An Interview with Jon Marshall, Pentagram's Newest Partner

Commentary — Apr 27, 2018

By Patrick Burgoyne for Creative Review

This interview originally appeared online in Creative Review, 9th April 2018.

Marshall’s background in connected products adds valuable new skills to Pentagram’s London offering, but the move is as much a confirmation of the studio’s founding model as it is about securing its future.

Design studio appointments aren’t usually something that we cover here on CR but such is the status of Pentagram that whenever it announces a new Partner, there is always a certain frisson that goes through the industry. When we announced on April 4 that Jon Marshall would be the latest to join the ranks of Pentagram’s London office, it was comfortably the most-read story on our website that day.

This isn’t just because elevation to the ranks of Pentagram Partner is seen as a significant step for any designer. Long dominated by white men, the more recent appointment to Partner of more women and people of colour in both its London and New York offices has given the studio a level of diversity that better reflects the ambitions of the industry as a whole. Similarly, the blend of specialisms of the Partners can also be scrutinised for clues as to where the focus of design is resting today.

Though Pentagram’s roots in the 1970s were multidisciplinary – the specialisms of the first Partners include architecture, graphics and industrial design – graphics and brand have arguably been more dominant, or at least more noticeable, over the past decade. The New York office’s addition of Eddie Opara(in 2010) and Natasha Jen (2012) plus Luke Powell and Jody Hudson-Powell becoming Partners in London (in 2015) have added designers noted for their ability to move fluidly between media and their comfort with digital platforms to the mix. Marshall joining London, while on the one hand very much consistent with the industrial design heritage of the practice, also adds firepower in the most urgent area of commercial creativity today – customer experience.

While at Map, Marshall helped create the Sam Labs app-enabled construction kits which teach children how to build connected products Zoom Enlarge

While at Map, Marshall helped create the Sam Labs app-enabled construction kits which teach children how to build connected products

Marshall is not new to the Pentagram set-up. From 2000 to 2003 he was part of Daniel Weil’s team there. In 2012, after a period designing furniture, he co-founded Map Project Studio with Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby. There he helped create products and user experiences for some of the likes of IBM, Virgin Atlantic and Google as well as public institutions, design and advertising agencies and connected product startups such as Kano and BleepBleeps. In 2016 CR made Map its creative studio of the year. And in the same year, we selected Marshall as one of our Creative Leaders 50.

We meet at Pentagram’s London office along with Weil and another more recent partner, Naresh Ramchandani, who joined in 2010. Despite the obvious advantages Marshall brings to the Pentagram offering, Weil insists that his invitation to join was not motivated by any strategic assessment of where the studio may be lacking. “Jon is here, not because of his discipline, but because of what he brings with his thought and practice,” Weil says. “We don’t bring people in to do a function or as part of a strategy… we do not do strategy for our company, our strategy is being who we are.”

The process of becoming a Pentagram Partner famously involves the prospective newcomer meeting all current Partners, in both the US and Europe. All Partners have to agree that the new person has what it takes before they are given the nod: even if there wasn’t a goal to go out and find someone with connected product and customer experience skills, perhaps Marshall’s CV implicitly informed the discussion.

The Tritensil, a combined knife, spoon and fork created by Map for Fortnum & Mason Zoom Enlarge

The Tritensil, a combined knife, spoon and fork created by Map for Fortnum & Mason

For any prospective Partner, the decision is a momentous one. Most already have successful businesses, often under their own names. From both a personal and commercial standpoint, giving that up to come under the Pentagram umbrella is a risk, both professionally and financially. Pentagram is renowned for its structure in which Partners, having bought into the firm, operate as individual units with their own share of overhead and expectation of profitability. For those unable to deliver the required revenue, it can be a traumatic experience. Some Partners have lasted mere months before deciding it is not for them.

“Obviously I was anxious about that,” Marshall says of leaving Map. “It was very much part of me and my baby. This [Pentagram] model allows for a bit more personal interaction with projects – I’m quite excited by starting again with a smaller team, just focusing on excellence in the work.” Marshall says he also worried about being an industrial designer in “an organisation that outwardly has a volume of work related to graphics and branding but the more I thought about more it the more I thought ‘that’s the point’.”

Also created at Map, Kano is a hands-on computer and coding kit based on the Raspberry Pi computer board Zoom Enlarge

Also created at Map, Kano is a hands-on computer and coding kit based on the Raspberry Pi computer board

Marshall says that even before the conversations with Pentagram (which started 18 months ago) he’d had “a nagging feeling that it’s just a great time to be an industrial designer because there is this huge merging of the digital and the physical, words and sound and brand.” Being in a place where all those skills combined through the specialisms of the Partners, he believes, puts him prime position to tackle this coming together.

“There was a whole period in the late 90s where it was thought that industrial design was dead, that it was all just disappearing into the screen,” he says. “But these new experiences are multidimensional, they need a 3D brain, so industrial designers found they were good at that – not the super high-quality graphic interfaces but more the UX. So I suppose industrial designers pivoted [toward digital]. Now we have a shift away from screens, there is a whole new generation of product experiences that need to be shaped, where the consumer interfaces with a physical product, which may have a screen as part of it [or the interface maybe voice or gesture-based]. I genuinely think it’s a great time to call yourself a designer.”

It could be argued that Pentagram’s personality-driven model is currently being challenged by the growing importance of co-creation, particularly for digital products and services. The argument goes that the ‘design genius’ model whereby an individual’s solution to a brief is sold in and then enabled by the team around them is inappropriate in a digital product process driven by data, research, workshops and continuous iteration by large multidisciplinary teams. Where then does that leave a singular vision or author?

Map worked with the in-house team at Virgin Atlantic to redesign Virgin’s economy meal service to improve passenger experience & reduce CO2 emissions Zoom Enlarge

Map worked with the in-house team at Virgin Atlantic to redesign Virgin’s economy meal service to improve passenger experience & reduce CO2 emissions

“My work has never been about authorship, more about leadership,” Marshall says. “There’s been a vacuum for leadership and decision-making in complex products that go across physical and digital. [Where you have multiple inputs] someone has to gather all those things up and assimilate that. Over the years my role has been providing that leadership and direction as well as learning how to collaborate, including with client teams, as opposed to the old model which was ‘here’s the brief, see you in three months with the solution’. It’s not really like that anymore.”

But what about the culture within Pentagram – how will it adopt to the new world of co-creation? “Pentagram is uniquely poised to take advantage of that vacuum because the Partners are all authors and leaders but also, because of the environment here, are really used to collaborating across different teams [whether client-side or within the studio],” Marshall says. This, he argues, stands in contrast to the model employed by “these huge conglomerates or management consultancies where they define a process and then roll that out into lots and lots of teams. I’ve seen those projects not succeed because of a lack of one person who feels accountable for creative direction.” Marshall says that he has experienced large organisations that “are a little bit lost right now because they understand that design is valuable to them but don’t quite know what to do [with it]. Pentagram can give them a point of view and guide them”.

Stories abound of a very competitive culture at Pentagram London in years gone by: one where Partners could be brutal in their criticisms of each other’s work and where an older guard were less than welcoming to the new recruits, several of whom lasted a very short time. The rumblings of discontent were brought to a head in a CR piece from 1997 which concluded with former Pentagram designer Lawrence Dunmore suggesting that rather than try to renew itself “[Pentagram] should die peacefully. It has made its mark”. The intervening years saw strenuous efforts by the London partners to bring in fresh blood and effect just such a renewal.

In terms of culture, today’s generation of Partners seem much more collegiate and supportive. Weil (who has been a partner for 20 years) speaks of a spirit of “friendly competition in the sense that we are pushing each other’s creative boundaries all the time – I learn a lot by seeing other people’s work…. You build a much broader scope of skills, that is what is unique here. It is a learning place. The collaboration that happens remains very similar to what it was in the beginning, between talents that have a specific area of knowledge, but the boundaries are gone. Everybody has become distinctively indisciplined.”

Ramchandani confirms that collaboration between Partners is commonplace. “Six out of ten of the projects I’m currently involved in are collaborations,” he says. “Collaboration is a thing that is relatively easy to say but is a whole new skill to learn. Clients want us to be part of a team who are figuring out how to get to a place and our job is learning how to be part of that team, but sometimes making an intervention: knowing how to flick between those states is part of how you have to work now.”

Weil says that 20 years ago, working on an airline essentially meant designing its ‘customer experience’ (which he collaborated on with New York partner Michael Bierut) – it just wasn’t called that then. What Pentagram has always done, he says is “connecting thinking … we’ve not done the fashionable or the pretty picture but the thinking… I reflect on the fact that we do very well the present here. Those that want to sell the future, can sell the future, we quite like doing the present because we see the impact of it. I’ve seen so many futures come and go since the 70s, but if you succeed, the present becomes the future. Our type of design is about creating things that endure – excellence and knowledge are essential, leadership is essential…. The most important thing is never to address the future. In the 90s a lot of people believed there was nothing else in the world apart from ‘interactive’, now everyone believes it’s ‘design thinking’. We believe in the Partners – they are going to solve issues for clients. Whatever it takes, we just do it.”

Everything changes and everything stays the same. Pentagram was founded in 1972 on the idea that collaborative interdisciplinary designers would provide the range of skills needed to meet client needs. In today’s world of co-creation and customer experience, what Weil describes as its “distinctively indisciplined” approach appears presciently contemporary.

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