Industry News

Pentagram – HOW Design TODAY February 2024

At HOW Design Live, we do everything we can to foster powerful and memorable moments—and, well, if you were at our 2023 event in Nashville, you got a heck of one.

For more than five decades, Pentagram has been the storied standard of design shops—the largest independent firm in the world. And last summer, in a special keynote live taping of Debbie Millman’s podcast Design Matters, three of the firm’s legendary partners brought the audience behind the scenes of it all as they discussed life at Pentagram and the new book Pentagram: Living By Design.

“The three partners that are here with us today—Paula Scher, Emily Oberman, and Michael Bierut—are still doing some of the best work of their careers,” Millman told the audience. “Whether it’s Paula’s global Shake Shack identity or her Citi logo; Emily’s titles for Saturday Night Live or her redesign of Amazon Prime Video; or Michael’s work for the New York Jets or Yale University; the partners of Pentagram have not only designed some of the most ubiquitous graphic design on the planet, they have literally raised the standards of all designers everywhere.”

If you missed your chance to catch the keynote live—we’ve got you. Here are some of our favorite moments from the candid, often hilarious conversation—which you can listen to in full on Design Matters right here

If you loved this session, you’re going to especially love what we have in store for you this year. Stay tuned!

Inside Pentagram

Debbie Millman: In your remarkable new monograph [Pentagram: Living By Design], Adrian Shaughnessy writes that Pentagram has lasted as long as it has because of its unique partner-owned business model and a ferocious commitment to creative excellence. For many years, the business model at Pentagram felt like a really secretive thing. Can you talk about the partner-owned business model and what that actually is, and what it means?

Paula Scher: What’s fantastic about it is that Colin Forbes designed a brilliant system, and the system is based on two principles: generosity and responsibility. The notion of responsibility matters because if you make a mess, you’re making bad things for your partners, but your partners have to be generous enough to understand that sometimes you make a mess. So there’s the balance of those two things. It has to do with money, sharing, accepting responsibility and being part of a group. You’re not really out on your own. Yet you get to be your own person as a designer as well as share, and these things generally work together very well. When a person can’t adapt to the system or something is really wrong in it, it usually comes down to the business of generosity or responsibility almost in every instance. So Colin Forbes had it right.

Michael Bierut: And I think sort of the thing that people really can’t believe is that sometimes a client will get curious about how we’re organized, and they’ll ask me, “Are you the head of Pentagram?” I say, “No, Pentagram doesn’t have a head.” There’s no CEO, there’s no managing director. Each one of the partners sort of represents the highest level of the firm. So it’s got 23 co-managers, basically. And everything that’s decided is decided by consensus. Any new partner that joins has to be unanimously elected by all the partners. Even if it’s a partner joining in New York, the partners in Austin and Berlin and London have to be in unanimous agreement about it. 

… I’m not even sure the original five guys were “friends.” They were colleagues, they respected each other, they got mad at each other, they fought with each other, but they sort of had this great creative tension that was based on the idea that “When we decide, we’ll decide these things together,” right? And I think there’s just something so counterintuitive about that, and it’s created this sort of funny … it’s not even stability, but it keeps everything in this state of tension that gives us enough energy to go forward, but enough to also kind of bind it together at the same time.

The perils of partnership 

Millman: So there are 23 designers, and all have their individual P&L with an overhead. Do you see each other’s numbers?

Scher: Yes.

Millman: That’s terrifying.

Emily Oberman: It’s horrible.

Bierut: It’s once a month.

Millman: Do you actually see a ranking? So that’s what keeps you all striving—you all want to impress each other.

Scher: Yes, we’re scared shitless.

Millman: This is remarkable. I hope everybody is taking notes.

Oberman: The funny thing is you’re never looking at anyone’s number and thinking, “Why aren’t you doing better?” You’re only thinking about yourself.

Millman: Of course.

Oberman: And if someone’s numbers are lower, if it’s you, you feel terrible, but no one else is judging you for it. Everyone else is just thinking, if you ask, “How can I help?”

Bierut: And if your numbers are good, you only look at Instagram and think, “Damn it. Why isn’t my work as good as Paula’s or Emily’s?” And so it’s like no matter what it is, that competition is so ceaseless and punishing to a certain degree. But it’s also the thing that kind of, again, keeps us moving.

Oberman: … I mean, for the first seven years that I was at Pentagram, I would go home and be like, “whew, whew, whew” every night, just to sort of catch my breath from the stress and worry, but also then I would get to look at the work—not the work that I was doing that I felt was getting better—but you walk through the office and you see on the computers and on the deck everybody’s work, and it’s just like, “What?” It’s very inspiring.

The seven-year twitch

Millman: So it’s interesting that you say seven years, because buried in the book, I saw a line that said it takes about seven years for each of the Pentagram partners to sort of find their footing. So I have a couple of questions around that seven years. Why seven years? 

Scher: I think that seven years is some kind of lifecycle. I was sitting next to Eddie Opara for his first seven years, and he said to me, “How long is this going to take?” He didn’t feel like he got fit into the situation, he didn’t understand why things were a certain way, this way, the other way, and I would say, “It takes seven years.” And then another two years would go by, and I’d have the same conversation with him, and then one day he said, “It’s been seven years. I feel good.”

An untapped model?

Millman: Adrian poses a question in the book that he hopes becomes answered through the work, but I do want to ask you all this question: Given your success, why don’t more design firms adopt your system? 

Oberman: I’ve sort of always wondered that. I also just want to say another reason I joined Pentagram is I could not face the idea of figuring out how to lease a copier.

Bierut: No, it’s true. It’s funny.

Scher: That’s part of it.

Bierut: I think part of it is that it happened organically at the beginning, and then the generosity and vision of those original people back in the ’70s created a structure into which everyone sort of submits themselves. We keep talking about Colin Forbes, who was sort of the guy who designed the whole thing in his head, and was the de facto first among equals of the original five guys, at least in terms of administrative work. I think people would say Alan Fletcher was the famous designer, et cetera. But Colin had really worked it out. And I remember one time he said, “I’m amazed you guys are so eager to follow the rules. They’re just rules that we made up.”

Scher: But I think this is the answer to the question, in that the reason I think Pentagram lasted so long is that nobody who has been here for the longest periods of time was actually a founder. … All those guys, by the time we joined, they were already mostly gone. I think Kenneth Grange hung around. So Pentagram kind of wasn’t working. If there hadn’t been a whole new crew, there wouldn’t be a Pentagram. That’s actually the truth.

Oberman: And it’s true. It takes a really long time for us to find a new partner because you have to have a certain kind of personality. You have to be just sort of weird enough to want to join this. Someone said this—we are like the island of misfit toys. We’re not really all normal people.

Millman: I don’t know that that’s how I would describe you, but I’ll accept it.

Oberman: But we are a very quirky bunch. We’re not like an agency, we’re not like Wolff Olins. It’s weird to have 23 partners. It’s why we’ve never been acquired, it’s why we can’t be acquired. I don’t know. It’s a very unusual thing, and we’re all very specific individual people who are very different, but all happen to sort of believe in the same thing, believe in the same principles about the work.

Pentagram on pitch

Millman: Pentagram works for giant corporations, startups, arts and educational institutions, entertainment properties, sports teams, publishing houses, and even candidates for president of the United States. You also do quite a lot of pro-bono work. Do you still have to pitch a lot of work, or does the work just sort of come through the door? [For instance,] somebody calls up and says, “Hey, Paula, we want you to design the new Westinghouse logo. Would you be interested in coming in and showing us your thoughts or your approach or your portfolio? We’re also going to be looking at Landor & Fitch, and Wolff Olins.”

Scher: Sure. We do that all the time. …

Bierut: Each partner ends up being pretty much responsible for generating their own work and kind of leading the pitch meetings if we’re having conversations.

Millman: How do you go about looking for new work? What is your new business development process like?

Scher: Sometimes you do make something out of a job. Like, you brought up the Westinghouse logo. The call wasn’t for a redesign of the Westinghouse logo, the call was from a guy who worked inside Westinghouse who wanted a standards manual based on a font he was already using for Westinghouse that looked crummy, and he needed something to give to the licensees. And I said, “Why are you doing that? Paul Rand already designed this. Why don’t you just use his?” And they owned it. But that wasn’t the job. The job was this other job. And sometimes you just take the call, and if you have absolutely no interest in the job, you tend to get it because you have the courage to tell them exactly what they should do. And if they jump on it, then you get the project, which is sort of great.

Millman: How often do you have that courage? I kind of get the sense, Paula, that you have it all the time.

Scher: No, I’m intimidated by things.

Millman: Really?

Scher: Yeah, absolutely. I’m intimidated by big-time competition and very complicated proposal writing. And I like it better when I can get the feeling of a client and have them begin to develop a relationship with me on the phone. If I can do that, I can do the job. But I really don’t like the sort of big agency competition thing.

A Pentagram redesign?

Millman: I have one last question for you, something that I didn’t realize until I read the book. Almost 51 years with the same logo. Any thoughts about ever changing your identity?

Scher: Well, actually at the last partner’s meeting, we were looking at a better cut of the same logo. But I think the real reason we don’t change our logo is we never agree on anything, we’ll never have a logo. Absolutely ridiculous. You got 23 partners with typographic opinions. How would you even begin to do that?