In 1972, five British designers set out to solve the problem of how to expand their reach with bigger projects and clients, while still remaining independent. The answer was founding Pentagram, a multidisciplinary design collective (the founders represented various backgrounds including architecture, product design, and graphic design) that more than 40 years later, has grown to include 19 partners in five offices around the world (including London, San Francisco, and Berlin). With a global audience and clients like Microsoft, Rockefeller Center, Saturday Night Live, and Citibank, Pentagram’s New York office is leading the charge of independent spirits designing for the masses.
Led by its eight partners (Michael Bierut, Paula Scher, Michael Gericke, Abbott Miller, Luke Hayman, Emily Oberman, Natasha Jen, and Eddie Opara), Pentagram’s Manhattan headquarters sits inside a nondescript, century-old building on Fifth Avenue. With striking views of Madison Square Park, the building (which in its previous life operated as a bank and a nightclub until 1993, when Pentagram moved in) houses about 80 designers split into teams across four floors, with the partners working on the mezzanine level. The studio’s collaborative nature is evident in the open floor plan, which encourages everyone from partners to junior designers to share ideas and inspiration (and care for Scher’s new dog, Mimi, a regular fixture around the office).
Despite the presence of some of the most innovative minds in design, the studio’s unity actually comes from their differences. “I don’t think we have a defined aesthetic, but I think we have a defined point of view,” says Bierut, whose clean yet playful style has been a defining feature since 1990. “We’re not interested in replicating the existing aesthetic here. If I presented someone who designed exactly like me, one of the other partners would say, ‘Well, isn’t that a little boring?’”
The founding philosophy of the collective means that design at Pentagram takes a distinctly hands-on approach—with no holding company or managing director, clients work directly with designers to see their visions come to life. “It’s very casual,” says Bierut. “Someone will get off the phone about a project and go over to someone else’s desk and ask ‘Have you done this sort of thing before?’ For example, I have a lot of experience with higher education, but if someone in that industry wanted a film I’d go over to Emily Oberman and ask if she wanted to work on it together.”
This multidisciplinary style yields uniquely holistic results. Pentagram has tackled projects in diverse fields like retail design, logo branding, and motion graphics, designing everything from iPad lookbooks and clothing hangers for fashion brand Milly, an interactive museum and logo for Harley Davidson, and even collaborating with MIT on an app and branding campaign for Makr Shakr’s robot bartenders.
New Yorkers will be particularly familiar with Bierut’s work for WalkNYC, a Department of Transportation initiative that debuted last year, for which the studio created bespoke maps and signage to help guide pedestrians around the city (which are still rolling out across the Manhattan and Brooklyn). It’s a campaign that shows how even the simplest details are points of pride for Pentagram—if you look closely, you’ll notice that the curve of the shoulder on the male restroom icon is exactly the same as the round top of the typography they created for the letter “R.” As Bierut says, “If you can do it, why not?”