(Almost) All The President’s Men

Ben Terrett of The Design Conspiracy and Noisy Decent Graphics reviews last night’s
Pentagram D&AD President’s Lecture
Last night saw the much anticipated Pentagram D&AD President’s lecture. A packed young audience, as much as 1,200 people, nine Partners on stage, more in the audience and your humble correspondent sat down at the front memorising every word for you lot.

pentagram partners

Ben Terrett of The Design Conspiracy and Noisy Decent Graphics reviews last night’s
Pentagram D&AD President’s Lecture

Last night saw the much anticipated Pentagram D&AD President’s lecture. A packed young audience, as much as 1,200 people, nine Partners on stage, more in the audience and your humble correspondent sat down at the front memorising every word for you lot.

Let’s start by listing the nine brave Partners who took to the stage, from left to right (shown above); Domenic Lippa, Lorenzo Apicella, Justus Oehler, DJ Stout, Daniel Weil, Michael Bierut, William Russell, Lisa Strausfeld and Abbott Miller.

Harry Pearce, John Rushworth, Kit Hinrichs, Angus Hyland and Paula Scher were in the audience. I don’t know why they didn’t speak. Harry, John and Paula spoke at the Design Museum earlier in the year so maybe that was why. Personally I’d love to have seen Paula take the stage, if nothing else it would have helped break up the men in dark suits look. Actually I was pretty disappointed at the lack of colour displayed by the partners’ dress sense. Compere Prof Alan Livingston CBE didn’t ask about their attire (probably ran out of time) but I noticed lots of black socks, some dark blue socks and only one nice stripey pair.

We started with a little video by Hillman Curtis (older video interviews with the partners here) which in turn started with Paula’s amusing run down of partners through the years using an animated version of her brilliant Family of Men diagram, pictured in the Profile: Pentagram Design book.

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Detail of Paula Scher’s Family of Men diagram detailing the comings and goings at Pentagram

Then onto the main event. Livingston started by saying that we were going to talk about Pentagram its structure and history rather than talking about the work. Actually, I’d liked to have talked about the work. Maybe it would have taken too long, maybe they felt everyone already knew all about the work, but I reckon that more people are familiar with Pentagram’s unique structure than the work. Certainly various people I spoke to in the Walrus and Carpenter afterwards would have liked to have seen more work. Not really a complaint, just an opportunity missed.

Livingston had prepared well and diplomatically asked relatively probing questions. We heard lots about how you join Pentagram including how all 19 partners have to agree that they want you to join. Mind you, that sounds like all 19 ever agree on, as they described how combustible a structure of equal partners can get. 

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DJ Stout, Daniel Weil and Michael Bierut agree to disagree

We learnt about how Pentagram has been ideas-driven from the start, we heard about how all partners collaborate, all partners could be considered creative generalists and all partners act independently. Lots of talk about the osmosis of working around great creative people. The founding principals of Pentagram were multi-disciplinary (Graphic Design, Architecture and Product Design) and so it remains so.

They told us how project teams hover around the four to nine size and how they still keep in contact with ex-partners.

Livingston then asked a great question about the dot com boom in the late 90s. Did Pentagram miss out on this digital explosion, did they make a conscious decision to stay out or were they not bothered? One of the most fascinating answers of the night came from Justus who said, “We didn’t go into digital (at that time) because we had some really wise guys who had seen this kind of thing before, with other changes to the industry, typesetting etc. We waited long enough for the bubble to burst.”

As loyal readers of Noisy Decent Graphics will know my rules on these kind of things are that you must sit at the front and you must ask a question.

So: “Given that you share the profits equally and given that Alan Fletcher used to say that if you gave a client a price and they had a sharp intake of breath you’d got it about right, do you all charge the same hourly rate?”

The general consensus seemed to be that that was a good question. There was lots of talk about the amount trust involved working in a partnership of 19 people. Michael Bierut said that when he first joined he thought it would be great because someone “upstairs” would do all the quotes and proposals. But there isn’t anyone like that. All partners do their own proposals.

Michael also said he normally writes a price down on a piece of paper then gets Paula to do the same. Then they both look at the price and see how close they are. William Russell said that he too writes a price down on a piece of paper, except he then leaves it overnight. Comes back to it in the morning. Looks at it again. Turns it upside down, looks at it again.

Essentially (apart from local and currency differences) all offices have the same hourly rate. Although it’s really important that there is the flexibility for all partners to take on any job at whatever price they decide. Interestingly there is no standard Pentagram proposal format.

The normal complaints about these panel type things is that they’re too long, the questions are crap and the host is rubbish. It probably could have been shorter and so could the questions but Prof Livingston did an admirable job and the answers were often funny and always insightful. I’d liked to have seen more work but it was an interesting and entertaining evening. Even the audience questions were sensible, apart from the chap who started with. “It’s not really a question, but…”. 

Next time I’d to see Paula and Kit speak. Dressed in red and yellow. With green socks. Pantone 3965 preferably.

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