Earlier this year I interviewed Richard Turley, the creative director who revolutionised Bloomberg Business Week before moving to MTV. Asked to compare the creative scenes in London and New York, his tremendously honest response ended with the conclusion: “Everyone everywhere moans about Pentagram.”
“I totally took that as a compliment,” laughs Pentagram New York partner Emily Oberman. “Everyone moans about Pentagram because we have been trucking along doing the best work we can over many, many years and either we succeed or we fail, but at least we try.
“It’s funny to read all the things that get said about Pentagram. Some of it’s accurate and some of it’s so off the mark it’s crazy. And whatever people might think, at its core Pentagram is – and always has been – about doing good work. That is basically the business plan. The fact that we have been successful is as much a positive statement about the world of design as it is about the world of Pentagram.”
In June I spent an entire day immersed in the world of Pentagram, specifically at the New York office that sits on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, just opposite Madison Square Park (there’s an equally large London office and one-partner satellites in San Francisco, Berlin and Austin). I spoke to five New York partners (Eddie Opara and Natasha Jen were away that day) and interviewed Emily when I was back in London to try and discover more about this organisation which seems to attract evangelical admiration and comment-board vitriol in equal measure.
Emily joined as a partner in 2012, and the first thing that struck her was the culture in which she found herself. “It was truly about doing the work and not about bureaucracy. The partners are all generous and thoughtful about design and collaboration. It is not like joining some big corporation – it is very personal and human.”
Pentagram is owned and controlled by its partners, and each partner builds his or her own team to work on the jobs they bring in. “I look for good, smart, funny people who are interested in everything from politics to pop culture,” Emily says. “I don’t have much of a poker face and so the team always knows when I am happy or not which I like, though I am not sure if they always do.”
“[Pentagram] was truly about doing the work and not about bureaucracy… It is not like joining some big corporation – it is very personal and human.”
Team Oberman can be found on the lower ground floor of the New York office, right next to that of Michael Bierut, the longest-serving US partner. But the partners all sit together, in a line of desks that stretches down the left-hand side of the office’s first floor. From the waiting area, visitors come face-to-face with perhaps the most concentrated stretch of graphic design talent to be found anywhere in the world. It is an unusual arrangement, and while Michael and Emily can call straight down to their teams, other partners have to go upstairs to the upper floor to discuss their projects’ progress.
This building though was never designed to be a studio – it started life as a bank, became a clothing store and later a nightclub called MK, which Michael Bierut recalls as being themed around the idea of an illicit house party of a louche South American playboy who’s magnate father was away. Michael, it must be said, has an extraordinarily detailed knowledge of the New York nightclub scene of the 1980s and 90s.
He also knows his stuff when it comes to Pentagram, explaining that Colin Forbes, one of its founders, moved from London in 1980 to set up a New York office having “had sort of a midlife crisis.” While Pentagram London’s HQ overlooked Paddington Station, Forbes honed in on this area of Manhattan because it had some of the same qualities. “It was a gritty old New York neighbourhood,” Michael explains, “and the whole area went dark after 6pm. The park across the street was creepy by day and outright dangerous by night.”
He joined Pentagram in 1990, having worked for some years under the legendary Massimo Vignelli. “I loved working at Vignelli Associates; it was like being in a family. An Italian family. There was a kind of insularity to it, and spoken and not-so-spoken rules about what you could and couldn’t do. Pentagram seemed quite eclectic and that was appealing.”
Pentagram moved into its current premises in 1994, which Michael admits are “charming, idiosyncratic, crowded, inefficient.” The area has changed into “choicest real estate” – Chelsea Clinton has an apartment overlooking Madison Square Park now – but the thinking that underpins Pentagram has remained the same. “The foundational idea was that different partners within the firm would have different ways of approaching the same problem and that somehow by working in such close proximity to each other they would be able to come up with solutions to things that were more interesting than they might have one if they were on their own.”
This interesting dynamic between the individual and the collective is picked up on by Abbott Miller. He believes Pentagram partners need a “polymorphous sensibility… someone who has enough of a sense of self to survive among a lot of other strong personalities, but who also has the ability to understand this broader framework of collegiality and collaboration.”
“If you were practising on your own, you wouldn’t necessarily be provoking yourself to think in [certain] ways. That cyclical reinvention is happening for each partner. The formula, if there is a formula, is in that regeneration.”
He describes Pentagram as Colin Forbes’ “biggest and best idea as a design project” with the ongoing addition of new partners “a very smart formulation of how it would sustain and reinvent itself.”
It also keeps the existing partners on their toes. “There is always a funny feeling when someone comes up in discussion as a partner and you think, ‘Wait isn’t that kind of what I do?’ You want to make sure that the next you, a better you, isn’t coming in from the other side.”
Once part of the organisation though, Abbott thinks there is huge value in the interaction between partners who are at different stages in their careers.
“I remember when I first joined and I spent a lot of time with Paula (Scher) travelling. You get around to these very personal perspectives on working and ageing and then you start to see yourself in relation to those arcs. If you were practising on your own, you wouldn’t necessarily be provoking yourself to think in those ways. That cyclical reinvention is happening for each partner. It’s a diagram of these career arcs that are constantly interlacing as they move forward. The formula, if there is a formula, is in that regeneration.”
Michael Gericke agrees this regeneration is key to Pentagram’s success. He believes “the ever-changing collection of the partners and their personalities” produces “an ever-changing imbalance to it all, even though we’ve been around for 40 years.” “He continues: “In ten years it will be a different thing than it is today, but then today it’s a different thing to what it was ten years ago.”
The partners, Michael explains, put the same money into the business and draw the same salaries, but this equality doesn’t prevent constant comparisons between themselves.
“The creative competitiveness pushes us because our biggest fans and critics are partners too,” he says. “You work hard because you’re challenged by the work that everybody else is doing.
“Design is an ego-driven profession but you need to have it paired with this idea of sharing your business and your work and your life with people you respect and admire and push you to a place you couldn’t get to totally on your own. It’s a delicate balance and it’s not for everyone.”
“Maybe we don’t have to take over the world, maybe it’s ok if we lose some projects to Wolff Olins, maybe it’s good that we don’t make as much money because we’ll have more people with suits.”
Indeed it’s not. One of the founders Bob Gill walked away from his own creation, and several big names including Peter Saville and April Greiman left after a few years. Luke Hayman, a British partner in the New York office, admits he too struggled when he first joined in 2007.
“It was terrifying for a while, especially the first year. I am much more comfortable now but I still go through phrases where I think I am a fraud, I will resign at the next meeting because I am bringing it all down. But it’s very supportive here, and now if Eddie or Emily freak out I am in that position where I can say, ‘Just give it another month before you resign. It’ll turn around.’”
The first time Luke was interviewed as a potential partner he was actually turned down – “I was too nervous or too needy” – but he was accepted second time around, fresh off his huge success redesigning New York magazine (“I was funnier and I think that really matters”). Now he describes the interaction between the partners when they all get together as "a little chaotic, a little dysfunctional.”
“In theory everyone has the same vote and the same power but there’s things about who’s been there longest, who gets the most press, who brings in certain kinds of projects, who wins the most awards. We each have our values and they’re different.
“I have seen over eight years discussions where I was definitely on one side and now I see it from another point of view. Maybe we don’t have to take over the world, maybe it’s OK if we lose some projects to Wolff Olins, maybe it’s good that we don’t make as much money because we’ll have more people with suits.”
He waxes lyrical about life at Pentagram, about its longterm thinking and the ability he has to work with a leading multinational one day and on a pro-bono book for a charity the next. “At partner meetings we talk about both side-by-side – here is the project that lost us $10,000 but here is the project that made lots of money and meant we could do that.”
As a designer, Pentagram gives him the best of both worlds in lots of senses. “We want the control you can have designing a small pen and the influence of designing the logo for a bank which is seen by millions.
“At a big company you find the higher you go, the more managing and the less design you do. You end up doing the design when everyone’s gone home. To my designers’ annoyance I am asking to look at every layout and every page and picking it apart. I really am designing although I am not opening InDesign very often.”
For Paula Scher, this immediate relationship with the design process is similarly important. She moved to New York straight after college with her portfolio and $50, by the age of 26 she was a senior art director for CBS Records overseeing 150 record sleeves a year. Now she is dismayed to see young designers divorced from the actual doing and making that was so formative for her career.
“Students of mine who have gone into big agencies, they’re making changes, they’re not making things. Or they’re making things to make the thing. Or they’re being hired to make the presentation to show the company what it might be like if they do get hired to make the thing!”
“At a big company you find the higher you go, the more managing and the less design you do. You end up doing the design when everyone’s gone home."
Paula joined Pentagram in 1991 and was at that time the only female partner. She had previously built a successful studio with Terry Koppel, but when he moved to Esquire she decided her career would benefit from the kind of doors the Pentagram name opened.
“There were things that didn’t feel totally right in the fit but I knew if I joined Pentagram I would be able to get jobs at a larger scale than I would ever have been able to get on my own. It was totally practical but joining at the beginning was rough and very unpleasant. Going to partners’ meetings, especially the London guys, the original members, were fairly brutal. I used to come home in tears but I got very vocal quite early on because that was how I had to survive in this group of men.”
As the gloomy, swollen New York skies break and thunder rumbles through the office, talk turns to where Paula sees herself now, 24 years after joining Pentagram.
“I have helped and been a mentor but right now these guys are growing really fast and I have to figure out what I am doing,” she says. “There aren’t a lot of role models for me. I am 66 years old and I see people working but not pushing boundaries, and part of me feels maybe you’re not supposed to now.
“I don’t feel any different than I did 20 years ago about wanting to push the work, but I know that I am different, and I know that if I have a client in their 40s they are not looking at me in the same way as they did when we were both the same age. And that’s scary because it’s like being a woman again – it’s another disadvantage put in front of the work, which for me has always been the whole problem with everything.”
And that brings us back to Emily Oberman’s point – echoed by most of the partners I interviewed – that the work comes first. That purity of purpose – which may seem unrealistic at best, messianic at worst – is probably why everyone, everywhere moans about Pentagram.