Working with Natasha feels like the most delicious yoga stretch: She pulls you out of the obvious and releases you into something refreshingly new and amazing. It is highly addictive and I am a serial junkie, always looking for the next project we can team up on.
Natasha is a graphic designer and Partner at Pentagram, the world’s largest independent design consultancy, and the first former intern in the company’s history to ever be awarded this role. Her client list reads like a compilation of the global architecture, design, fashion, lifestyle and media avant-garde. Her projects are testament of analytically calculated and empirical media cross-pollination in visual arts and communication and on top of all that, Natasha is just delightful.
She grew up in Taipei on the Island of Taiwan, which - being a former colony of Imperial Japan and now being governed by China - merges two of the world’s richest cultures and has become one of Asia’s leading economies. (Here is just a little bit of trivia on the side for you: Taiwan as a creditor economy, holds one of the world's largest foreign exchange reserves of over US $403 billion and the literacy rate in Taipei stands at 99.18%.)
When she came to New York in 1998 to study Painting, she barely spoke any English. Only 3 months after she arrived, her father died unexpectedly, which was a big shock for the whole family. When her mum urged her to study “something, that would give her a better chance of getting a job after”, Natasha reconsidered her decision to become an artist and tried to find something more commercially applicable. She read through the list of departments at the School of Visual Arts, where she was already inscribed, and basically went by exclusion. “I picked graphic design, because it seemed the least technically-challenging discipline compared to say, animation, film-making, or photography. I never wanted to be a graphic designer. I didn’t even know exactly what it was, when I enrolled into the graphic design program.”
After graduating she worked at industry heavyweights like Base, 2x4 and Stone Yamashita Partners and every time she started almost from scratch and added a new design approach and process to her repertoire. In 2010, shortly before I met her, she opened her own studio Njenworks, which she merged 2 years later with Pentagram.
When the Pentagram partners in New York first reached out to her, she had only run her studio for 3 months and was far from jumping at the opportunity. "I didn't have an established career as a solo practitioner and I felt it was too early for me to join Pentagram. I was extremely honored, but I wanted to establish my practice and my own voice as a designer first." What finally convinced her was Pentagram's business structure, a system that treats each partner as an autonomous creative and financial entity. "I have total freedom and I thought being a start-up at a legacy firm would be an interesting position to be in."
At the time we spoke, she was just working on a publication for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the identity, book and exhibitions for an urban development project in Taiwan; the identity for a new fashion label in Paris, multiple identity / publication projects for Storefront for Art and Architecture; and OfficeUS, the American Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, only to mention a few. She keeps herself busy and works every day in some sort of form. Her life and her work are hard to separate - so much of her is in her work and her work so much revolves around the things that she feels naturally drawn to. Everything she does, she is utterly passionate about and she gives it her all.
Her projects all undergo a rigorous selection process. "Are we going to love doing it? Is it going to make us happy? Can we learn something new?" Are questions that reflect her key drivers and motivators. But they also are telltale signs of commitment to her team. When Natasha talks about her work, she always uses the plural "we". She fosters a culture of exchange and strongly believes in sharing and learning from each other. The notion of monopolizing knowledge or taking credit for other people's work is a concept completely unknown to her. She loves a good brainstorm, feeding off of others ideas and impulses, each sparking new connections and new context in her sponge-like brain. Those triggers pulled in her head are crucial and have a direct relationship to the final object. Design for her is never about her ego, never about feeding someone else's vanity and it's never about money. Quite the contrary, when we were going through the images of her work to select the ones, she thought represented her best, she pushes one over and says "How about replacing the image of the American Pavilion at the Biennale in Venice with this one? We just recently did this exhibition. It's an installation with duct tape and IKEA picture frames! The whole thing costs few hundred bucks." while smiling broadly.
And if you would like to peak into what else is going on up there in Natasha's head check out her Pinterest account and she will take you on a journey into the complexity of her mind and open up the drawers of what is feeding her imagination and thought process. Never have I seen anyone max out the potential of Pintrest quite like her, but then again, I also have never met anyone quite like Natasha.
What would you say were the biggest obstacles and challenges you had or have to overcome on your way?
My father died in 1998, 3 months after I moved to New York. He didn’t leave anything behind. It was a kind of turning point in my life. I realized I was kind of on my own.
What advice would you give your 20 year old self?
Follow your intuition! Life is chaotic and there're a lot of noises around us, but listen to your inner voice, because deep inside you, you already know what you want to do.
What excites you most about what you do?
The unpredictable and ambiguous nature of the discipline. Graphic design — unlike architecture, fashion, or product design — is not a thing unto itself. Graphic design adapts to whatever discipline and topics that's given to it. It doesn't have a defined medium either: it is both virtual and physical, small and large, linguistic and pictorial, ubiquitous yet highly specialized. Every assignment is so different to the point I haven’t gotten the same problem twice. Every project is an adventure, a great learning experience.