Designer Paula Scher is no stranger to work with an activist message, but today’s political climate has reinforced why it has been an important and enduring part of her career. So when Planned Parenthood asked her to design supergraphics to envelop a three-story staircase at the nonprofit’s newly minted headquarters in New York, Scher jumped at the opportunity. The collage she created speaks to the organization’s 100-year history as a women’s health and birth control advocate. “It’s not enough to write a check and go away,” she says. “We’re going to have to be on the front lines because there’s too much at stake.”
The challenge for Scher and her team revolved around how to parse the organization’s complex, multi-layered history and communicate a visual narrative that embodies who they are and where they’re going. Rather than telling a story through a chronological timeline, the designers focused on an enduring theme at Planned Parenthood: its passion for reproductive rights. “[A timeline] seemed to be more filled with angst than what this place really was, which was heroic,” Scher says.
Borrowing from an approach she used for a mural at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, in Atlanta, Scher examined ephemera from Planned Parenthood’s past. While Planned Parenthood is a national organization, its affiliates operate independently so there isn’t a unifying style, but wit abounds. They’ve created their own ads, messaging, public service announcements, posters, pamphlets, pins, and more. Scher identified some of her favorite graphic devices that were used and remixed them into a massive collage that climbs a three-story stairwell. Scher combed the organization’s archives and admired the humor of retro line drawings that explained how contraceptives worked, photographs of women brandishing signs on the front lines of protests (these images are in slight relief from the rest of the mural, to add dimension), and clever slogans. She even enlarged a document from a 1991 Supreme Court case and emblazoned the wall with it.
“It’s a way to turn history into art,” Scher says.
Scher’s brash mural takes its cues from pop art in both the scale of images, the mixture of styles, and punchy effect. The almost Warholian colors come from Planned Parenthood’s pre-existing brand identity, which Scher augmented with the addition of yellow. Some of the graphics feature the ray dots that characterized Roy Lichtenstein’s campy paintings. That birth control is a mass-produced consumer product also plays into pop art’s obsession with the readymade; Scher made sure to include illustrations of the pill, condoms, and contraceptive foam on the walls. “You walk in under a prophylactic!” she exclaims.
While the mural was commissioned for Planned Parenthood’s new headquarters in Manhattan, the organization plans to reproduce sections of it in other offices starting with its West Coast outpost and possibly in D.C. It shows how the organization is beginning to implement design and design thinking–as it did with an Ideo-led patient experience project last year–on a national scale.
For an organization that has historically–and sometimes still presently–operated in the shadows and on the fringes, this design is meant to symbolize how far Planned Parenthood has come since its founding over 100 years ago.
Planned Parenthood, reproductive rights, and women’s health are under assault from the federal government. Yesterday, Trump signed an executive order reinstating a gag rule barring NGOs who receive U.S. money from providing or talking about abortion. This decision essentially restricts access to health care because providers cannot accurately communicate information regarding pregnancy and termination to their patients.
The International Planned Parenthood Federation–of which the PPFA is a member association–has already said it will not abide by the rule, risking $100 million in funding it receives from the U.S., according to a Guardian report. The PPFA has also issued a statement against the rule.
Scher’s mural is emblematic of this fight and a powerful reminder of why Planned Parenthood keeps fighting. Here’s hoping the graphics serve as an inspiring, galvanizing force for the organization for decades to come.