Design Indaba 2018: 6 Questions For Natasha Jen

INTERVIEWED BY Lindi Brownell Meiring

We caught up with Natasha Jen, award-winning creative and partner at Pentagram in New York City, to talk about her work, her journey and dream briefs.

You describe yourself as a designer, a thinker, a maker and an educator. Which of these qualities/responsibilities drives you the most?

Let’s start with the definition of these roles. The word “designer” implies both thinking and making. Design is both analytical and intuitive. A designer is both a strategist and an artist and that’s how I see myself. I think designer, especially communication design, is still a mystified and misunderstood profession, and the sub-categorisation in recent years, driven by certain market trends – such as “design thinker”, “chief innovation officer”, “chief story-telling officer”, etc – only make the role of design and what we do even more confusing and unimportant.

I tend to think about my role, and the role of communication design in a self-critical yet hopeful light. It can be depressing at times, when you realise that how many bad design decisions are being made (by designers) and these decisions are shaping the way we live and behave. It can also be hopeful as these situations call for constant re-thinking of the things that we’re used to, and that’s an incredible place to be for designers.

How has your journey thus far, from growing up in Taiwan and moving to New York City to becoming one of the youngest partners at Pentagram, affected you as a designer?

The funny thing about a sense of history is that I was always in a “forward” mode and I never put much thought into my own history until I entered my late 30s. Now thinking back, I’ve had wildly different episodes in life – from growing up in Taiwan in a happy childhood, to surviving the highly stressful education system there, to feeling liberated when I entered design school in New York, and to returning to Pentagram – the only constant thing is that I absorb newness pretty comfortably and I can be abnormally calm during some really awful crises. You can imagine these two qualities can work well in the design business (wink).

What would a dream brief entail for you?

I am always drawn to issues that deal with the positioning / attitude of an identity. I’m also drawn to things that are physical / spatial.

Which of your projects have you most enjoyed working on?

All of the “firsts”: The first time working on Venice Biennale, the first time working on a VR branding project (and got terminated from it), the first time working on positioning an augmented reality brand that does both content and hardware, the first time naming something in Chinese, the first time working on another augmented reality platform that has more complex challenges, the first time designing for a public space in a foreign country, the first time designing for ice cream, tea, skincare, quantum computing, the list goes on and on.

What advice would you give to designers just starting out?

Whoever you surround yourself with will have a profound impact on where you go and how you grow. Identify your role model and go work with them. I was lucky to have worked with some of the best minds in the design field and I still feel that some of the early learnings from working with them shape the way I think today.

What are you looking forward to at Design Indaba 2018?

It’ll be my first time visiting South Africa so I am very excited about that. I’m also excited about being an audience member at the conference. Every year I find something inspiring from the lectures online and I’m looking forward to being in the audience seat.

View more of Natasha’s work on Behance. For more on this year’s Design Indaba Festival, check out our post of what you can expect, as well as our video interview with founder Ravi Naidoo, here.