ARCHITIZER IS PLEASED TO PARTNER WITH THE US PAVILION, OFFICEUS, AT THE 14TH INTERNATIONAL ARCHITECTURE EXHIBITION IN VENICE. TODAY, WE OFFER AN EXCLUSIVE Q&A BETWEEN ARCHITIZER AND graphic designers behind officeUS, Natasha Jen and Jeffrey Waldman of Pentagram.
Jeffrey Waldman: Let’s begin with the fonts — I think that’s a good starting point.
Natasha Jen: The entire program is based on two default fonts: Times New Roman and Arial. We started the project from day one, when we were working with the curators for the submission to the US Pavilion competition. We had the idea and concept of the office, but what it could be and what it could become was not yet specific. When we think about office tools, you have the physical office supplies, but also the content management tools, which includes the fonts. And fonts are always a big pain in the ass. Especially when you work across different entities, the font isn’t always compatible: ‘Oh i’m missing a font!’ ‘This font doesn’t work on Windows,’ ‘That font doesn’t work on Mac.’ So we decided we wanted to create an environment where that isn’t even an issue.
Our choices were actually really limited in terms of default fonts that work across both Mac and PC platforms. You have really weird fonts like Comic Sans — things that were just completely wrong. And we wanted to pick one serif and one sans serif font. Arial and Times New Roman became very natural choices. Just because they’re default fonts, people tend to think they’re not good, but they’re actually well-designed fonts.
Skyscrapers built by US architecture firms abroad
Aspects of the project have evolved a lot, but these fonts have performed so well across these different applications, publications, and spaces. It’s incredible that these two seemingly mundane fonts have performed so well, but also remained a design challenge. As graphic designers, our tendency is always to look into what is the most current font that we can use. But since we picked these two default fonts, the challenge was to elevate them into very beautiful objects.
JW: It really took it back to Rem’s theme of “Fundamentals” too: they’re web versions of classic cuts.
NJ: Classic — that’s it.
JW: And when you’re styling fonts in CSS for a style sheet, Arial and Times New Roman are always the default — how much more fundamental can you get?
US architecture office logos in OfficeUS Agenda
NJ: Thinking along fundamentals was actually perfect for the project. The amount of information is incredible, deep, and vast, especially in the exhibition itself, where there will be 1,000 binders of projects. So we developed this template approach, in which we would use these two fonts that would create templates for this series, and we would distribute these templates to the research and curatorial team, and they would actually be able to input content, scans, and images. And that would turn the design team from three or four people into a 30-person team.
Catalogues for OfficeUS
Tell us about the books you’re designing for OfficeUS.
NJ: There are four books that we’re producing. The first is Agenda, which captures the 25 diverse issues that will be explored during the Biennale, as well as projects and certain moments in time.
There are also several complex infographics. For example, a timeline of firms’ work done overseas in a particular year. There’s also a spread on office manuals that the curators have gathered from the past 100 years.
Work by US architecture firms abroad by year
JW: There are also a lot of visual narratives — you can see the progression of certain firms’ dominance, or the progression of color photography.
How else have you been involved in the design process beyond the repository and book series?
NJ: There are so many other things! Posters, stickers…
JW: …tote bags, vinyl graphics, postcards.
NJ: Everything is a discussion. It’s not, ‘Here you go, put a font on this and print it.’ Everything is collaborative. We ask, ‘Is this the right thing to do? Does this contribute to the overall project?’
JW: It’s not just branding — everything has an intent.
In what way does Pentagram act as an “exporter” of design?
NJ: To answer that, I have to first explain the way that Pentagram is organized. Our London office is independent from the New York office, which is independent of the San Francisco office. So, that makes it hard to answer if each project is an export. But we do work on projects in different parts of the globe: in Asia, the Middle East, on a day-to-day basis. The idea of any time zone or geographic boundary doesn’t exist. It’s this kind of global-ness that’s very close to our projects.
The Pentagram team working on OfficeUS: Jeffrey Waldman, Natasha Jen, Janghyun Han, and Yenwei Liu
On a broader scale, can you talk about the relationship between architecture and graphic design?
NJ: Traditionally, graphic design and architecture seem like completely separated tracks of design. I think there are things that are elemental to graphic design that are almost completely missing in architectural practice — for example, colors. Architecture is a kind of very visceral experience, tangible, and concrete, whereas graphic design is about messages, languages, and images, which has much broader room for interpretation.
But when the two somehow engage together in a physical space, it creates a very different result from something that’s actually in a book. Signage, way-finding, for example, is something that a lot of graphic designers don’t want to deal with. That’s a very difficult thing to design because the graphic design needs to be nested within the architecture, while also creating a way to navigate within the space. But when graphic design is liberated from the physical space, and ultimately it’s dealing with architectural content, it has a new freedom to do things that it’s not able to do within architectural space.