Michael Bierut and Paula Scher are graphic design legends in their own right. We know about him and we know about her, but we don’t know much about their dynamic or the inner workings of the collaborative that they are part of; a collaborative that has other creative agency owners scratching their heads over their seemingly absurd business model. Here’s a look behind the red curtain of one of the world’s most renown, exclusive and enviable creative collaborative agencies, Pentagram, as discussed in an Offset 2012 interview with the duo. (Opening image taken from www.designindaba.com & www.saintrosechronicle.com)
Will they or won’t they
Michael and Paula began their working relationship as industry friends before deciding to join the Pentagram collective as the two newest – and at the time, youngest – partners in 1990 and 1991, respectively.
When asked about the beginning of their Pentagram journey, Michael recalled, “We both debated amongst ourselves whether it was a good idea to join [and] sort of had to talk each other into it.” Michael had already been working for design legend, Massimo Vignelli, for 10 years at this stage and was ready for a new challenge so he took up the position soon after it was offered to him, but Paula needed 6 months to wrap up her existing company first. They both soon became Pentagram partners in the New York branch and the rest is history.
The password for the Pentagram door
When asked about how Pentagram partners are chosen, Paula states that firstly, they’re all active members in the art and design community so they’re “doing work that’s visible and also meeting people in the community.” Paula and Michael were both putting out amazing work and were active members of the AIGA at the time that they were noticed by Pentagram.
In an age that prioritises amalgamation, creating great work alone is not enough to cement your name into the art or design history books. You have to actually get off your island and get to know other creatives by attending industry events, being active in community organisations and being active on social media. Naturally, you’ll begin to build relationships and friendships in the industry. Creative people tend to have a nose for nonsense so don’t try to bluff your way into the good books of potential industry contacts or friends. Being genuine is always the way to go.
Wheels and cogs of the collective
Once a Pentagram partner finds a creative that they are interested in bringing into the fold, Paula says, “It’s sort of like dating. You invite them to dinner and you see if you have more in common. You see if you have common business interests, if you have common work ethic, if you feel like they’re your peers because Pentagram is a collaborative and a co-operative…” – in other words: NO BOSSES.
Pentagram does not have a managing director, but rather a ‘board of partners’ who each run a small team of their own across their branches worldwide. Each partner is answerable to the board and every big decision takes each partner’s opinion into account before being made. Also, partners are free to take on personal side projects at any time provided that the projects don’t interfere with Pentagram business.
So now you know a bit about the Pentagram vetting process so you just need to get your foot in the door then work your way up the ladder to partner, right? WRONG.
Interestingly enough, only 3 people have ever climbed from employee to partner at Pentagram. They almost exclusively choose to bring partners in from the outside and those partners then choose who they want to employ to work on their team. “I really think we’re interested in having people who come in and sort of challenge the status quo to join as partners; who add something new rather than just double down on what we already do,” explains Michael. Paula goes on to say that she believes that one of the major reasons Pentagram has survived over three generations of partners is because it “grows from the outside” and, therefore, the culture of the collective keeps changing and evolving with the times and with each new creative mind and skillset that they acquire.
The ‘Eat what you kill’ model and why it doesn’t work at Pentagram
The ‘eat what you kill model’ is pretty self-explanatory. It means that if you lock down a client or project, you reap the rewards of that ‘kill’ and receive a percentage of income from it. The larger the income that the client brings into the company, the larger your pound of flesh.
Pentagram uses a very different compensation model for its partners and subsequently, their employees: all income is shared equally amongst the collaborative regardless of who brings in the most or least income for the business.
Sounds a bit unfair right? Well, this is why I think it works…
Intrinsically, creatives are largely governed by the size of their ego, a fear of disappointment or both. Ergo:
Scenario A) At partnership level, those who underperform compared to their peers may feel a huge blow to their ego so they then feel more motivated and pressured to do better, prove that they can hold their own amongst their peers and bring in more income for the collective.
Scenario B) A partner is regarded as being the captain of their ship so when their group doesn’t bring in enough income, the partner feels like they let their team down and then feels immensely motivated and pressured to do better and bring in more income for the collective and regain the confidence of their team.
Scenario C) A combination of A and B in varying degrees.
Those who over perform or perform on target time-after-time then save their ‘credit’ for a rainy day when their ship starts taking on a bit of water.
Pentagram decided to follow this compensation model to prevent a feeding frenzy happening over certain clients amongst the teams, while other clients are then treated as less important or a “hot potato” as Michael puts it. What happens when a team underperforms successively, however? Well, I’m sure that’s a bridge that the partners cross when the time comes.
Collaboration by osmosis
Michael and Paula do not work directly with each other, but both manage their own teams in the same open-plan New York City office space and sometimes work on different aspects of the same Pentagram projects. Because of this, you could say that collaboration between the teams happens by osmosis. “By bringing creative people together in the same environment, you get this give and take that happens just by people sitting next to each other,” explains Michael. Because of their close proximity, Michael and Paula often overhear each other’s conversations so they chip in with a word of advice where possible, and all teams share the same resources such as a printer so they’re exposed to each other’s work and project management all the time. The duo has even been known to hand over clients to each other if one is inundated with work.
However, if you, like me, were ever hoping for a mind-blowing Bierut-Scher direct collaboration, I think it’s safe to say that will probably never happen. In a 2017 interview with semipermanent.com, Paula seems adamant that she will not be able to collaborate directly with another designer. She’s quoted as saying, “You can’t really collaborate on another graphic design because there has to be a leader. What you do if you’re collaborating, and if you’re equals, is that you’re correcting each other’s mistakes, and if you’re doing that, you’re going to make something pretty flat because all the interesting stuff is in the tension and the struggle.”
2017 and beyond
Aside from their work done underneath the Pentagram umbrella, both Michael and Paula are still individually active in the design community today and show no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
Michael co-created The Design Observer blog with Rick Poynor, Jessica Helfand and William Drenttel in 2003 and it’s still going strong 14 years later! He also released two books this year: Noma Bar: Graphic Story Telling and Now You See It and Other Essays on Design, both of which have deliciously interesting and minimalistic typographic covers with the latter seeming like the ‘brother’ book to his much-loved (and -desired) How To… released in 2015.
Paula has been featured in the Netflix original series, Abstract: The Art of Design, which was released in February 2017 and also launched her 522-page monograph, Paula Scher: Works, earlier this year, which documents her work and life from the early days of her graphic design career up to the present day.
Both graphic design legends continue to take interviews and presents talks at top design events all over the world. When asked what she would like to do next, Paula simply replied “Let’s take tools and see how far we can expand them.” (extract from an itsnicethat.com interview, November 2017).
Both are also still happily partnered with Pentagram.