interview with designer natasha jen of pentagram




natasha jen was born in taipei, taiwan, and studied graphic design at the school of visual arts in new york city, where she received her BFA with honors in 2002. she worked at base design, 2×4, inc. and stone yamashita partners before establishing her own studio, njenworks in 2010. she joined pentagram as a partner in 2012, where she currently works from their new york office. natasha spoke to designboom about her influences and current fascinations.




designboom: what originally made you want to become an graphic designer?


natasha jen: it was accidental and frankly quite unromantic: I never wanted to be a graphic designer. I didn’t even know exactly what it meant when I enrolled into the graphic design department. I came to new york to study painting and I was in the fine arts department, but in my freshman year my father passed away and my family all freaked out. my mom asked me to study something that would give me a better chance to ‘get a job’. I picked graphic design because it seemed  the least technically-challenging discipline compared to say, animation, film-making, or photography. so I enrolled and within a matter of few weeks I discovered that I was actually quite good at it.


milly visual identity – logo


milly fall 2013 show invitation


milly spring 2014 show invitation




DB: how would you describe your approach to design?


NJ: the way I work has a lot to do with my childhood aspirations. when I was a kid I only wanted to become three things: 1. an astronaut, 2. a detective or 3. indiana jones (literally!) these three professions couldn’t be more different, but what’s common among this contradiction is that they all have to work extremely hard yet they’re all having a great adventure. somehow that need for discovery and surprise underscores my and my team’s approach to design: we’d go through a great deal of research and investigation for projects but once ideas become convincing, we’d edit them, blend them, and push them into something beyond expectation. and most importantly, have a great time.



DB: who / what has been the biggest single influence on your way of thinking?


NJ: too many things! it’s impossible to isolate it to one single source, but I am most interested in and inspired by surrealist works: in art, architecture, fashion, literature, etc. most ‘-isms’ become static and boring but surrealist thinking never creates the same kind of work. I like things that are unpredictable or even incomprehensible.


new practices new york identity – logo


new practices new york identity – stationery


new practices new york identity – event posters




DB: what would you say is your strongest skill?


NJ: I really never analyze myself that way. but if I have to choose one skill it’s probably creating links between things that are not seemingly connected, which probably has something to do with with my love for surrealism and that I read a lot of detective stories when I was a kid.



DB: what type of brief or project do you enjoy working on the most and why?


NJ: any project can be enjoyable or joyless. it’s the politics, the people and the human relations that create these conditions. I find our best work comes out from trusting relationships with our clients and collaborators. the processes can be just as challenging as any projects, but they’re definitely more enjoyable.


natasha_jen_pentagram_08transfoner – android phone interface design


natasha_jen_pentagram_09transfoner – android phone interface design




DB: what are your thoughts on specialization vs generalization?

NJ: I prefer a polymath! unlike most design disciplines such as architecture, fashion, product design, etc, graphic design is not a ‘thing’ onto itself. it doesn’t have a specific media, form, or subject matter. it can infiltrate any media, any discipline, and communicate about any topics. in that regard, graphic design is polymathic. especially in today’s media landscape where digital, 2D, and 3D are highly intertwined, I think it is kind of necessary for a graphic designer to think and operate like a renaissance man.


invitations for tess giberson shows



invitations for tess giberson shows




DB: how do you think online design resources have influenced the graphic design being produced today?


NJ: the web is a kind of a double-edge sword. the speed of information is rapid and people pick up things simultaneously, yet we are looking at an enormous population exposed to the same things, all the time, and we see a lot of ‘me too’ happening in contemporary design approaches. for example, I see many graphic design practices now label themselves as story-tellers. I understand the story-telling nature in what we do, but I’m quite intrigued by the sheer number of practices labeling themselves as story-telling agencies in no time. the web’s homogenizing effect is curious.




thingworld identity – poster


thingworld – leaflet




DB: what are you currently fascinated by and how is it feeding into your work?


NJ: I’ve been obsessed about, or rather terrified by, today’s food industry and what we eat. historically food is rarely taken as an intellectual topic by design disciplines, but ironically it is the most fundamental to our well-being, not to mention it is cultural, social, and aesthetic. I’ve been trying to decipher food labels – their information and design – in bottles in my fridge and kitchen cabinets. it’s a little absurd yet it’s mind-boggling to imagine that behind every food label there’s a graphic designer. I am not sure yet how exactly this research is going to take shape, but I know it will be a terrific project to work on.



officeUS USA pavilion identity for the venice biennale 2014


officeUS – USA pavilion identity for the venice biennale 2014




DB: what are you passionate about besides your work?


NJ: sci-fi movies, good food, fashion, working out, quantum physics and archeology among other things!



DB: do you have any superstitious beliefs or rules that you live by?


NJ: sorry, I can’t tell you – otherwise it won’t work anymore.



township of domestic parts – taiwan pavilion identity for the venice biennale 2014


township of domestic parts – taiwan pavilion identity – banner



township of domestic parts – taiwan pavilion identity – website




DB: what’s the best piece of advice you have heard?


NJ: ‘money doesn’t buy you happiness’  – it’s the truest cliché.



DB: what’s your personal motto?


NJ: make it better!