After moving to New York City to take her first job as a layout artist for Random House, Paula Scher was hired in 1972 by CBS Records as an ad designer. However, she had her heart set on the more performative and exploratory art of record sleeve design, a format that she’s become renowned for, having designed hundreds of covers over the course of her prolific career.

Today, the Pentagram partner tells us the story of how, at age 24, she landed and then went about designing her very first record sleeve, a colorful and strikingly typographic work for Charles Mingus’ classic dual album Changes One and Two.

Paula Scher by Jake Chessum © 2015
Paula Scher by Jake Chessum © 2015

“I was working in the promotion department for CBS Records designing trade ads when I was offered the job at Atlantic. The art director there, Bob Defrin, liked my ads. But in the Atlantic art department you got to design the record covers as well as ads, and I wanted to design record covers. Taking the job was an easy decision.

“This was 1974. Charles Mingus had just come out with two related albums called Changes One and Changes Two. He didn’t especially want a photograph of himself on the record cover. I had to eventually show the design to Nesuhi Ertegun (Ahmet’s brother) who managed Charles Mingus inside the company, and I decided to make an all-type cover.

“I listened to the album once. At the time I hated that kind of jazz and no idea I was designing a cover for something that was going to become a classic. Typography worked well with jazz albums because it was more abstract. I selected a wood typeface that I drew and added drop shadows to it. It was a good solution because it didn’t cost much to execute and Atlantic always had a more limited budget than CBS.

“The whole thing took a week to design and it probably took another week to make the mechanical. I made a comp by drawing the type with a rapidograph pen and rubbing down Cello-tack to create the color systems for the two albums. They were essentially the same design, but with the color changed. Nesuhi was happy with them. I hired a mechanical artist to draw the type from my hand lettering. Then I set the type for the back cover, added an existing picture of Charles Mingus, and marked up the mechanical for the printer.

“The most complicated part of the project was the color breaks. I matched my Cello-tack colors by picking percentages of magenta, cyan, black, and process yellow out of a color chart that was produced by a color separation company called Color Service. They had the best color break book in the business, and I memorized the percentages. The best gray, for example, was 5% blue, 5% yellow, and 5% red. If you selected a straight black percentage for the gray it looked cheap and wimpy, especially on the cardboard that record covers were printed on. There was an area of design production called pre-press that has totally disappeared now because color separations are accomplished on the computer.

I’m glad I learned to design before the computer; I learned a lot about color that way.

“Designing record covers in the ’70s was fantastic. They were big (12 3/8” x 12 3/8”). They were visible in records stores everywhere. They were culturally relevant. And they were global without testing, and with very few approvals. They were global with maybe a couple of people making a decision about it and a proofreader making copy corrections once. The technology was antiquated, but a global album could be accomplished in two weeks with another four weeks for color separations and printing.

Changes One and Two was released in 1975. It’s now 41-years-old and still in print. It lived as a CD for a period of time and the original cover was reprinted at the original record cover size, folded up in quarters so the type was partially visible, but still recognizable through the plastic. If you want to download it on your iPhone, my graphic will still appear. If you Google it now, both the album and CD graphic appear.

“People will always tell you that graphic design is ephemeral. Maybe it isn’t.”