In 2010, at age 34, Natasha Jen got the call every young designer dreams of: Pentagram. The venerable graphic design firm wanted to hire her as its newest partner. “It came pretty randomly,” she says. “I was flattered, but terrified.” Nonetheless, she accepted.
It’s easy to see why Pentagram wanted her. Jen tends to take on ambitious projects of an unwieldy scale (for that reason, she also tends to echo that refrain—“I was terrified, but I said yes”—a lot when she talks about her design career), and then tackles those projects with creative resourcefulness, producing work that’s both sharply clever and still widely accessible.
To wit: last year the director of the U.S. Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale invited Pentagram to compete to design its graphic identity. The ask was especially ambitious. The U.S. Pavilion wanted to set up a working office in Venice for six months, where a team of architects would create 1,000 documents cataloguing 100 years of American architectural history. Each of those documents would need to bear the Office U.S. logo and identity.
“I immediately thought, this is going to be a nightmare,” Jen recalls. If her team made a style guide, no one would read it. If her team designed custom typefaces, they’d be fielding, “I can’t find the right font” emails from Italy for six months. That’s when Jen realized: “We have to come up with a design system that can be used by non-designers. So we looked into system fonts.” Because every PC and Mac comes pre-installed with system fonts, the resulting logo and identity uses just the ultra-basics—Arial and Times New Roman in black and white. It was foolproof, and it won.
Jen, who was born and raised in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, began her career with a similar kind of resourcefulness. In 1998 she came to New York City to study painting at the School of Visual Arts. Then, during her freshman year her father passed away. When her mother told her she needed to figure out how to make a living, Jen switched her studies to focus on the more practical field of graphic design. After graduating she interned at Pentagram under Paula Scher before going on to work at Base, 2×4, Inc., and Stone Yamashita, ultimately starting her own tiny firm, Njenworks. With Njenworks, Jen took on (often pro bono) projects for arts organizations. “We said yes to everything,” she says. She created a series of tent designs for the New Museum, posters for MIT Architecture’s lecture series and for Nuit Blanche. It was around this time she got the call from Pentagram.
In a superficial way, Jen’s Taipei upbringing seems to influence much of her work, which doesn’t shy away from sharp hues or playfulness. Taipei is a land of frenetic visuals: crowded, neon street signage is everywhere and kids grow up reading action-packed anime and Japanese pop-culture magazines splashed with hot pink characters. In less obvious ways, it’s given Jen a certain sensitivity to the role design plays in different cultures. Last year she also designed the graphic identity for the Taiwan Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, creating a wild, improvisational typeface that looks like “weijan,” the common makeshift roof-and-hut building practice.
She’s even more embedded in design in Taiwan these days. Jen’s current project is a sprawling, many-legged branding project for a new Taiwanese development. After talking to architects at BIG, the firm designing an 800-apartment complex for the site, Jen was invited to pitch ideas for the graphic identity. They pitched a simple green-and-white logo based off the nearby mountains and river. The chairman loved it. “He got up and clapped his hands, and at the end of the day I walked out the meeting with six projects,” she says. “I was so thrilled, but at the same time I was completely terrified. We simply didn’t have the team to support that much work, to building projections with an app, to an identity for a noodle shop, and an identity for a bakery.” True to form, Jen said yes anyway. “Luckily, it all worked out.”