It’s peaceful to sit in the second floor waiting area of Pentagram’s New York City headquarters. Perhaps it’s due to the full-floor view of leafy Madison Square Park across Fifth Avenue. Or maybe it’s the nostalgic touches throughout the office*—an unplugged black rotary phone, for example, sits on a side table next to the comfy red couches. The most civilized touch could definitely be the The New York Times hanging from a metal rack on the wall. Sitting there in Pentagram’s elevated lobby, eyeing the Times, one feels a certain desire to chuck their always-on cellphone into the Fifth Avenue traffic, curl up with the inky newsprint, and spend the afternoon leisurely reading. But then the whole reason for this stop is to interview Natasha Jen. Her reputation precedes her. She was named one of Pentagram’s youngest partners ever, in 2012 at age 35.
Her far-reaching resume shows she can do just about anything: brand identities, multi-scale exhibitions, signage systems, print, motion, and interactive graphics, collaborations with universities, museums, fashion brands, and restaurants. There is even a rumor that she can fly.
Still, it leaves one question unanswered: Who is Natasha Jen? The impetus for having lunch was to hear about the life experiences that have shaped her perspective and contributed to her success.
At the 2017 99U Conference, you gave a talk that argued that design thinking is bullshit, which hit on a topic many other designers also felt passionate about and sparked a constructive debate on the subject. Is there another topic on your mind these days that has you fired up?
Oh yeah. It started during the U.S Presidential election when Donald Trump said awful things about, and exhibited awful behaviors toward, women. Since then there has been this rise of renewed feminism in American culture. Since the election, there has been news about sexual harassment, sexual discrimination, one after another, from different industries. The idea of feminism is in women’s heads and in our daily conversation. But, I’ve been noticing brands, especially women’s brands, use this newfound popularity of feminism to gain profit. To me, this is not genuine feminism. Some brands are actually trying to create, I think, a lot of insecurity in women; to make women feel: “Oh, I’m not good. Therefore, I need that.” I’ve seen that kind of rhetoric in different ways, but they are under this disguise of empowerment. I’m sorry, but they are not about empowerment. They are about generating profit.
This is something I have noticed more and more in advertising; how people approach topics around women’s body types. It’s not anything new, but there is a problem when we’re still talking about a certain body type as a kind of “ideal” body type. For example, there is a trend towards celebrating plus-size women, which is wonderful, but it is also a fine line. So, okay, skinny is now no good. We need to actually be large-size, but then if you look at being large, which a lot of times is biological, there is a fine line between being large and being obese. Are we actually saying that it’s okay to be obese? It’s not, right? Alternatively, we used to idealize thin, shapeless bodies. Which is equally problematic, because we were not really saying being anorexic was good, either.
Currently, our society does not have the selective ability to question these topics because, the way that social media works is that when you respond to something, you like it. If you don’t like it, you can walk away. There is not any form of dialogue in-between. We lose our ability to question. And we end up in this situation where there’s this kind of pseudo feminism wrapped under capitalism and we don’t have a way to question these things that are important for the progress of women’s rights, body image and feminism.
Can branding or design do anything to impact this?
Yes. And it’s actually doing a lot of things to enable this kind of pseudo feminism. I don’t want to call out names, but branding and marketing contributes, which is sad.
What would you do in response to what you’re seeing?
This may sound passive on the surface – as we can’t un-involve ourselves from capitalism – but we can choose not to participate in the consumption and production of these brands and their products. I still believe that the choice of not participating is a kind of activism.
You grew up in Taiwan, and have lived in New York City ever since you moved here to attend the School of Visual Arts (SVA). As a teenager, were your peers traveling internationally for college, or was this unique?
The reason why I pursued my college outside of Taiwan was because I just didn’t fit into the education system there. It’s a highly competitive, exam-based culture. In order to go from junior high to high school, you have to take a national exam. It’s brutal. They only take the top 30% of students for these schools and for the rest of the people it’s: “Good luck!” I couldn’t fit into that system. I did poorly in high school. Therefore, we all knew that there was no chance for me in the college entrance exam.
Basically, there would be no colleges in Taiwan who would let me in because I would be automatically eliminated. Where else could I go? I wanted to pursue art. Really, I wanted to become a painter. New York is an obvious artistic hub. I was late in my applications, so I applied only to SVA. I got in surprisingly. That’s how I got to New York.
What was your first impression of New York City?
It was mesmerizing. The first place that I went to after I got off the plane was Coney Island. My father had two friends, a couple living there, and they took me in. There was, and still is, a very big Russian town there. That was amazing to me—before that I had no idea what Russian culture was like. School was another new thing to me. I had never seen so many different ethnicities all in the same class. That was eye-opening.
Growing up you had career ambitions of being an astronaut, a detective, or, literally, Indiana Jones. What was it about these lines of work?
A sense of adventure, discovery, getting into the unknown, solving a mystery. I think astronauts are very similar to Indiana Jones, in different domains, but I feel that the nature of their work is similar. And I’m still very much drawn to adventurous archeology type of stories.
Prior to Pentagram, you had your own studio, njenworks, and then you joined Pentagram in 2012. Joining Pentagram seems like a no-brainer for just about any designer, but did you ever have any self-doubt about it or question the decision?
It wasn’t a 100%-sure decision for me, to tell the truth, because I had no experience running a business. Even when I was doing my own studio, the scale was so small that I didn’t have any business professional mechanism set up, such as payroll—I was the payroll department. So, there was a lot of self-doubt when I was invited.
First of all, it was just like: “Can I actually live up to the standard of Pentagram?” It was also mysterious to me as to how business is done here. But my partners shared the preliminary revenue numbers that I had to deliver that first year and it was a reasonable number –I was already doing that at my own studio. I thought, “Okay. That’s all right.” That’s how I stepped in.
How does the partnership at Pentagram work?
The structure of the partnership is equal among the partners, and each partner is an independent business center when it comes to their staffing and team’s overhead. However, the entire partnership shares the office’s collective overhead—the rent, utilities, that kind of stuff. It creates this practical support to each business. On an intellectual and philosophical level, the benefit of this model is that it allows each partner the freedom to pursue what they want, while also being able to draw upon the collective experience and wisdom of the other partners. The partnership creates a self-disciplined culture where you understand that you are a part of a larger ecosystem, and that your business actually matters to the rest of your partners.
Why is it important for creatives to have a strong understanding of the business side of the design business?
Having experience with your own business helps you to better relate to your clients’ businesses. You can feel their pain points and see the struggles, and you may be able to contribute some thinking beyond the design that may help their business.
How much of your time today is spent designing and how much is spent on project management, client relations, and business operations?
Design-wise, actually I don’t design on a computer anymore. But I’m very involved with the design process alongside my designers. The majority of my time, say 70%, is dedicated to designing the business, how the team works, and client relationships. I see this as a kind of design, but it’s very different from thinking about typography, for example.
What criteria do you use to evaluate which clients you want to take on?
Two things: Our personal interest in a particular subject matter or the problem and budget; if we can actually meet our budget. Pentagram doesn’t have strict criteria regarding qualifying new business the way that a traditional agency does, so I tend to follow my gut.
Where do you look for stories, for ideas?
There are cult magazines or websites that I occasionally visit. Not at the office because people would be at my door wondering, “What is she looking at? Alien stuff again?” I’m on Netflix a lot. In recent years, we’ve had several thought-provoking sci-fi films, from Prometheus to the Alien remake and now the Blade Runner remake. Sci-fi touches on a lot of the issues—technological, moral, environmental, cultural, geo-political—that we’re facing today, but ultimately it’s about what makes humans human.
Are there any cardinal rules to the Natasha Jen school of design?
I can’t stand
every 4-5 words
Like the way
this sentence is
A recent news article reported that the pastel-colored, minimalist packaging redesign you did for Brooklyn ice cream brand Van Leeuwen—which allows the pints to stand out in an aisle of pints that look similar—has contributed to a 200% uptick in sales. Can design really sell more ice cream?
Design can sell anything. Design can also destroy everything. Design is this double-edged sword.
To what degree does Taiwanese culture influence your design perspective and work?
It’s a very interesting question. I haven’t gotten that resolved yet. Taiwan is primarily Chinese culture; the language is Mandarin. And you’re constantly exposed to the 5,000-year-old history, always. Then Taiwan is also a former Japanese colony. Therefore, there’s a lot of residual Japanese stuff in the culture, from comic books to magazines to TV shows. I grew up with the intertwined nature of these two cultures. Taiwan is dense and has a lot of energy, but it’s not the most visually beautiful place. That environment does affect my sensibility because I gravitate toward something that has a vibrancy and density to it, but not necessarily visually busy.
Then I learned my entire design language and knowledge here in America—the knowledge I have about design is actually, primarily, a Western design thinking and philosophy. These two manifest in my work. I don’t know which one is influencing the other, but I think that on a surface level, you actually don’t see any kind of Chinese or Asian influence at all, unless there is a project that actually has that cultural background. Then you see that, Oh yeah, whoever designed this knows what she’s talking about.
What impact has New York City had on your work?
There is a kind of ambition that is unique to New York. You really have to want something in order to be here, and that has been a primary driver to our work. We’ve had experiences where we’ve been on the seventh round of a client revision, and we just keep going. That is a very New York characteristic—you just keep going.
Is there a New York landmark that most designers wouldn’t consider good design but that you love?
The NYC subway.
Wow, you’re taking a stand there. What makes it great in your eyes?
The MTA’s campaign posters and messaging are incredible, especially now that they have started to install digital screens in the cars. These posters for ‘If you see something, say something,’ ‘Do not breakdance in the cars,’ and ‘Don’t pick your phone up if you drop it on the tracks,’ with pictogram-style people. Now all these are becoming animations that I find hilarious, uniquely New York, and inspiring. The MTA deserves a lot more design credit.
I’ve noticed you have a tattoo of a fleuron on your wrist.
This was a kind of mindless and thoughtless decision when I first came to New York. It happened between my first year and second year at SVA. During that summer I got an internship at Eric Baker Design. Eric had a small but wonderful office on 23rd Street. It had an amazing library, but the library was a mess, so my first assignment was to help Eric organize the books. I literally had to go through every book, and categorize it as graphic design, typography, etc. At one point I found this old type specimen book, German Type Specimen Books (Schriftartexemplare), that has different typefaces, from Bodoni to gothic letters.
I was really drawn into the gothic letters, and I saw this one and thought, That’s such a pretty thing. Let me just put it on my body. So I Xeroxed the page and took it to a tattoo shop in the East Village. There’s no concept or meaning in it. It just marked a time that I was working with Eric, going through a library, and found this book. I got another one on my ankle of my initial “N,” from the same book. Growing up in Taiwan, I had never seen Gothic letters before and I started scanning a bunch of them and using them in my school assignments. Using this incredible library was the biggest benefit I got from working for Eric, and you will see a lot of stuff from the book everywhere in my life.
Including on your person.
You came to New York at a relatively young age, and you’ve built a strong career. Of course intellect, instinct, and ability all contribute to this, but what about on the personal character side of things? Was there a defining life moment that helped you develop the drive and perseverance necessary for success?
I remember one summer, my second summer in New York, where my father passed away, and I was broke. I had no kind of money or any skill whatsoever. And then a friend at school, who was also from Taiwan, said he knew about this city bus tour for Chinese tourists. It’s an all-day activity, and the tour company was looking for guides to describe the different New York landmarks—Wall Street, Central Park, the UN Building. He said I might get tips depending on how well I did. It sounded interesting, so I thought I would try it. Of course, I had no knowledge about any of these places; I hadn’t even been to most of them. So I went to Barnes & Noble the day before I started working and got two books on New York and memorized everything. The next day I got on the bus and guided tours for the whole summer. I actually made good money. You just figure it out.
*Pentagram has since moved to Park Avenue.