It was only 50 cents. But it was 50 cents that perhaps changed the look of pop culture as we know it today.
Emily Oberman was born in Yonkers, NY in 1962 to a designer father and an artist mother. Marvin and Arline Simon Oberman mandated their daughter take tap-dancing lessons, ballet lessons, jazz lessons… and drawing lessons. To the backdrop of walls adorned with work by the likes of Milton Glaser, Seymour Chwast, and Paul Rand, these polymath parents would collaborate on children’s books, and saved spaces here and there for Oberman to provide spot illustrations — for a fee. It may have only been 50 cents or so, but Marvin and Arline stipulated that if you did commercial work, you got paid for it. It was a vital lesson. And as luck would have it, it was art that the young Oberman took to over woodwind and string — a path that would lead to a lifetime of collaborations with iconic bands, brands, television shows, films, and, of course, partner status at the world’s most well-known design firm.
“There was a little moment where I wanted to be a tap-dancing archaeologist — but really, I always wanted to be a graphic designer,” said Oberman. “I always wanted to go into the family business, basically.”
“There was a little moment where I wanted to be a tap-dancing archaeologist — but really, I always wanted to be a graphic designer.
Oberman followed her craft to Cooper Union, taking a detour to study acting with the iconic thespian and teacher Stella Adler. The bug may have been fleeting, but it had a brilliant side effect: Oberman returned to Cooper Union with a drive to study motion design and filmmaking. Upon graduation she got a job with Marcus Ratliff Inc., but her heart was elsewhere.
“Any time I saw an amazing piece of design that was smart or funny or interesting or unique — or it had that wink, that wit, that irreverence — I would look for the design credit, and it was always M&Co. That was my only goal: to work at M&Co.”
So she quit her job and went over to M&Co… but Tibor Kalman’s legendary New York design firm wasn’t hiring. So she shopped her portfolio around New York City, and everyone she spoke with at various studios suggested it would be a great fit… for M&Co. Eventually, it was designer Joseph Guglietti who recommended she take her portfolio to M&Co again, where he had previously worked, and because he had an inside scoop: Kalman had a new vacancy. Oberman ran to the studio, and the next day, she was hired. She called her friend and future business partner Bonnie Siegler and broke the news by playing Talking Heads’ “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” over the phone.
The resulting job was cathartic for Oberman. She deepened her knowledge of design, typography, and business. Through Kalman, she learned how to talk to clients, how to pull great ideas forward and push lesser ones back, and—crucially—how to hire the best people, something that would prove priceless at Pentagram, where she would become a partner in 2012.
Moreover, at M&Co, “the other thing that I learned is that it’s never just about the design,” said Oberman. “It’s always about the story, the idea, the whole experience — the commitment. You know, it’s always about committing to the bit.”
She worked on Talking Heads projects, notably the “(Nothing But) Flowers” video. She worked on Laurie Anderson’s Strange Angels album cover. And she served as the original designer of the landmark Colors magazine, which redefined what a promotional brand publication could be. In Tibor Kalman and his wife and perpetual collaborator, Maira Kalman — graphic designer and artist, respectively, known for their brilliance and humor — Oberman had found an approximation of her own home, a familiarity she describes as magical. And through the work, she began to home in on the driving philosophy she maintains today.
“I believe that all good design should have a sense of wit,” said Oberman. “That doesn’t mean it has to be funny, but the idea of wit implies humanity, and that can cut through the noise and make an emotional connection. And that’s what good design should do.” (Driving philosophy aside, when it comes to what drives her at large, Oberman’s close friend Debbie Millman weighs in: “Brilliant, witty, charismatic, whip-smart, wildly and inventively talented, loyal, empathetic, hilariously funny — she drives herself.”)
Oberman said she and Siegler had always planned to start their own company when they had each accrued enough experience — and they did just that in 1993 with the launch of Number Seventeen. It was there that Oberman and Siegler’s unique creative alchemy resulted in such projects as the landmark launch campaign for Jane magazine, titles for Will & Grace, the creation of Lucky magazine, identities for 30 Rock and Late Night With Jimmy Fallon and, of course, the titles for Saturday Night Live. A lifelong fan of the latter, Oberman and her colleagues have since defined the iconic sequences for two decades, with New York City leaping off the screen, an all-encompassing featured player in its own right.
Oberman described her career in terms of three vital movements — and following M&Co and Number Seventeen comes her most recent, Pentagram. Then mother to 3-year-old twins with her husband, the designer Paul Sahre (the two met, appropriately, over a portfolio swap), Oberman recalls the 2012 career move as “a terrifying leap.” “To be honest, most of the partners are men with grown children,” said Oberman. “To be a woman of a certain age with small children, taking on a gigantic responsibility was daunting.”
Ultimately, it was an opportunity she could not turn down. Oberman notes that contrary to what some people might think — that when you’re made partner of the firm, you’re presented with a smoking jacket, slippers, and the easy life — it’s sheer work. But work that she says has made her output stronger, clearer, and cleaner, and work that benefits from proximity to some of the greatest living designers seated nearby.
At Pentagram, Oberman has produced identity and show packaging for the Film Independent Spirit Awards, a rebrand for Warner Bros., branding for DC Entertainment, identities for the Fantastic Beasts films, branding and the opening sequence of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and the list goes on.
Throughout her career she has designed a staggering array of pop culture touchpoints, and it’s nearly impossible to go for a walk in any major city or even to turn on the TV without coming across something she has worked on. Her work is utterly ubiquitous. Which raises the question: Why? What makes it all so effective?
Take, for example, the identity she created for Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, a film about the hunt for an easter egg in a virtual reality realm. The logo presents itself as a hidden puzzle — with an easter egg at the end, in easter egg fashion. And in doing so, the work let fans know not just that the team behind it are fans too, but, “we’re in it with you,” as Oberman said. “There’s a human on the other end of it. There’s a human there.”
And that, perhaps, is the key to Oberman’s work, which has been wholly distinct from the start. There’s a human there.
Learn more about Emily Oberman and the AIGA Medal.
Gosling, Emily. “Emily Oberman on Humour and Humanity in Design.” Creative Review. April 20, 2018, https://www.creativereview.co.uk/emily-oberman-humour-in-design/.
Labarre, Suzanne. “Emily Oberman, The Branding Force Behind Jimmy Fallon, SNL, And Orbitz, Is Pentagram’s Newest Partner.” Fast Company, February 1, 2012, https://www.fastcompany.com/1668938/emily-oberman-the-branding-force-behind-jimmy-fallon-snl-and-orbitz-is-pentagrams-newest-par.
Miller, Meg. “Emily Oberman and Paul Sahre on Designing With Wit, Coming Up in the ’90s + Being Married to a Designer.” AIGA Eye on Design, February 3, 2020, https://eyeondesign.aiga.org/emily-oberman-and-paul-sahre-on-designing-with-wit-coming-up-in-the-90s-being-married-to-a-designer/.
Millman, Debbie. “Emily Oberman.” Design Matters With Debbie Millman, April 19, 2013, https://www.designmattersmedia.com/podcast/2013/Emily-Oberman.
Pentagram. “Emily Oberman.” Accessed July 25, 2022. https://www.pentagram.com/about/emily-oberman/.