Design as Performance Art
Pentagram partner Natasha Jen thinks of the design business as a kind of performing art. “Wherever you are in an organization, that defines the stage on which you are playing,” she says. “But it is up to you what you choose to play, how you prepare, how you engage the audience. I think of Pentagram as a really large stage on which I am lucky enough to perform.”
One of the youngest designers ever to be named partner of Pentagram’s New York office, Jen is known for her resourceful use of graphic means to challenge the norms of digital and physical spaces, producing intelligent, often witty work that is widely accessible. In her six years at the company, Jen has been astoundingly prolific, with a resume that ranges from brand identity systems and print, motion, and interactive graphics to exhibition and retail design, lighting and architectural design, signage, fashion, and even virtual reality.
While she doesn't think of herself as confrontational, Jen doesn’t shrink from controversy. She created something of a splash at last summer’s 99U Conference with a presentation provocatively titled “Design Thinking is Bullshit.” (View the talk and read an interview with Jen about it.) Her point: “Design thinking” reduces the design process to a formula or template and undervalues the importance of both critical design and talent.
“I know the title was sensational and feels simplistic,” says Jen, “but it got my view across. I never really subscribed to the common point of view that designers are finally getting a seat at the table. I look at it differently. Corporations have long acknowledged that good design is good for business, that’s nothing new. It’s been around since at least the Sixties. But the question for them is, what do we do with designers? How do we work with them? I think that’s where design thinking came in: as a way to bridge that gap to communicate more effectively.”
“My question,” Jen continues, “is whether design thinking is the right answer to this problem we have. I don’t think so. Designers have never really confronted how we speak to each other. Artistry, expression, visuality, these things are terrifying to most of the corporate world, which is fearful of anything that cannot be measured or templatized. And metrics, standardized mechanisms, how you optimize a system, these are terrifying thoughts to most designers. So how do we talk to each other and understand the value we each bring to the table?”
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Jen’s main criticism of design thinking is that “it really rejects the importance of talent," she says. "Talent matters 100 percent. Talent is sometimes born, but it’s more often cultivated through rigorous practice. It’s like strengthening a muscle. That’s what it takes to be good at anything performative: music, sports, anything.”
Born and raised in Taipei, Jen came to New York’s School of Visual Arts to study painting in 1998 and switched to graphic design mostly for practical reasons. “I needed to earn a living,” she says. She interned with Pentagram’s Paula Scher, and then worked at several New York design firms (Base Design, 2x4 Inc., SYPartners) before starting her own small firm, Njenworks, in 2010. Two years later, at age 34, she got the partnership invitation from Pentagram.
“I see myself as a nomad,” says Jen. “The question around self-identity is always a lot more nuanced as an immigrant in America, and as an Asian and a woman. I still have this outsider view about myself, a feeling that I’m on the fringe of something. I never feel that I’m at the center. And that slight discomfort, I think, is interesting because it keeps you on your toes a little bit.”
Asked how she thinks her upbringing in Taiwan influences her work, Jen hesitates. “I never answer this question completely,” she says. “When I was growing up in Taiwan, I felt very grounded and comfortable there, and when I go back I feel this gentle and soothing familiarity. But now I’m probably too culturally distant to live there. New York is my home. I’m still beginning to understand how my roots influence what I do. Taipei is a very dense city, congested, and on the street you see tons and tons of signage. So there’s a vibrancy and exuberance, and that quality I do try to recreate in our work.”
A typical workday at starts at about 8AM for Jen, who gives herself an hour to answer emails in the morning. “Except for that hour, I’m not great at structuring my time into activity blocks,” she says. “We work with our clients’ schedules.” Days are filled with client and design meetings. “I spend a lot of time with my designers, one project at a time, one PDF at a time,” she says, adding that she does very little design work herself at the computer these days. “Typically, I use the evenings to think about our projects directionally, where they should go.” She works long hours and usually goes to bed around 1 or 2 AM. What she loves, she says, is the culture of self-disciplined collaboration.
“The special thing about Pentagram is that here you really feel like you’re in a classroom environment,” says Jen. “You never feel you’re in a corporate hierarchy. Our design team is really flat.” Her team of seven designers is made up of two senior associates who not only generate their own work, but also are expected to mentor the five younger designers. “It’s a very productive, super creative way to work, where the younger designers feel they can lead while they learn,” she says. The structure of the Pentagram partnership is one of equality: each partner operates an independent business unit, with their own staffing and budget, but the entire partnership shares the office’s collective overhead. “The benefit is that each partner has the freedom to pursue the projects they want but can also draw on the collective experience of the other partners.”
Jen’s workspace is not cluttered. “I don’t keep any favorite things on my desk,” she says. “I see it as a utilitarian zone. When I sit here, I’m in working mode.” Her home in Brooklyn, however, which she shares with her husband and two Shih Tzu dogs (“They look like Ewoks from Star Wars, they’re hilarious”), is another story. Her home studio features a wall of bookshelves filled with animal toys that Jen collects from different parts of the world. “I’m really into toys. Toys are seemingly simple objects, but they’re not so simple if you look at the intention behind them—zebras or giraffes from Africa, sheep from Iceland. What’s fascinating is how different they are in form. You get an interesting, nuanced sense of a culture from the shape and design and materials they use in their toys.”
To recharge, Jen binges on film. “I love watching movies: sci-fi, horror, drama, comedy, documentary—in that order,” she says. “It’s one of the few total relaxations that I have.”
Eating is another passion. “Seriously, I am obsessed with food,” she laughs. “I’m always trying something new. I find cooking similar to designing because it’s all about identifying a clear direction of what you are going to make. Once you have that direction, you begin to narrow down parameters and define the ingredients through which you’re going to achieve your goal. Then you look at how to prepare the ingredients, how much time you simmer them, how you’ll mix them ahead of the final presentation. It’s very similar.”
The Next Stage
So what’s the next venue where Jen hopes to perform? “I’ve been working on branding for augmented reality and virtual reality lately,” she says. “It’s a new medium, a totally new way of experiencing the world, and we have not yet figured out what it’s good for. That is very exciting, and we’ve gained enormous insight into how to position such a new medium, how we think about brand identity, and in what ways consumers might embrace or reject these new media." The biggest challenge, Jen believes, is to overcome the hardware barrier of the devices. "We have a long way to go until they are wearable, seamless, light, and beautiful on the face," she says. "The same way that mobile phone became smaller, more powerful, more compact, and are now an extension of our day-to-day life."
Jen is as interested in the limits of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) applications as their potential. She points to medical procedures, architectural modeling, and certain real-time battleground military simulations as practical applications of VR technology that clearly work. But she is much more animated when she describes an immersive movie project that bombed spectacularly.
“There have been lots of experiments in VR immersive story-telling in the last three to four years,” she says. “Some are successful in the market place, some are not. What we began to question is what prevents people from getting back into the VR device again, after the first try. Is it because the way humans navigate is one-directional, front-facing, as opposed to 360 degrees? Or is it because the hardware is not perfectly fitting yet? These are questions we try to answer.”
“New technologies take trial and error to figure out, but I believe we are on the cusp of a whole new set of meaningful applications that might transform our smart phones into a new way of experiencing the world.” You can bet Natasha Jen will be there, trodding the boards.