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Plagiarism or parody?

It happens to the best: legendary graphic designer Paula Scher was at the center of a semi-scandal in the mid-eighties...so, what happened?

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October 26, 2021

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In a career spanning over five decades, Paula Scher, a Pentagram partner since 1991, has designed for some of the world’s most recognizable brands including Microsoft, Bloomberg, Citibank, Tiffany & Co., and vast swaths of New York City’s cultural landscape. In 1984 she was at the center of a semi-plagiarism scandal, allegedly copying a poster by Swiss designer Herbert Matter in a Swatch campaign.


The Swiss watch company approached Scher and her then partner Terry Kopel, knowingly aiming for a campaign using the style the duo had mastered in those years: American 1950s advertising aesthetics, combined with witty, tongue-in-cheek copy parodying the era.


Scher’s poster for the campaign ended up causing quite the stir. It portrays a smiling woman in a visor, wearing two Swatch watches, and in the background were skiers on the Swiss alps. To the untrained eye, the poster may hold no meaning other than reflecting Swatch’s easy-breezy style. But to design enthusiasts, it told a different story. Scher appropriated and created a near replica of an iconic poster by Herbert Matter, who designed the campaign for the Swiss National Tourist Office and Swiss resorts in the 1930s.

Though Scher asked—and received—permission to use the image; and though the poster is credited to Koppel & Scher with Herbert Matter, it is still remembered as a controversy never fully resolved. Was it a parody? Or indeed plagiarism?


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