Apparently life begins at 40, or so the saying has it. The idea is that once the callow and simplistic passions of youth are overcome, the combination of experience and fully-functioning hips is a winning one. I like this in principle but have one objection – when someone has achieved loads before they turn 40, how can they keep up that kind of pace? But in the case of Pentagram, celebrating its 40th anniversary this month, there’s no plans to rest on their considerable laurels. We spoke to partner Angus Hyland about the organisation’s past, present and future and we were given access to the posters produced on the organisation’s birthday every year.
The five (hence the name) founder members of Pentagram are a ridiclously impressive collection of design luminaries. But when Alan Fletcher, Theo Crosby, Colin Forbes, Kenneth Grange and Mervyn Kurlansky came together in 1972 to create a new kind of design studio, they could never have foreseen how successful their creation would go on to be. With a cross-discilpine approach and a “flat” (i.e. no CEO etc) structure they set themselves up in a way that had the potential to revolutionise the industry, but having potential and realising it are two very different things.
There’s now 19 partners around the world and Angus believes there are qualities that have endured over the decades. “The definitive monograph was Living by Design we published in 1978,” he tells us. “That captured the underlying message that Pentagram was a lifestyle. It is about doing quality design for big, medium and smaller businesses, from the cultural to the commercial, but we always retain that same quality.
“Everyone who comes in changes it slightly so over a period of time it morphs but the race memory stays the same. There’s no brand platform or overarching constitution, it’s more human that.
“Pentagram is like a multi-celled organism. If one bit drops off then a couple more get bolted on, so it changes but it carries the same DNA. It’s a gradual evolution rather than a strategic plan.”
It’s more than just a neat metaphor. Angus also credits Pentagram’s fundamental set-up for its ability to stay astride a design industry which technology has changed massively over the past 40 years.
“LIke all evolutionary models the question is can you evolve quickly enough to adapt to a changing environment? If it doesn’t then clearly it’s in danger but if it does it retains its strength.
“We can trade on a really good reputation and a really solid foundation but clearly we have to evolve too. Technology always moves quicker and quicker and maybe we struggle with that at times. But rather than jumping onto the latest trend we miss it and then it’s gone and we’re in a better position. Our model undulates and weathers change quite well.”
Pentagram’s 19 partners act in many ways as 19 autonomous design studios operating under the same umbrella and so agreeing a course of action is not necessarily alway that straightforward.
“On a client-facing level we have a very quick response with our smaller creative teams able to scale up and down very quickly. But as an organisation we can only take collective decisions through consensus which is quite a slow responsive mechanism. I think there is a benefit in that.”
“Design is always in a state of anxiety, the human race is always in a state of anxiety… if you don’t have that then why bother – you need some kind of tension to be creative.”
The partner-selection process is a good example of this, taking as it does up to a year.
“It’s a really good platform if you’re at the right point of your career but for others it’s too late or too early – we can take people at a different stage if they’re on the right trajectory though. It comes down to can we sit round a table with that person and do we respect the quality of the work they do.
“We are always open to any discipline but we do not strategically say we need a filmmaker or a sculptor. If someone comes along and they’re the right fit then we’d jump on it.”
Angus doesn’t go in for anxious hand-wringing about the state of the design industry, the effect of new technologies and the democratisation of digital tools. “Personally I am kind of cool with it. Design is always in a state of anxiety, the human race is always in a state of anxiety. That’s normal. In a sense if you don’t have that then why bother – you need some kind of tension to be creative.
“I am working with publishers on a consultancy level and their businesses are thriving, completely against perceived trends. You adapt accordingly. The application of design does not really bother me – you can bring in the expertise as and when.”
And for the new generation of designers just leaving the sanctuary of their universities and entering the industry, what piece of advice would Angus give them?
“Keep calm and carry on. Look to that crappy poster!”