Natasha Jen Has 2020 Vision

“As agencies, we don’t talk about the work itself. I want to actually understand our work.”

Natasha Jen on Zoom. Art by Emma Linh.

by Emma Linh

“What have I really done?” Natasha Jen reflected on her eight-year sprint as a partner at Pentagram, one of the world’s most prestigious design firms. She sat in front of a postmodernist yurt (a virtual Zoom background of course). It felt avant-garde, with radiating turquoise beams and a contemporary fuchsia ottoman. Before the pandemic halted her worldly travels, she fell in love with a similar yurt while visiting Marfa, Texas. Now she lives vicariously through simulated settings in the comfort of her New York studio. Arriving at our interview from a client presentation, she seemed polished, with her black hair pulled back into a ponytail and a gold chain link necklace resting on a black tank.

“If our work (as graphic designers) is essentially to facilitate our clients’ needs, what actually makes our work, us? What makes my work, mine?” These are the existential questions she would ponder during the pandemic when the world screeched to a sudden stop. Everything slowed down. Finally, she found time to meander. “You know, looking for things online, on Pinterest, reading an article here, reading a book there, then maybe doing some research.”

Up until this point, Natasha’s career had been going at 300 miles per hour. Two decades ago, she left the rigid schooling of Taipei, Taiwan to pursue the arts at School of Visual Arts in New York. Her client roster now boasts major names like Nike, Guggenheim Museum, and Google. She has earned a variety of awards like Art Directors Club Young Guns and appeared in a number of publications, including Print Magazine, Dwell, and China Art and Design.

On March 22, 2020, New York issued a stay-at-home order. Work was slow that spring. This was a new and uncomfortable feeling for Natasha. “Seeing the work shaping up, seeing ideas coming out, having debates about design. It was the work that kept me alive.” For the first time in a while, she ruminated on her work. Her body of work. Her design practice as a whole. At the agency, she had gotten swept away in conversations about process, strategy, clients, and so on. “As agencies, we don’t talk about the work itself. I want to actually understand our work.” So with her team at Pentagram, they seized the moment to look inward. They dug into eight years of design files (even the graveyard pile) and uncovered some unexpected findings.

The result was a colorful pie chart with one dominating green slice labeled, “New Brand Identity.” Another bar chart with the longest bar at the top read “Technology.” Diagram after diagram, she’d say, “This was surprising to see,” and, “Again, I didn’t plan that.” Bit by bit, her design compass had shifted the work’s trajectory over the last few years. She realized it was time to reorient her north star.

In meandering, Natasha mindfully cruised through the murky fog to a crystal clear view of her work’s essence. Her ethos? Playful yet disciplined. Expressive in typography, but structured in thinking. Colorful while also logical. A thrilling tension. She also envisioned less of the green “Brand Identity” slice and more publication and exhibition work — the type of design she used to do when she first joined Pentagram.

Really, Natasha has done more than most designers could ever hope to achieve. Suddenly, this “sitting around and doing nothing” (as she calls it) shone a new light on her work. Her wanderlust led her on an introspective journey that illuminated a new vision for her craft. Looking off into the distance, Natasha rested her chin on clasped hands and shared, “I need to reclaim more of that.”

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Still Processing is a collection of work from the participants of the two-week 2021 Design Writing & Research Summer Intensive at the School of Visual Arts. For more information about our Summer Intensive as well as our two-semester Master’s program, please visit our website or email us at designresearch@sva.edu

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