Partner at Pentagram
Design thinking is bullshit. It’s an opinion and a talk notable designer Natasha Jen is well-known for. And, sure, it’s a phrase that entices, piques curiosity. But it’s the experience behind the opinion—the years of exploring cultural intersections and divergence, design systems, philosophies, failures—that has made Natasha Jen a Name in the design world. Or rather, she has earned that reputation for herself.
Natasha moved from Taiwan to New York at the age of 20. Since then, she’s worked on brand identities, environmental design, multi-scale exhibitions, signage systems, print, motion, and interactive graphics. She’s worked as a senior designer at Base Design, as an art director at 2×4, Inc., and as a creative director at Stone Yamashita Partners. She established her own studio, Njenworks, in 2010, and in 2012, Natasha joined Pentagram’s New York office as a partner.
Collaborations with universities and professional organizations (like Harvard Art Museums and MIT Architecture), museums and galleries (like Guggenheim Museum/Foundation and OMA), and retail and fashion brands (like Kate Spade and Chanel) are all part of her career highlights. She’s an award-winning designer and an educator, as well as an insightful speaker and an introspective listener.
In 2018, in an interview with It’s Nice That, Natasha said, “We live in a world that’s constantly hungry for the new. From inventions to content to experiences, we’re consuming and demanding novelty at rapid speeds. Desperately looking for quick remedies that cater to society’s insatiable obsession with newness, industries are turning to the fad of design thinking for a cure.” She added, “The reduction of a complex creative problem-solving mindset into five steps makes design seem easy when it’s not.”
While that interview took place long before COVID-19 drastically changed our everyday lives, perhaps Natasha’s words are increasingly relevant now. Design is complex. It requires a problem-solving mindset. And industries need strategic design to help, to solve—right now. The minds of designers across mediums are what will help us all navigate to a “new normal” we don’t yet know, and find solutions to the problems we’re only just beginning to uncover, from adaptability to longevity.
Our Q&A with Natasha touches upon who she is as a creative and the unforeseen challenges that now face designers of all kinds.
What is your design philosophy?
Design is strategic play. Play gives birth to ideas; play is pushing the limits; play is intuitive; play is fun. Strategy is analysis, planning, maneuvering in different contexts to make the outcome of play appropriate. Design is an act that oscillates between these two very different minds.
How does your role in educational settings as a speaker and guest critic influence your work as a designer?
I teach. I find students infinitely inspiring. Teaching design—which is about explaining, enlightening, and creating a dialogue—is actually not that different from working with a client, having a dialogue with them, and helping them see how we see. In this regard, the distinction between teaching and practicing design is very little.
What about design still challenges you?
Everything about design is a challenge. There’s constant newness—new clients, new projects, new contexts, new problems, combined with our own ambition to make something new—that makes the practice super interesting and anxiety-inducing at the same time.
What’s a strong opinion you’re currently holding tightly to?
Interesting question, and normally, I would have some answers. But at this moment—in the crisis of a pandemic that threatens every aspect of our lives that we previously knew—I’m not sure I have an answer. It feels as though this uncharted terrain calls for an introspection. I have a lot of mixed feelings about things: the fast speed that we’ve been on for growth and the assumption that scaling up equates progress. We, designers, have been on that path as well, as we are part of the market economy. Questions I’ve been contemplating are, how do we help create a more even-paced future, and how do we play a more critical part in shaping our roles as designers?
What's the biggest opportunity designers have right now?
In our lifetime, we had never before encountered the idea of “designers in a war-like environment.” That concept didn’t exist. In our lifetime, design has always been a byproduct of a stable market economy and political peace. But the existence of “designers in chaos” isn’t without precedents. Many Bauhaus designers whose work defined the trajectory of Modernism came out of eras of total disturbance and instability, for example. What is today’s equivalent in this new context? How do we shape our own version of “design in instability”?
Natasha was slated to join us, in partnership with AIGA Portland, during the 2020 Spring festival. Since this has been postponed, AIGA is diligently working to find out in what way Natasha might still join us in the future.