I'm pretty sure many of you are familiar with Pentagram, especially if you're interested in traditional graphic design or branding. Regardless, you've most certainly seen their work. Pentagram is the studio behind some of the world's famous visual identities, including MasterCard, Windows, The MoMA, Verizon and so many more. Here I talk with the Michael Bierut, partner at Pentagram's New York office.
So, Michael. Before we begin, let’s put it all on the table: Getting a job at Pentagram isn’t easy. Your team is small and your reputation is huge. Is there any hope for us?
The first thing to know about Pentagram is that it isn’t one design team, but multiple design teams. There are eight partners in our New York office, and each runs a creative operation that is more or less autonomous. I am responsible for hiring and managing only the designers on my own team. They work only for me. So all of my answers have to be taken with a grain of salt. You might get a different one out of Paula Scher or Emily Oberman or Abbott Miller or Eddie Opara or Natasha Jen or Michael Gericke or Luke Hayman. This, along with the slow turnover and scarcity of openings, is the most frustrating thing about seeking a job at Pentagram.
So what's our best chance of getting in? Does Pentagram pre-select and head hunt most designers on its team, or do you consider cold applications as well?
Like most of the design teams at Pentagram, we offer paid internships. Most of my full-time employees began as interns. Our interns are often people who have written emails with no other introduction; in other cases they are students in a class that I or one of my designers teach; in still other cases they’re recommended by other designers I respect. Every once in a while we seek someone out with more experience. These applicants are usually known to one or another designer on my team.
Say we do decide to reach out with a cold email. What kind of message gets a reply? Any secrets for us?
I reply to every message I get, even the ones with misspellings.
How important is a visual and complete portfolio for you? Can I get away with not having a portfolio when interviewing at Pentagram?
A good portfolio is a given. I hire so rarely for my team that I never have to compromise about that. That said, while the work is important, I am just as interested by how curious and articulate the applicant is.
Tell us one thing you never want to see again on a portfolio website. Anything you wish you saw more?
I like to see people who present their work with care and intelligence. The best portfolios are ones that are comprehensive enough that you get a sense what’s going on, but sufficiently open-ended so you are intrigued by what you see.
Besides having a portfolio, do you like the idea of designers being invested in other things? For example being active bloggers, or otherwise outspoken in their community?
I like designers who have a point of view, but they don’t have to have big social media profiles or anything like that.
What are the top mistakes you see designers make when applying for a job at Pentagram? Are there any specific things that keep bothering you? Please complain to us! (:
Most of the mistakes I see have to do with spelling or grammar. I know it’s not the most important thing in the world, but it drives me crazy.
Say I make the first pass and get invited to an interview. Can you describe the interview process as briefly as possible?
If you’re interviewing to be an intern, you may be interviewed in person or on the phone by a few of my designers. If you’re coming in as a full-time person, you’d probably talk to me and, again, some of the designers. We don’t do design exercises or really have any formal interviewing process.
Would you hire someone who is a cultural fit over someone who has more industry experience and hard skills?
I think everyone has the capacity to acquire craft skills, but curiosity and brains are difficult to pick up on the job. As a graphic designer, I work with words a lot, so I appreciate people who love to read and write.
Besides being a good writer and communicator, what secondary skills do you look for in a designer? For example, do you prefer business skills over coding skills?
Most designers on my team eventually manage their own projects and may serve as the main point of contact with clients and other collaborators. So I look for people who can talk about their work, who can listen when other people are talking, and who like to take as much responsibility as possible.
Obviously you’re a branding studio, but would you hire someone who has no previous experience with branding? Say I work at a big tech company for a couple years, then decide to go to Pentagram. Could I?
Every team at Pentagram, including mine, does a really diverse range of work. So specific experience is less meaningful than someone’s ability to learn and capacity for growth.
Michael! Thanks for keeping it real, and keeping it short. For those looking to join the Pentagram team, these insights are worth noting:
Nr. 1 - Communication is key.
Michael made it clear that writing and general communication skills are important – in your initial intro email, in your portfolio, in your everyday work. Be brief, use proper grammar and spelling, articulate yourself well.
Nr. 2 - You will have to reach out; there are no job postings at Pentagram.
Good news is, Michael says he reads and replies to every email he receives. Make his time worth it with a well-written email (see Nr. 1 above – here are a few tips on writing a good email, btw). And don't forget to have an outstanding portfolio. If Michael says he answers every email, don't waste the chance by coming unprepared.
Nr. 3 - You will likely start as an intern.
An internship is the best way to get your foot in the door at Pentagram, so prepare to start there and work your way up. This is pretty great news, as it means Pentagram isn’t necessarily looking for someone with a lot of experience but someone who's willing to do good work and learn along the way. They’re looking for potential, and they’re willing to help you grow.
Until next time, friends! I’ll be sharing more “How to Get a Job at X” interviews soon, many featuring companies you specifically requested. If you haven’t read the others in the series, start with Airbnb, Nike, Electronic Arts and Refinery29. Or, if Pentagram is your dream job: Take some writing lessons, get your portfolio in shape and get the damn job! I wish you luck.
Also, thanks to Ike Edeani for providing your beautiful photographs of the Pentagram office.