Title: Senior designer, the Museum of Modern Art
From: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Lives In: Manhattan
To hear Sabine Dowek describe it, her job at the in-house design studio of New York City’s Museum of Modern Art is an almost impossibly perfect fit. “You know when people ask you, What’s your dream job? I never knew the answer,” she says. “But this is like the dream I didn’t know I had.”
It’s a dream both because her colleagues there are friendly and inspiring and because the position involves a diversity of projects: exhibition design, advertisements, invitations, and promotional videos. This is a balance that Dowek is keen to strike as a designer. After graduating from New York City’s School of Visual Arts in 2009, Dowek worked for Rodrigo Corral, designing book covers. But she quickly realized that she didn’t want to be “a book-cover designer”—just as now, at MoMA, she doesn’t want to be “an exhibition designer.” “I really want to be able to be as free as I can and take whatever projects interest me,” she says. “And not put myself in a box.”
Dowek’s range is among her major strengths. “Every assignment is important to her, whether it’s really small or really big,” says Julia Hoffmann, the creative director of MoMA’s design studio. “She doesn’t repeat herself.” Hoff mann points to Dowek’s invitation design for a benefit honoring Quentin Tarantino, as well as her work on a 16-by-20-foot graphic for the exhibition “Inventing Abstraction.” The wall graphic, realized with the art director Ingrid Chou, applies the idea of social networks to art history and also pays homage to an influential chart created by MoMA’s first director in 1936.
Dowek’s job at MoMA leaves her enough time to pursue freelance projects, including book covers for publishers in her native Brazil and illustrations for The New York Times’ Op-Ed section. “Sabine has an innate ability to realize language conceptually, and I don’t mean with general typographic wordplay,” says Matt Dorfman, who has art directed her work for the Times. “She does excel at that, but she goes after something more difficult, which is tone and pacing and timing. She’s able to wrap these elements all up at once in single-image visuals in a way that’s consistently memorable.”
Dowek hopes to continue expanding her reach. At the top of her wish list is branding and identity work, especially for restaurants. “I feel like there’s something—when you see a menu and the typography and it’s so nicely placed,” she says. “Just looking at it, it gives you such a nice feeling. And I think a successful design does that.”
Title: Designer, Princeton Architectural Press
From: Kutztown, PA
Lives In: Brooklyn
Elana Schlenker is a serial entrepreneur and an autodidact. As a student at the University of Pittsburgh, she launched an arts and culture magazine. She didn’t know a thing about printing at first but figured it out while publishing the magazine. She wasn’t proficient in InDesign when she interviewed for an internship that required it, so she learned the program on her own, designed a showcase project with it, and, several weeks later, got the job. More recently, she launched the magazine Gratuitous Type, a celebration of typographic magnificence that she single-handedly writes, designs, and edits.
Schlenker got a B.A. in art and a B.S. in marketing, but her heart was in design, so naturally, she did an independent study in the area. Arriving in New York City after graduation, she took a job as an art director at the Condé Nast division that creates ads for big brands like Procter & Gamble and Samsung.
Her freelance design projects are approachable but fully considered, including exhibition catalogs and an identity and design system for Dépanneur, a grocery and sandwich shop in Brooklyn. Schlenker created a chalkboard menu with typically charming typographic flourishes. “What I like about that project is a narrative through a lot of my work,” she says. “The final work involves templates that the staff at Dépanneur can use very inexpensively, very flexibly, and self-sufficiently.”
Schlenker’s love of typography runs throughout her work, particularly in the two issues of Gratuitous Type (a third is on the way). The magazine revels in the pleasures of the printed page, with varying paper stocks and inserts that lend a heightened sense of physicality to the contents. “I try to always ask myself, What am I doing that you couldn’t do on a screen?” she says. “Part of that is the tactility and part of it is the content, the way you present it.”
Schlenker is now a designer at Princeton Architectural Press, working on books such as Brooklyn Makers, an anthology of work from the borough’s artisans. “The book has a lot of nuance in terms of material and typeface choices that provide a nice edge to it,” says Paul Wagner, PAP’s design director. “There’s also an editorial and content-development sensibility she’s bringing that’s really valued in a lot of the projects here.” In that vein, Schlenker has been the lead on Princeton’s recent gift line of note cards and journals, which she’s shepherded from idea to form. “I like doing the really big-picture stuff , the overall design, and then I like sitting down at the end and ragging every line,” Schlenker says of book design. “It’s really satisfying to feel like you did everything.”
Title: Illustrator and Graphic Designers
From: Barbera del Valles, Spain
Lives In: Barcelona
Javier Jaén’s mother tongues are Spanish and Catalan, but his work transcends language. His illustrations and editorial graphics are as clear and clever to speakers of English—or Hungarian or Cantonese—as they are to those who share a language with Jaén. The designer is a champion of double meanings, multilayered metaphors, and upended clichés. “I have always felt very close to the word, and I’m interested in language and identity as cultural and communicative phenomena,” he says.
Seven years ago, Jaén left his small town outside the Catalonian capital to study fine arts at the University of Barcelona (with sidelines in cake baking, journalism, and radio). Further study at Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design in Budapest, Hungary, and the Cooper Union in New York City, reinforced his dedication to a career in design.
In his smart and sly editorial illustrations for a number of international publications, Jaén often tackles serious subjects with novel constructions. Matt Dorfman, who has art directed Jaén at The New York Times, says that he himself “raged with the kind of envy that illustrators sometimes have when they come across a whole well of ideas that they wish they had thought of on their own. Javier creates these stark, wordless little masterpieces that always find a way to comment on the text they’re accompanying rather than simply regurgitate the talking points.”
Jaén is currently teaching illustration at a Barcelona university and is enthusiastic about the responsibility. “School should be a place to take risks, where you can take things to a point of tension,” he says. “I like to think of classes as a laboratory experiment.” When asked to elaborate on his plans for the coming year, Jaén, much like in his work, produces an illuminating answer that twists and transcends the topic at hand: “I’m about to turn 30 years old,” he says, “and still I have not written a child, planted a book, or given birth to a tree. Everything is waiting to be done.”
Title: Information Designer, Bloomberg
Lives In: Brooklyn
When the big story coming out of the presidential election is how statistical geeks won the day, it’s clear we’re entering a new era of data mining. The staggering amount of material that our technology collects far outpaces our ability to digest it, making the analysis of raw data an increasingly invaluable resource. At the center of this effort are information designers like Kenton Powell who straddle the lines between graphic designer, software developer, and researcher. Powell corrals complex data into thought-provoking graphics, such as the Blueprint for War organizational chart he created in 2007, while still a student at New York City’s School of Visual Arts (SVA). It connects the facts, organizations, people, and places contributing to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. “It feels like I have a level of authorship because it’s not strictly a design task,” Powell says of becoming an information designer. “It’s research and thinking and contextualizing.”
Powell graduated from SVA in 2008 and cut his teeth as a designer for Bloomberg Businessweek, where, starting in 2010, he created graphics in support of editorial content. His design process is front loaded, with the bulk of time spent researching and understanding the topic at hand, parsing the appropriate data, and then sketching various scenarios. “Kenton is one of those people who can both recite historical meteorological data and unironically dramatize the merits of Bud Light Platinum—he takes all his topics seriously,” says Jennifer Daniel, the magazine’s graphics director. “He is drawn to do things he doesn’t know how to do, and that curiosity leads him to meeting new people and learning new ways to gather data.”
Powell’s latest curiosity is interactive design. He has been independently creating an interactive screen-based map that plumbs U.S. Census data and allows users to plot layers of information against one another for comparison. It would turn the disorganized quagmire of census numbers into a rich, easy-to-use resource. Last June, Powell left the magazine to join a new division within the larger Bloomberg media company dedicated to data visualization on the screen. One of his recently launched projects was an interactive ranking of billionaires that can be cross-referenced by industry, gender, age, citizenship, and source of wealth. “Data visualization and information graphics are related, but they have been separate disciplines,” says Lisa Strausfeld, a former Pentagram partner who is now Bloomberg’s global head of data visualization. “One is a graphic design discipline and the other is software design, and we are merging the two. Kenton is the bridge on the team between the two sides.”
Whether working in print or on-screen, Powell truly believes the oft-repeated cliché that content is king. “There are some people who think design is putting a coat of paint on something,” Powell says. “I would broaden the definition to include the organization of content, the conceptualizing, the presentation. It’s not so much that we’re stepping out of our wheelhouse as designers, but that design was always intended to be this broader-based discipline.”
—Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson