Emily Oberman is a partner at Pentagram New York, where she and her team have designed some of the most recognizable identities for TV and film—Saturday Night Live, Ready Player One, DC Entertainment—as well as the much-hyped branding for The Wing. Paul Sahre runs a design studio called OOPS (Office of Paul Sahre) where he designs book covers—for Malcolm Gladwell, Muriel Sparks, Clarice Lispector—and frequently contributes to the New York Times. She did the music video for Talking Heads’ “(Nothing But) Flowers” in 1988; he made a monster truck/hearse out of cardboard for They Might Be Giants. She enjoys long talks, art direction, and collaborating with a team. He’s a self-described “lone wolf” who mostly designs on his own.
Oberman and Sahre are married. They met in New York in the designiest way possible (portfolio swap), right as they were forging successful careers in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Taken together, their work has shaped the visual language of a sizable chunk of contemporary culture over the last couple of decades, in the form of book covers, magazines, music videos, TV sequences, movie credits, and entertainment branding. But Oberman and Sahre have never actually worked together. They say they’d rather stay married.
That’s fair enough, because while Oberman and Sahre do incorporate a similar sense of intellect and humor into their design work, they also have very different processes. They always have: Oberman came up working for Tibor Kalman’s M&Co. in an atmosphere that she describes as exuberant, peopled, and extremely collaborative. It’s a working spirit and design approach that she continued at Number 17, the studio she opened with Bonnie Siegler, and eventually at Pentagram, where she came on as a partner in 2012. Sahre, for his part, has always worked independently in his own studio, where he sometimes employs an assistant or freelance designer, but prefers to do much of the actual work of designing himself. He likes the flexibility of getting to decide who to work for and how to define a practice.
Both designers are principled, outspoken, and funny, so we thought it would be fun to have them in the same conversation, riffing off of each other. Here’s Oberman and Sahre on differing work styles, changing media, and the responsibility of designers.
Let’s begin at the beginning: how’d you two meet?
Emily Oberman: We were friends for a while before we started dating. We actually met in my office. Before Paul moved to New York, he was living in Baltimore and there was a time where he was coming up to New York for work, and while he was here, also making an effort to meet other designers whose work he liked. We met to do a little show and tell—he wasn’t looking for a job, it was just designer-to-designer mutual admiration. When we met, I thought he was the most amazing designer, and he also made his own beer, and he had a great dog… He was just ideal. But he was also married, so nothing happened at the end of that meeting. He went back to Baltimore and then we would stay in touch and see each other when he came back to New York.
Paul Sahre: I would go up to New York to show my work around and meet designers I admired. I was pretty frustrated with the jobs I had in Baltimore. Emily was working at M&Co.… or so I thought, but when I tried to get in to see Tibor [Kalman] and/or Emily, I was told that Tibor was in Italy and Emily’s new company, Number 17, was “basically the new M&Co.” I knew Emily’s work already—there was one album cover in particular that a friend of mine and I were totally obsessed with.
Oberman: After a few years of being friends, Paul called to say he was moving to New York after his divorce. After that it was history.
“I’ve never felt like not having any separation between what you do and your life is a particularly good thing.”—Paul Sahre
A portfolio review meet cute—so design has always been a part of your relationship?
Oberman: Design has always been a part of our relationship [laughs]. His design work was what attracted me to him and it still does—it’s also a big part of what makes us work as a couple, the admiration we each have for each other’s work. When he started showing me his work, I’d never seen anything so smart and diverse, and someone so dedicated. I was just blown away.
“Dedicating yourself to being a graphic designer is kind of an absurd thing to do.” —Paul Sahre
Have you guys ever worked together professionally?
Sahre: No, we haven’t. But there’s very little that we don’t share with each other and check in with each other about. Even if the other person doesn’t feel like giving feedback at that particular moment, because our two 10-year-olds are burning down the house or whatever, we still do it. Emily is my barometer, but I don’t think that we’ll ever work together. For me, I’ve just never felt like not having any separation between what you do and your life is a particularly good thing.
It’s nice that you find so much value in each other’s feedback. Do you feel that you have fundamentally different approaches to design? Or are your processes similar?
Oberman: Deep down, our processes are the same: they’re both about the idea first, and finding a smart, witty, beautiful way to tell the story best. But we work very differently. Paul is kind of a lone wolf and I have a team that I work incredibly closely with. I’m more of a creative director at this point, so I’m not building the work myself as much as Paul, or as much as I used to. I would like to think that my team at Pentagram is 100% collaborative, sort of under the umbrella of my vision or creative direction, which is the way that it is with most of the partners here. So it’s just a very different situation than what Paul does running OOPS.
Sahre: I’m on my own, so I can do whatever I want—I can call it OOPS, and no one’s going to tell me no [laughs]. Emily likes the back-and-forth and the social aspect of working on a team, and I think that goes back to her M&Co. days. I don’t need that as much. I also get frustrated when I’m not making something with my own hands—I feel like rather than giving direction to somebody, I’d rather just do it myself so that it comes out like it is in my head. At 55, I’m still working the way I was working at 28. It’s more unusual, but you have to do what you want to do.
“I feel like all design has a level of wit, even if you’re designing for something incredibly serious. ” —Emily Oberman
Would you say that Tibor was a major influence for you and how you work, Emily?
Oberman: I do think that I’ve styled every work environment that I’ve been in after him. I’ve only had three jobs really: M&Co., No. 17, and now Pentagram. The atmosphere at M&Co. was very jovial, very collaborative. Everyone was funny, smart, and hard-working. Tibor wasn’t trained as a designer, but he had a great, quirky eye for design.
He loved low design, and I’m the same way. When I go on a trip to another country, I always go to the supermarkets to buy gifts for people. When I leave, my suitcase is full of canned goods. Tibor was like that too, and when people left M&Co. it was a gigantic event. There was one time where we rented a bus and drove around the city, and at, like, 3 a.m. we went to an all-night supermarket to do this “Supermarket Sweepstakes” sort of thing. The people leaving got to have one minute to fill their carts. That was just part of the atmosphere of M&Co. He loved taking us on these little adventures. In the end, M&Co. felt like going to grad school to me. I learned so much. And that’s what I hope the people who work for me feel like by the time they leave.
Paul, since you’ve been independent for so long, did you have a mentor like that? Or do you feel like that’s something you missed out on?
Sahre: My mentor was J.Charles Walker at Kent State University. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that he totally changed my life. Not only because I’m a byproduct of his rigorous program at Kent State, but personally as well—Charles lived design. It’s not a job, it’s who you are. I think I’ve invented my career to some degree, but I started out trying to be like Charles.
“At 55, I’m still working the way I was working at 28.”—Paul Sahre
You both started your own studios pretty early in your careers. Emily and Bonnie Siegler started running No. 17 in 1993 and Paul opened OOPS in 1997. What was the atmosphere like at the time for a designer starting up his or her own studio?
Oberman: It was such a different time. We had computers, but we just didn’t work in the same way that we do now. The comps weren’t as beautiful and cell phones weren’t a thing; we weren’t all connected all the time. You didn’t get texts from clients on the weekend. It was just a very different pace.
Bonnie and I started out small. We didn’t take out a loan or have any overhead for a while. We were just working out of Bonnie’s apartment, which was sort of terrible for Bonnie, because at least I got to leave at the end of the day. Sometimes we’d work so late that Bonnie would just go to bed and then wake up the next morning to me arriving with coffee.
We had one Mac, so we took turns using it. We used her bedroom as kind of a conference room, where we took phone calls. Her little sister had just graduated from college and was hanging around playing backgammon with us when we had down moments, and eventually we said, “Hey, why don’t you answer the phone and pretend like we have a real office?” Thirteen years later she was our still our very efficient office manager.
Just like at M&Co., Bonnie and I were very collaborative. Someone once asked me how much of something was my idea and how much of it was Bonnie’s ideas, and I answered it was 100% my idea and 100% Bonnie’s idea because the collaboration was so fluid and so strong. It’s always been very much a dialogue for me, even now at Pentagram.
One thing you both have in common is that your work has a lot of wit and humor in it. What’s the importance of garnering an emotional response with your design?
Oberman: I feel like all design has a level of wit, even if you’re designing for something incredibly serious. It’s not like everything has to be funny, but it has to have some sort of spark. The thing that makes it interesting is that wry take, or how you explain it. You get more of an emotional connection with your audience if they see a little bit of humanity in the work that you do.
“For me, to be a graphic designer you have to be a generalist.”—Paul Sahre
Sahre: Over the years, I’ve realized that I’m not trying to make anybody laugh, I’m just trying to make me laugh. There’s a piece I did recently with Trump’s face replacing all the founding fathers in that famous painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Every time I think of it, I laugh. I just think it’s hilarious. For most things in life, even things that are terrible, I feel like laughing about it is the way to go, even if it’s to your own end. Because it’s sort of absurd, all of it. I try not to take myself too seriously, because dedicating yourself to being a graphic designer is kind of an absurd thing to do.
Sahre: Well for one, designers love to try to exaggerate their importance in the world. Like the whole “How can design change the world?” I don’t know, I have a bit of a nihilistic side that comes out when I hear that. There are other things you could do that would help people and change the world.
The other thing is that half the time I’m doing something like, let’s say, an illustration for a magazine where two pigeons are making out on the cover. The conversation I’m having with the art director is like, “Hey, can you make them look like they’re more into it?” That was a real question, and it’s like this is all day every day. So yeah, it’s a bit absurd, but I like it that way.
You both work on projects across pop culture—books, editorial design, TV, music. The way we consume those things have changed a lot in the past couple of decades. How have you kept flexible to those changes and the new platforms that we engage with now?
Sahre: I’ve done a lot of thinking about why I do what I do, and for me, to be a graphic designer you have to be a generalist. I respect those people who have a singular specialty, but for me it just makes sense to take any graphic means necessary to get at the exact thing that you’re reacting to as a designer. It also keeps you flexible as things change.
Oberman: You also consistently do good work, you’re not particularly worried about publicity or how well known you are, and your work has kept you relevant but not “trendy” for any specific moment.
Sahre: Well, thank you. That’s for my wife to say, not me [laughs]. I think it’s also a matter of wanting to find new ground with your work, go places you haven’t gone, and work for new people. It can be a little masochistic, but it’s always more interesting to go somewhere you haven’t been and not repeat the same thing over and over. You only make a monster truck out of cardboard once, then you move on to the next thing.
Oberman: There’s nothing in Paul’s portfolio that is anything less than what he would want his name on. Whereas for me, there are some things that, let’s say, don’t get trotted out that often. I try to always do work that’s good, interesting, and different. But I don’t quit jobs quite as regularly as Paul does.
Sahre: Which is why Emily makes more money.
Oberman: That’s true, Paul can quit because I don’t [laughs]. Going back to your question about keeping nimble to big changes over a career, one obvious difference from when we started out is having to think about multiple platforms. You have to think about how something will look on social media, on mobile, tablet, a laptop screen, a TV. For TV, you have to be aware of how something scales. People also don’t watch TV in real-time anymore, they watch it when it’s convenient for them.
And the timing is even different for putting a design out into the world. There’s an unveiling for movie logos now, it’s this “moment.” And you get to watch people respond to it. Of course, the internet has also made everyone feel like they can comment about everything, and that can be disheartening. But there’s a whole other voice and language that didn’t exist before.
In what ways have streaming platforms and the way we watch things now affected how you design for television and movies?
Oberman: You have to think of things in longform. Take the SNL logo, for instance. You can see the way the logo interacts and moves on social media. You might animate it for these little interstitial films that get made especially for putting on social. That’s been an interesting thing for me.
We also recently did the titles for the Netflix docuseries Cheer, and as we were working on them we kept thinking about that “Skip Intro” button. We did really nice end credits for this show, I love them so much—and I just kept thinking about how nobody’s ever going to see them, they’re just going to skip to the next episode. We still care about them very much, but we know they’re just going to get lost. We also tried to do a short opening sequence, so that you might not even need to skip the intro, which is another thing that you think about now. We have to get the information out in a smaller space. Same thing for movie logos; they have to work small and they have to work big and they have to tell a story that you can see quickly.
Over the course of your career, have your priorities changed in terms of the type of work you want to be making, or the people you want to work for? Has your thinking changed in terms of the responsibilities you have as designers?
Oberman: I’ve always been interested in sustainability, especially when it comes to packaging design. Lately, I’ve also been doing some work in the world of equal pay for women and doubling the number of women in leadership positions in the design field. I recently learned that there are more men named John who are CEOs of companies in the country than there are women. So that’s a bit disheartening.
Sahre: I feel like artists and designers are sort of the only people in society who aren’t usually beholden to some external concerns, so having an opinion about this stuff is super important. I don’t think of myself as an activist, but I have gravitated toward having an opinion and putting it out in the world with my work.
“There’s not a day where I don’t think about exchanging posters with this super smart, cute, funny woman who I respect.”—Paul Sahre
Emily, what’s your favorite project that Paul has done? And Paul, what’s your favorite project of Emily’s?
Oberman: I love Paul’s relationship with They Might be Giants. That collaboration has been delightful, both to watch and listen to, and to see evolve. I really like them as a band and I love the way he’s become sort of an unofficial member of the band in terms of how much they care about design. And within that oeuvre, the making of the monster truck hearse—the fact that he actually built a gigantic monster truck hearse and then made a music video about it—what’s better than that?
The funny thing is that while he was making it he spent three months going to Connecticut and building this thing and fretting about it, and later he said, “Well, at least we didn’t have kids yet.” And I had to say “Yes, we did.”
Sahre: I could easily say the DC Comics logo. I got to throw in my two cents every once and a while and just watch that happen, which was pretty cool. But to be sentimental—when I met with Emily for the first time I wanted to trade posters. And she was kind of like, “I don’t design posters.” But she did send me a poster that she designed while she was at M&Co. for Talking Heads. It’s so Emily—it scores vertically, and part of it was the album cover and the other part was the band. So when you fold it, it becomes sort of 3D. If you’re coming from one direction you get the band, and the other is the album. We have it framed in the house here and there’s not a day when I come into the house where I don’t think about exchanging posters with this super smart, cute, funny woman who I respect.
Oberman: And after all of that we actually even made people together. There you go, graphic design can change your life!