Natasha Jen, a young Taiwanese-born graphic designer whose work connects digital media to architecture, has been named Pentagram’s newest partner. She joins the New York office in April as Pentagram’s third new female partner in two months, marking a significant evolution for a firm with an outsize presence in the design world. Working at 2×4 and Base Design before starting her own studio, Njenworks, in 2010, Jen has designed the signage for OMA’s landmark CCTV building in Beijing, created a dizzying LED animation in the middle of Times Square, and built a modular identity for MIT’s architecture school.
Jen, who turns 36 in August, is now the youngest of Pentagram’s 19 partners, though not the youngest in its history. (That would be John Rushworth, who was 31 when he made partner in 1989.) She is also the first to have begun her career at Pentagram as an intern. Starting in 2001, after her junior year at the School of Visual Arts, she worked with Paula Scher’s team for a year-long stint. “I was so scared of her,” Jen recalls. “I think I still am a little bit. In that time, interns sat in the basement, where we could help out each other, and Paula was upstairs, so I would rarely actually talk to her. And when I saw her, I would try to walk away or avoid talking.” But Jen, whose projects included designing spreads for Scher’s own monograph, Make It Bigger, left an impression. After Jen graduated, Scher often asked mutual friends for updates on her former intern. Ten years later, when Pentagram invited Jen to interview for one of the most prominent and powerful positions in design, it was Scher who broke the news over dinner.
Jen became a designer almost entirely by chance. She moved to New York City from Taipei in 1998, intending to study fine art. But after her first year at SVA, under pressure from her family to learn “pragmatic” skills, she decided to change course. “I really had no idea what graphic design was, but computer art seemed too complicated, so I accidentally chose graphic design,” she says. She relied on her professors Carin Goldberg and Sara Giovanitti for guidance in an unfamiliar field. “Being a student from Taiwan, the language system is completely different,” Jen says. “Chinese is character based whereas English is letter, alphabet based. I really had no idea about typography.” Having to learn things that other students took for granted led Jen to work methodically and self-reflexively, an outlook she has maintained throughout her career. “It’s a slow and ongoing process of sharpening your sensibility and also your own understanding of yourself and the world,” she says.
After graduating, Jen joined Base as a designer. (She had given Scher her portfolio, but there were no openings at Pentagram.) It was a culture shock. “Their sensibility in design and methodology was completely different from what I had learned in school and at Pentagram,” she says. “Formally speaking, it’s deeply rooted in a very pure European modernism.” She worked on fashion branding, helping to build identities from scratch for the luxury-lingerie company Kiki de Montparnasse and several Puma lines. “It’s one of the very few design areas where I can still see kind of crazy stuff happen,” Jen says. “Not so much in architecture now and very, very rarely in graphic design—but in fashion, always.”
In 2004, she was chosen by the Art Directors Club as a Young Gun, largely on the strength of her work at Base. But she wanted more of an intellectual challenge. She had been keeping an eye on 2×4, whose brainy practice and cultural projects—along with the writing of Michael Rock, one of the firm’s three partners—held particular appeal to her. “They emphasize a kind of intellectual, very methodical, process-driven approach to projects,” she says. “That was something that I could imagine but not really comprehend what it really meant.” In 2006, when an art-director position opened up, she jumped at the chance.
With twenty designers compared to Base’s three (or, at times, just one), 2×4 was a much larger, more diverse operation, and it had major institutions like the Guggenheim and Prada as clients. Early on, Jen led the “Nike 100” exhibition in Beijing, a large-scale multimedia project that opened around the start of the 2008 Olympics.
But it was CCTV, OMA’s massive skyscraper for China’s state-run broadcaster, that took up much of her time at 2×4. Although it is essentially two leaning towers connected at their tops by a bent segment, the building was conceptually a continuous loop. “Thinking about it as an intestine was really important,” Jen says. But that made designing signage tricky: The floor numbers didn’t match up, and OMA initially resisted 2×4’s efforts to present the building as twin towers for way-finding purposes. “That itself took one year to resolve,” Jen says.
Working on CCTV, she forged relationships with OMA architects who would later strike out on their own, like Joshua Prince-Ramus, the co-founder of REX. (Jen designed his new firm’s identity.) She also became very interested in architecture. But whatever the discipline or media, Jen considers herself first and foremost a graphic designer. “Graphic design is the only profession that has the ability to go across all these different areas and transition seamlessly,” she says, “because everything—I think the whole world—is wrapped by graphic design. It’s this huge skin, this infamous skin. Everything we see is defined in some way by graphic design.”
Jen left 2×4 in 2009, and after a short stay as creative director of Stone Yamashita Partners, a San Francisco strategy firm, she founded Njenworks as a small studio of three in July 2010. The architectural connection was still evident, both in her rebranding of MIT’s architecture department—a logical, elegant identity for an organization with several—and in Flash:Light, a short animation that loosed the urban grid on the side of the American Eagle building in Times Square. Abbott Miller, a partner in Pentagram’s New York office, calls it “a quintessential project that reveals sophistication on every level, skillfully integrating branding, technology, information, animation, and sheer drama.” She has also created a user interface for Android phones (in collaboration with the developer Foneclay) that turns apps into constantly reassembling building blocks, forming, in turn, a spaceship, a duck, a guitar, and even CCTV.
In January 2011, with the ink barely dry on Njenworks’ business cards, Eddie Opara—a fellow 2×4 alum who also ran his own firm before becoming a Pentagram partner—invited her to present her work to the entire New York office. Jen was perplexed. “I said to Eddie, ‘Don’t you feel like this invitation came about six years too early?’” (Asked now about the timing, Opara says, “Why delay the inevitable?”) She gave her presentation in March, but Scher, Michael Bierut, and Michael Gericke were traveling at the time; when they returned, they invited her back for a repeat performance. “I kind of knew something was up,” Jen says, and afterward “they revealed their cards.” Jen was soon traveling to Austin, London, and Berlin to interview with each of the firm’s partners. (Decisions are made unanimously.) At their annual meeting, held last November in Cuba, they voted to make her a partner.
Miller says the key to Jen’s appeal was her hybrid work, rigor, and “fearlessness.” “It’s the composite of her experience, which runs the gamut from elegant and visually seductive brand work to brainy and experimental fringe projects,” he says. It also doesn’t hurt that she’s fluent in Mandarin Chinese and has experience working on projects in Beijing. “Design is a global business,” Miller says. “We feel the more diverse the partnership is, the stronger it is.” As for gender diversity, Opara says that although the three most recent partners are women (joining Scher and 15 male partners), it didn’t play a role in the decision making. “But it’s a great thing,” he says.
As Jen prepares to report for work at the neoclassical former bank at 204 Fifth Avenue, with her Njenworks team and projects in tow, she admits to a moment’s hesitation when Scher asked her to join Pentagram. “I feel like I’m bypassing ten years of practicing graphic design on my own, and experiencing it as an entrepreneur and a business owner,” Jen says. “But Paula convinced me. She said, ‘You’re a start-up, right. But you might as well do your start-up here at Pentagram. You’re not going to need to change yourself.’ And I felt that was a good rationale. I was convinced after that.” Miller sees it slightly differently: “Pentagram will change her, and she’ll change Pentagram. That’s what makes this an interesting place to work.”
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