Paula Scher’s identity for New York’s Public Theater has become the ne plus ultra of graphic design. When it was created in 1994, no one had ever seen anything quite like it. With its bold red and black typography, the logo combined letters of different sizes, weights, and spacing, running vertically down the side of a letterhead, envelopes, and posters.

In her book, Make it Bigger, the designer described the identity’s development.[i] After the theater’s founder, Joseph Papp, died in 1991, the new director, George C. Wolf, wanted to rejuvenate and broaden the theater’s image as a place for everyone: all ages, cultures, incomes, education levels, etc. Scher embraced this idea as it resonated with her own populist design attitude. Recalling the bold and blustering look of English nineteenth century wood type posters combining multiple styles and sizes of type laid out in horizontal bands, she aimed at a similar blunt, factual presentation of information. She also referred to the influential 1968 book by Rob Roy Kelly, American Wood Type, which illustrated 19th century vernacular wood type in different font styles, sizes, and weights.

Applying the wood type concept of brash, unsophisticated lettering, Scher and Wolf came up with the typographic logo “THE PUBLIC THEATER” in which the word “PUBLIC” was largest and incorporated “THE” in red, running horizontally within the “P” up-stroke, and balanced by “THEATER” in red, also placed horizontally, filling the width of the text block below. Also echoing (in reverse) the sample pages in Kelly’s book (see Fontshop’s version of Kelly’s graphic). The letters of Public get lighter in weight as they run down the page.

Because identities are always being tweaked/refreshed over time, when George C. Wolf retired in 2005 and Oscar Eustis became artistic director, coinciding with the theater’s 50th anniversary, the logo’s original wood type from the Morgan foundry became “Akzidenz Grotesque,” the red color disappeared and “Theater” was dropped from the bottom of the logo. This change, in my opinion, reflected common New York parlance as in “What’s playing at the Public?” Then, in 2008, the font evolved again to “Knockout” by the type font firm of Hoefler & Frere-Jones and a fat, emphatic square period was added. (The differences between these fonts are very subtle, but they reflect, I believe, the administration’s evolution in thinking about the Public). What’s the future to bring? What are your ideas for the logo to come? I’m sure Paula is already thinking about it!

Gail S. Davidson was formerly Curator and Head of Drawings, Prints & Graphic Design at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.


[i] Scher, Paula. Make it Bigger. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2002, pp. 170-171.

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