Natasha Jen and her Pentagram team designed the brand identity system for Venn.

Design as Performance Art

By Serena Fox

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.

Storefront for Art and Architecture: Closed Worlds

Contradictions excite Jen. The two biggest challenges for the design of this project were contradictory. Its content included 42 case studies of man-made, enclosed living architecture, but the storefront exhibition space was tiny. “Our solution integrated both graphic and spatial solutions,” says Jen. “We created a customized typeface that evoked the “closed” nature of content, and the type became the visual web, creating a powerful first-glance experience. Then we deployed 42 cylinders, each containing a story about a case study, to create punctuations in the space.”

Center for Architecture / New Practices New York

Using graphic means to create impactful experiences is Jen’s passion. “We’re very good at working with minimal budgets to create maximum impact, especially when a space–be it retail or exhibition–is involved,” says Jen. “For this exhibition, the budget was extremely small, and we wanted to defy the budget constraint and really activate the space. Our solutions was to use duct tape and picture frames from IKEA to create a unified ‘super web’ that ties the exhibition content together. The total cost of the materials was less than $1,600.”

London Design Biennale 2016: Border City

Complex content inspires radical design solutions. This exhibition content, created by the architecture firm FR-EE Fernando Romero Enterprise, dealt with complex geo-political, economic, and urban research material: statistics, urban grids, city planning proposals. Confronted with massive amounts of research, Jen had to create a visual thread that reflected the architect's urban design concept and created a meaningful spatial experience. “We went back to the essential form of the urban grid that Fernando and his team proposed: a hexagon grid,” says Jen. “The hexagon became the only building block for the entirety of the exhibition graphics and the custom font we created.”

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.”

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.”

Flour and Salt Bakery

“I always ask if we can do something that goes against the current,” says Jen. Flour and Salt is an organic bakery chain in Taipei. Jen’s team named the brand, created the identity and packaging, and designed the interior of the store. “We stayed apart from all the French/European-influenced classicism commonly seen in the baking industry,” says Jen. “Since organic is really about essentialism, our idea was to create a brand that looks and feels essential and minimal, while preserving a kind of richness that’s embedded in baked goods.” The name “flour and salt” conveys the two basic building blocks of bread and was designed into two pictograms that became the identity. The pictograms were important design elements in the store, showing up in the ceiling lighting, the floor tile, and the wallpaper.

LOROD

Jen seeks out passionate entrepreneurs. “I’m drawn to organizations and people who show a vision,” she says. The fashion label Lorod, an up-and-coming brand sometimes seen on celebrities, was founded by Lauren Rodriguez and Michael Freels, two students from Parsons School of Design. “They not only had the ambition and sheer talent for their collection, but they also had the guts to ask Pentagram to design their brand identity, as opposed to working with a small studio or a freelancer as most startups tend to do,” says Jen. “They had a small budget, but I was immediately drawn to their design sensibility and their big dreams.”

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.”

Van Leeuwen

Visionaries can be delicious. Brooklyn-based Van Leeuwen was already a cult ice cream brand with fans who followed their handcrafted flavors religiously when the company approached Pentagram for rebranding. “They asked us to look specifically at what was not working on their packaging,” says Jen. “It was incredible for us to learn how much effort they put into sourcing the best ingredients and coming up with creative new recipes. I smile when I look at our work for Van Leeuwen. Not only because we answered the questions posed by the brand and helped increase their market share, we were also inspired by their work in a big way.”

Venn Skincare

“When I see a ground-breaking product, I jump on it” says Jen. “I know I’ll learn something interesting, and I know I’ll work with people who can inspire me.” When Venn Skincare co-founder and CEO Brian Oh approached Pentagram with reams of scientific studies and clinical tests, “I knew he was onto something special in the crowded market of skincare, where the majority of products don’t fulfill their promises,” says Jen. The team focused on authoritative authenticity. “We branded Venn from the ground up: naming the product, naming the technology, creating the brand’s verbal messages and voice, visual identity, packaging, and eventually the e-commerce website. We worked with Brian every step of the way—literally, down to editing the ingredient descriptions.”

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.”

Marketplace

Graphics are sometimes the most powerful design solution. This metal shed, formerly a marble factory in a rural area on the eastern coast of Taiwan, was being transformed into a marketplace and needed a facelift of the facade. “Our proposal was simple,” says Jen. “We used color stripes that continuously cover the surfaces of the building to create a mega color block that can be seen from far away. The color stripes create a stark contrast to the surrounding landscape that is beautiful and surreal.”

Base Incubator

Jen’s interest in the interplay of spatial and graphic goes beyond exhibitions. Base Incubator is a business incubation space in Taipei. “Our task was to design the space, from programming and branding to furniture and interior, in a holistic way,” she says. “Here you see how the identity and furniture design—one is super playful, and the other is super simple with plain wood—create a deliberate contrast but a cohesive environment.”

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.