For many of us, the intersection of brands and data brings to mind issues of privacy; it can stir up feelings of distrust, or a grim acceptance that all of our digital activities are in some way monitored, logged, and commodified. In her work with companies like Starbucks and Hennessy, the information designer Giorgia Lupi has offered up a different definition of how brands can work with data. She uses it to create images that are beautiful and unexpected; that speak not to cold, hard numbers but to the complexities of our humanity.
Data visualization is a growing field, Lupi says, and in the eight years since she co-founded the New York and Milan-based information design firm Accurat, the team there has swelled to 35 people. But the visibility of her work is about to hit a new level, as is, in a certain way, her chosen discipline: Lupi has just been named the newest partner at the powerhouse design consultancy Pentagram, known for its work with everyone from American Express and Saturday Night Live to Slack and The Wing.
“I feel that the fact that they’ve been interested in talking to me about being a potential partner is a testament to how data can be used as a design material, as a communication tool,” says Lupi, no longer a potential partner, when we sat down in a large, sunlit conference room at Pentagram’s office in New York.
Lupi brings Pentagram’s partner count to 24, the biggest it’s ever been. The last time the company added a partner in New York was April 2012, when both Natasha Jen and Emily Oberman joined the team (though it went on a spree last year and hired four new partners in London, where its other main office is located).
At Pentagram, the appointment of a new partner is a big deal, owing to the company’s unusual structure. Established in 1972, the firm has a collectivist attitude and adheres to a longstanding constitution, which exists in its original form with only small modifications. It spreads profits and decision-making power equally among its self-governed partners—all designers—irrespective of seniority or how much business they brought in during a given year. There’s no CEO. The partners do collaborate with one another, often across disciplines, but essentially operate their own studios, though the local offices meet on a weekly basis and the entire group convenes twice a year. These all-partner meetings, chaired by one of the partners on a rotating basis, are about sharing work with the group and discussing business dynamics, Pentagram’s publishing program, its website, and trends in the industry.
“One vote against and it’s over, truly. We’ve seen it happen.”
And these all-hands meetings are where the team might take a formal vote on a new partner. Surfacing and evaluating potential candidates is what Natasha Jen and fellow partners Abbott Miller and Luke Hayman described to me as an ongoing, organic, and epically long process—stretching to two or three years in some cases. Names first bubble up from one of the core offices in New York and London, and the team might bring that person in to give a presentation. Eventually they’ll be floated at one of Pentagram’s twice-yearly meetings, and then the entire international team needs to get on board. Approving a new partner requires unanimous support. “One vote against and it’s over, truly,” says Miller. “We’ve seen it happen.”
Lupi’s relationship with Pentagram began when she met Michael Bierut, a longtime partner in New York, at a conference in South Africa where they were both speaking. They got to talking, and she told him about her “vision of the world and design;” not long after, they ran into each other again while giving their TED talks at the same event. Bierut and designer Jessica Helfand invited Lupi to speak at their Yale School of Management class and on their podcast, “The Design of Business | The Business of Design.” Eventually, over breakfast, Bierut asked Lupi if she’d consider a partner position, catching her “really off-guard.” Then she started meeting all of the other partners.
Any additions to Pentagram’s team inevitably speak to where the design industry is going and how the firm is future-proofing itself.
Living in the limbo that is the Pentagram audition process isn’t easy, Hayman says. Jen, who previously ran her own New York-based design firm, Njenworks, recalls a year and a half passing between her initial conversations with the company and her eventual hiring, at which point she immediately went on Craigslist to post her office furniture. But given Pentagram’s structure, a new partner is a high-stakes affair.
“[New partners] instantly have the same rights, responsibilities, vote, voice,” says Miller. “It’s not like you say, ‘We’ll listen to you in a couple of years.’”
In 2018, Pentagram brought on sound designer Yuri Suzuki, graphic designer Sascha Lobe, industrial designer Jon Marshall, and graphic designer Astrid Stavro as partners in its London office. Suzuki contributed a new area of expertise for an office weighted heavily toward graphic design, while Creative Review wrote that Marshall “[added] firepower in the most urgent area of commercial creativity today—customer experience.” Coming so close on their heels, you might wonder if Lupi’s focus on data visualization represents a broader desire to diversify Pentagram’s core competencies. Not exactly, says Jen. Since the team is full of branding whizzes, the partners might be subconsciously interested in bringing on people from other disciplines, but there are no boxes they’re trying to check. Indeed, it’s understood that designers’ interests may shift over time, and that everyone is kind of a generalist.
“Nobody wants to be like, ‘I’m the signage partner’ or ‘I’m the retail brand partner,’” says Miller. “We all crave being able to move around within the categories and in theory kind of do whatever you want or whatever might come up.”
Pentagram may not be hiring for disciplines, but any additions to its team inevitably speak to where the design industry is going and how the firm is future-proofing itself. What’s interesting about Lupi’s work is the unusual questions she asks a data set, and the expressive way she chooses to represent its answers. At Accurat, Lupi worked on projects like Target-sponsored “data portraits” of attendees at the 2017 TED conference in Vancouver. Participants were asked questions like, “How many emails need to accumulate in your inbox before you freak out?” and “Do you follow rules or break them?” and their answers generated buttons inscribed with corresponding squiggles, marks, and colors—offering attendees a much more interesting conversation icebreaker than “So, what do you do?” For the closing of the Museum of Modern Art’s 2017 exhibition, Items: Is Fashion Modern? Lupi was invited to fill a white wall with a visualization of the 111 iconic garments and accessories on display. Drawn by hand, the resulting chart looks like an otherworldly sheet of music, filled with colorful, almost florid data points.
“I’ve started to see how beauty and probably even unexpected charts can be an entry point for people to be like, ‘Oh that’s beautiful and strange. I want to know what it is,’” says Lupi.
With new partners, it’s crucial that Pentagram be interested in the “whole person,” Miller says. “With Giorgia… we see how she thinks about data, which is really broad and really exciting because it’s brand-related, it’s information design-related, it’s more about a kind of digital humanism. And that’s what makes her kind of different than saying, ‘Oh, we need an information designer.’”
It’s unlikely that Pentagram, having hit its largest partner number ever, will be ramping up its hiring as long as the old guard remains.
Out of the gate, Lupi plans to take on more consumer-facing (rather than business-to-business) projects, and sees herself as a natural collaborator with the other partners. And since Pentagram’s partners build their own teams and come with their own contractor relationships, she’ll likely continue working with members of Accurat even after making the move.
What’s unlikely, though, is that Pentagram, having hit its largest partner number ever, will be ramping up its hiring as long as the old guard remains. When I asked how much higher the team would go above 24, Miller responded, “I don’t think much.”
“I think there’s some reason why it’s sort of stayed in that territory,” he says. “And I think it’s about just the gestalt of the room and how many people get a voice and how big you can be while still being having that idea of collectivism. I think there is a kind of natural sort of limit to it. I think we’re there or close to there.”