I’m just a sports enthusiast. ☺ Competing was incredible because it required such focus and training—it didn’t allow my mind to wander. Now I spend time doing yoga, running, walking, hiking, and exploring—perfect activities for mind wandering. I’ve stumbled upon many design solutions during my walks to and from the studio. I have to give my mind time to be free and bored and have pinball-like thoughts to be most creative.
RFAs a 30-year-plus Bay Area business owner and entrepreneur, I have hired and/or worked with maybe more than 40 local graphic designers, mostly on retail-related design projects. But you have never pitched me for work—you got something against retail?
LSI clearly remember components of the Design Within Reach branding system in production while I was at Pentagram. You’ve always been an amazing supporter of design in all its forms—architecture, furniture, ceramics, graphics, experience design. And of the AIGA. No—nothing against great retail whatsoever. I’m a happy consumer.
RFYou gave the valedictorian speech upon graduation at the Academy of Art in 1997. Do you remember the content? What was on your mind back then? And if you were invited back to your undergrad alma mater—Colby College—to give a speech to undergraduates heading into the working world, what advice would you give them?
LSGiving that speech was one of the most nervous moments I’ve experienced in my life. The Academy of Art had given the graduate and undergraduate valedictorians a session with a speech coach, which I found invaluable—“speak slowly, don’t lock my legs out, look out above head height and whatever you do, don’t make eye contact.” That day, I spoke to the thousands gathered at the Masonic Auditorium about two things: 1) seeing failure or mistakes as a pathway to greater success and, 2) giving back to the next generation of designers. I think I would give much of the same advice to GenZ undergraduates entering the work world today, but I would add the importance of reading, of respecting the truth and being really present. If your head is buried in a smart device, real life is passing you by.
Rob Forbes has been a ceramic artist, professor, author, publisher, photographer, retailer, and entrepreneur, best known as the founder of Design Within Reach and PUBLIC Bikes and as the author of How to See. Rob has received numerous awards and public recognition for his advocacy of art, design, and urbanism, and serves on several boards in the nonprofit sector. His career has relied upon many AIGA SF designers, with special acknowledgment of Kit Hinrichs, Melanie Doherty, and Eric Heiman.