Pentagram partner and graphic designer Natasha Jen is a three-time National Design Award nominee whose work encompasses brand identity systems, packaging, exhibition design, digital interfaces and more. She’s also a thinker, a maker, an educator—and was the sole judge of the 9th Annual HOW Logo Design Awards, to which she brought her keen eyes and industry expertise.
Jen took the time to tell us about her favorite and most challenging work, her take on inspiration, and her observations as both a professor at the School of Visual Arts and a guest critic at Harvard Graduate School of Design, Yale University School of Art, Cooper Union, Rhode Island School of Design and Maryland Institute College of Art. And as a leader in design with numerous awards under her belt—with recent and past clients including Nike, Target and the Guggenheim Foundation—she also shares her best branding advice.
Pentagram Partner Natasha Jen on All Things Branding
The Teabox Challenge
It’s tempting to look at Jen’s body and work and think that she and her team make it all look so easy. Simple yet clever logos. Spot-on color palettes for beautifully executed brand identity systems. Raving clients enjoying increased sales with smiles on their faces. … It’s easy to forget that behind every stunning project is a team that’s talented but also puts in the work from start to finish to make it happen.
Jen recalls her team facing challenges early on when they took on Teabox, an e-commerce, direct-to-consumer tea brand. Knowing very little about the tea industry beyond the fact that it’s saturated and that tea branding typically involves certain clichés that consumers register any tea brand with, they had much research to do in order to discover how the industry works behind the scenes, as well as all the little-known facts about the product.
“It was through the research that we were able to think about the expressions of Teabox differently,” Jen says. “We proposed to abandon all the design cliches that you’d find in tea branding—colonial nostalgia, victorian decorations, or pseudo artisanal/hand-craft kind of language—and opt for something that’s radically modern and memorable. We proposed a stencil typeface combined with color blocking as the foundational building-blocks. It was something new to our client, and it took some serious dialogue to bring them on board and take the calculated risk: a risk for clear differentiation.”
But Teabox wasn’t unique in the challenges it presented to the team at Pentagram. “All projects are challenging in the beginning as we often times don’t have the expert level of knowledge about the nuances of the brand, the industry [in which] it operates, the people behind it and their tastes,” Jen says. “But what makes certain things challenging is also what makes them fun.”
If you follow Jen on Instagram, you’ll notice she posts (pretty regularly) all things inspiration. “I have a wondering mind,” she says. “The issue for me is not about how to keep my eyes open, but rather how to keep my eyes closed sometimes so I can be productive. (LOL.) I think at this time and digitized age, finding inspirations is as easy as ordering food online; the question is what do we DO with inspirations.”
A Move Toward “Total Branding”
Recently, Pentagram has begun taking on more “total branding” initiatives, Jen says—ones that require them to create everything for a brand, including the naming and visual identity, messaging and tone of voice, website and animations, packaging and physical spaces, and art direction for photography.
“We’re even involved in helping the brand to find the right social media and PR partners,” Jen says. “It’s a different ballgame as it truly requires many skillsets other than graphic design.”
At the moment, Pentagram is preparing to launch a new skincare brand called Venn, for which they developed everything from the naming to the packaging. And although all of Pentagram’s client projects are their “babies,” Jen says, and although she enjoys the process and relationships with all their clients for different reasons, total branding projects like Venn are a particular favorite of hers. “It’s satisfying to see our work gave birth to a progressive brand, and how we helped our clients to accomplish their goals.”
3 Things Natasha Jen Thinks About Design and Branding
Given Jen’s extensive experience, keen eyes and expertise, we couldn’t resist asking her for tips on logo design and advice for anyone working on brand identity projects, as well as her teaching philosophy.
- There aren’t that many rules for logo design but I find the most time-tested, long-lasting ones tend to be radically simple.
- Try to understand your clients as people as early as possible. Understand their liking, disliking, what keeps them up at night, what makes them happy; and with a larger organization, understand how it’s structured and the power hierarchy within it. It all comes down to people.
- My teaching philosophy is everyone is good at something, and my role as a professor is to help them discover what that thing is, and cultivate it through lots and lots of exercise, accept your failures and improve upon them. … You need to do a lot and fail in order to be better.
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