Natasha Jen: Craving Diversity—A Messy Process
This essay is a part of unMUTE, a collection of pieces written by participants in the 2020 Design Writing and Research Summer Intensive Online.
“I arrived a little early.” Graphic designer Natasha Jen appears on our Zoom via video. Distinct and respectful, she is not only ahead of time but also directing the discipline of graphic design into the next dimension. Revealing that “design thinking is bullshit” in a hallmark speech two years prior, she raised the bar for the potential of design. In a world driven by business-centrics, excel sheets, and surveys, Jen argues that “design is a lot bigger.” So, who is this woman who became one of the youngest partners at the renowned design agency Pentagram?
She was born and grew up in Taiwan. In our call, her long, black hair is tied back, framing her face. She focuses her eyes and moves her head. Her former “Tiger-Mum” tendencies (as she frankly describes) have turned into an emphatic straightness. Kind and calm in her rhetoric, her gestures and hands draw her thoughts onto the screen. She wanted to become an artist, a painter. Her life in Taiwan wouldn’t allow this, but New York could. Until her father passed away one year into her art studies at SVA. She had to face a new reality. She recalls that the “only option” left was graphic design. From “not knowing what graphic design actually was” to becoming a partner at Pentagram, she followed and embraced what she calls her “messy path.”
It is the high diversity of content and form that define her constant learning and exploration of design. A Zoom window into her apartment, a creative chaos reflects her mind—it is actually a designer’s chaos. A wooden Eames Elephant, a stuffed Dieter Rams library shelf, a line of colorful toys, stacks of books on the table, a blue Eames Plastic chair, and Natasha merges with her environment. A small Warhol Cambpell’s Soup Can sits on her striped shirt. Casually she mentions her “Warhol thing,” which links both to her person and her approach. She evolved at Erik Baker Studio, Sony Music, Base Design, and 2×4 before founding her own studio Njenworks in 2010, not only her practice but the practice of graphic design changed radically.
For Jen, design is not about the individual author, the market survey, or the client, “but design starts from anxiety.” She states clearly, “You are always searching for the next thing, to do better, to do differently.“ One of 25 partners at Pentagram, she has run her own studio and team of designers since 2012. As she evolved her multidisciplinary work, the nature of her work also changed—and so her role as a designer. She speaks about it frankly: “I have major crisis over my role. I recognize the inability of design, especially in graphic design facing the collapse of the economy.” By sharing her doubts and worries, she shows at the same time generosity and patience—for her anxiety, her person, and the world we are in. After a moment of serious thought, she turns the conversation to her agency experience and the impact of design.
“We were all aiming for the same outcome, which was to be the design that was chosen, but we would bring very different perspectives to the table.” The design process is the very idea of collectivism and at the same time highly individualized. Jen is the kind of designer you always want to invite to your table. Or at least to continue on Zoom.
She leaves our call, but messed it up right.
unMUTE Group Statement
Take a moment to think about how strange a video chat is. You can see and hear someone, but all the nuance of body language is lost—flattened into two dimensions and reduced in resolution. Conversation starts and stops, unaided by technology cuts and lags. How do you even know when someone is about to speak?
Now take that single moment of video chat and multiply it by sixteen, each tiny square on the screen filled by a student hoping to mentally escape the 2020 pandemic.. Norms need to be created so that everyone feels comfortable contributing, and group dynamics have to be explicitly established so no ideas or experiences—indicated sometimes by only the slightest wave—go unshared.
On the surface, a large group video conversation seems unwieldy. It morphs into something entirely new when the meeting happens every weekday for two weeks, pressurized by rapid-fire lectures, readings, and assignments. It’s hard to imagine, but what if—in the midst of a global health crisis and nationwide protests over racial inequality—those sixteen people created bonds so deep and discovered things about themselves so profound that they left the meeting changed? What if they wrote prose so revealing you stole a glimpse into who they are?
If you’re curious, please unMUTE.