Good design is sympathetic to a region’s geopolitics and economics – Natasha Jen

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Natasha Jen was born and raised in Taiwan. At the age of 22, she moved to New York City to study fine art and ended up in the graphic design department. After university, she quickly worked her way into a position as Partner at Pentagram, one of the world’s leading independent design consultancies. Jen and her design team have taken on a number of projects in the Greater China region in recent years, and the graphic designer draws on her thoroughly cross-cultural background when working in a Chinese-speaking market that simultaneously looks inward and to the West.

While Pentagram does not have an office in Asia, the studio has experienced a surge of interest from the region in recent years. “A very big portion of my team’s work right now comes from the Asia region, and that came without us pursuing them,” Jen notes. “In the next couple of years, the demand will get even stronger than it is right now. China is a huge market, and there are all kinds of infrastructure–from cultural institutions to commercial entities–being developed.”

Chinese companies tend to not only look within their region, but they also tend to search the American and Western markets to find design firms with a strong reputation, Jen observes. “I think through working with these clients and projects, we’ll gain a better understanding of and a sympathy for particular cultural and economic conditions,” Jen says of Pentagram’s experience in the Greater China region. “Sometimes designers can be really idealistic about how things have to be, but I think that a good design is contextual and is sympathetic to a particular region’s geopolitical and economic conditions. Through working on these kinds of projects, hopefully we’ll become more transcultural.”

For Natasha Jen, the term ‘Chinese-speaking’ is laden with complexity. It is “a pretty all-encompassing lens through which to look at this particular group and culture,” she says. “There are very different geopolitical regions in [Greater China]. For example, there’s China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Do they all have some aspect of Chinese culture? Absolutely, because they’re predominantly Han [Chinese]. Are they different? Yes, they’re entirely different.” Jen’s team at Pentagram is uniquely placed to tackle the emerging field of transcultural design. “Language is a channel, it’s a vehicle, but at the same time, it’s a boundary,” Jen notes. “Some of my designers and I are bilingual and bicultural. In that context, we all become a kind of medium who can navigate between languages and cultures.”

In a purely formal sense, it is more difficult to design typography in Mandarin Chinese than in English, Jen notes. The Chinese writing system is more complex than Roman alphabet because it is made up of characters that contain multiple strokes. “Sometimes a character is so complex that its legibility becomes a challenge in the design,” she says. Graphic designers working in Chinese need to balance the readability of a character against the meaning and the “overarching formal principles” of an identity. “You need to look at each stroke in each character and make sure that not only the logo itself is legible, but that the logo also carries the formal qualities you want,” she explains.

Things get even more complicated when you need to develop an identity in two languages. Jen uses naming as an example: “Chinese has a completely different ideology [to English]: it is essentially a combination of pictograms that create meaning. It’s through different combinations of these characters that you create different meanings, so in a way, the language is like a set of Lego blocks. In English, you have 26 letters that create meaning. Each language also has its own particular form or construct, so to come up with names that phonetically sound good, visually look good, and are semantically compatible in both languages is quite a challenge.” The “poetics” in the names, rather than their literal meanings, need to translate into one another, she explains.

Jen believes the Greater China region is full of opportunity for graphic designers. “There’s an increased awareness about the value of design in the region, especially in China, where there’s such an incredible cultural and design renaissance happening right now. Accumulatively, the demand [for good design] creates opportunities for designers to do really hard work and think about what we are actually providing to our clients.”

She is particularly excited by the graphic design work coming of Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China. “Designers in these places have been trying really hard to think about what it means to be Chinese in the contemporary global culture,” she says. “They’re rethinking traditional Chinese design, and ultimately, ways of being, in relation to a more and more homogenized design culture that’s largely a result of Modernism.”

About Natasha Jen

Natasha Jen was born in Taipei, Taiwan and studied graphic design at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, where she received her BFA with Honors in 2002. She has worked at Base Design as a senior designer on fashion and brand identity projects, at 2×4, Inc. as an art director leading large-scale b’anding, exhibition, environmental, and editorial projects, and at Stone Yamashita Partners as creative director. In July 2010, she established her own studio, Njenworks. She joined Pentagram’s New York office as partner in April 2012. Leading brands and institutions like Nike, Guggenheim Museum/Foundation, Kate Spade, Target, and MIT Architecture have numbered among her clients. Jen was one of the winners of Art Directors Club Young Guns 4 and served as a judge for the competition in 2007 and 2011. She was invited to be a guest critic at the Yale University School of Art.

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