Often when we talk about design, we talk about its visual aspects: hierarchy, grids, composition, and so on. But what we sometimes forget is that design can, and should, be about so much more than that. Speaking to Marina Willer – London-based graphic designer, filmmaker and Pentagram partner – gives way to a much deeper, wider type of conversation. She speaks of social issues, politics, the unsettled climate in which we live, and our responsibilities as designers. For her, design offers a channel through which to help change and improve our society. And that’s exactly what her and her team strive to do throughout their many diverse projects.

We had the honor of hearing Marina’s personal take on these subjects, as well as delving into some of the intriguing projects her team’s currently working on, and how we, as designers, can adapt our work to fit the current times.

Helping change the way society thinks, through design

“I feel we have massive responsibility and we live in incredible times,” says Marina, speaking of our roles as designers. “We’re getting to the end of the road in terms of how much more we can continue with this behavior without making any changes.” And when you pair powerful words with actions and good design, the results can be amazing.

Having already worked with a number of charities, NGOs and not-for-profits, Marina believes that the more you do a certain type of work, the more you attract work of the same inclination. “Designers have an opportunity to help change things,” Marina continues. “Whether that’s through products that are more useful, or through brands that are more relevant to those causes.” Marina and her team at Pentagram plan to continue working with even more causes they believe in, striving to make an impact, alter perspectives and, ultimately, to change people’s behavior.

They will also carry on their work with Battersea, a rescue and rehoming center for dogs and cats, having already developed their visual identity and created campaigns with them in the past. A recent project of theirs was in collaboration with Harambeans, a network of entrepreneurs that endeavors to instigate and grow innovation across Africa. In addition, they have a number of other exciting projects on the way. They’re working with cancer charity, Maggie’s, as well as a new project working with one of the UK’s biggest charities helping support older people.

Harambeans design by Marina Willer, Pentagram
Visual identity design for Harambeans by Marina Willer, Pentagram.
Harambeans logo design by Marina Willer, Pentagram
Visual identity design for Harambeans by Marina Willer, Pentagram.

On this up-and-coming project, Marina says, “We’re very excited about the opportunity to not just help the charity, but also to help people perceive “older” in a different way, because there’s a stigma. Everything now is about tech and about young people making money – and that success becomes the ambition, rather than the appreciation for knowledge and wisdom and all the things that you only acquire with age. We have the chance to change perspectives in a big way. We hope we can collaborate with them to make a difference.”

Balancing all types of projects

Marina aims to always take on projects that are about things she cares about, while also being exciting and socially committed. Apart from charities, this includes culturally-oriented projects, such as her on-going work with architectural firm, Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners. Speaking of a new project with a highly prestigious and world-renowned classical ballet company, Marina says, “they’re a really interesting organization to work for.” She mentions “the sophistication of what they bring to the world,” noting that they have a rich history, but are also extremely contemporary.

Creating open, flexible systems for a rapidly changing world

With technology updating at lightning speed, artificial intelligence being used to create fake videos, and code being taught to school-children, keeping up with the times isn’t always easy.

In response to this somewhat unsettled climate, Marina believes that “designers in our time have to be able to foresee the future a bit and try to understand that we live in a world that is constantly changing.” As a result, she suggests not getting too attached to one form of technology, screen or method of communication. Instead, she says, “You have to create structures that are able to change, and languages that can keep moving on and have strong principles. This way, there can be continuity even if the platforms around them change… For things to succeed, they need to be much more able to adapt. There was a time when you could create an identity and it could be just a solid logo and now it’s slightly different.”

Photographer Joao Farkas exhibition with Marina Willer, Pentagram
Design for photographer João Farkas’ exhibition, ‘Brazil Land and Soul’ by Marina Willer, Pentagram.

Bringing a diverse community of designers to Pentagram

Other than applying this open approach to design systems, Marina explains that as a studio, Pentagram has also always worked in a multi-disciplinary manner. Their original spirit is all about innovation and invention. “We very much think that we need to create holistic experiences in which we think of everything that is involved, whether it’s an exhibition or a charity or a brand,” she tells High on Design.

This attitude is reflected in Pentagram’s teams and partners, who come from a wide array of disciplines and backgrounds. There’s sound and industrial designer, Yuri Suzuki, who recently joined as partner and who Marina describes as “absolutely brilliant,” being a little further away than what people see as traditional design. His works incorporate sound and music to create often interactive or playful sculptures, as well as musical instruments, installations, exhibitions and more. Referring to his joining the team, Marina says, “I think this is a moment for us, because we’re reinstating our beliefs in bringing a more diverse community to the table. Yuri is an icon for that, because he’s wonderful as a person and what he does celebrates this diversity of what it means to create design.”

Jon Marshall is another of Pentagram’s partners that doesn’t come from a graphic design background. Trained as an industrial designer, Marina describes him as being “highly innovative in his use of electronics and coding, and the hybrid between the two.” She also mentions that there are very exciting new partners coming in, as well as Sascha Lobe and Astrid Stavro, who joined last year. “They all bring something different and extremely relevant to our times, something that is new and not just trendy.”

Brand identity for Vibia by Marina Willer, Pentagram
Visual identity and brand strategy for Vibia by Marina Willer, Pentagram.
Visual identity and brand strategy for Vibia by Marina Willer, Pentagram.
Visual identity and brand strategy for Vibia by Marina Willer, Pentagram.
Visual identity and brand strategy for Vibia by Marina Willer, Pentagram.
Visual identity and brand strategy for Vibia by Marina Willer, Pentagram.

Pentagram’s unique structure

“Pentagram has a business model that is like no other,” says Marina. “It’s very much based on the partnership between the individuals. We own it together, so we’re a collective, like a co-op. It’s not hierarchical between the partners. Each partner has their own team who respond to the needs and vision of the partner.” Marina describes it as an “organic structure that keeps changing as times change,” enabling it to absorb the needs of the world and respond to changes. “It’s not a pyramid. We’re more like a necklace,” Marina laughs. “Each path is different, but we all connect.”

Another benefit that Marina sees in this collaborative structure is that each partner can maintain their identity, without Pentagram becoming a homogenous or impersonal business. She explains that there is not one specific formula, as each partner has their own method. “Sometimes they say we’re like a very broad church that has everything from Muslims, to Jews, to Christians and more,” says Marina. “We each have our own beliefs, but there is something in common that is a great respect for design and integrity. There is some kind of unwritten ethos, but I think each partner would define it in a different way.”

Despite their differences, Marina says they always work in a very strategic way. When working with clients, they try to determine what’s unique about the organization and then explore how they can express that to help them grow and achieve their goals. The design then comes as a consequence to understanding what differentiates them, as well as delving deep into the “intellectual thinking that goes into figuring out the logic of a certain project.”

Brand identity for Brew By Numbers by Marina Willer, Pentagram.
Brand identity for Brew By Numbers by Marina Willer, Pentagram.

Leading a creative team

Describing Pentagram’s management style, Marina says, “It’s very DIY, but at the same time we’re quite obsessed with the details.” She believes that the quality of the craft is a trademark of Pentagram, and cannot be achieved without being somewhat obsessive and striving for the highest possible results.

As for the teams within Pentagram, Marina explains that some partners are more collaborative in the way they work, while others are slightly more hierarchical. However, within each team there maintains a sense of being a collective. As each partner tends to attract projects that are attached to their name, Marina explains that “people expect the partner to look after and sign off that piece of work. It’s a guarantee of quality.” This results in quite a hands-on approach, in which the partner closely manages projects, alongside their team and a project manager.

Storytelling through the medium of film

Marina recently wrote, directed and released her first feature film, Red Trees, that tells the story of her father’s family throughout World War Two, as they were driven out of Europe because of their Jewish origins. Working together with Jenni Kaunisto, filmmaker and project manager at Pentagram, they explored how to address the subject in an open way. While the topic is very personal, Marina also sees it as universal, noting that “everyone can see this happening around us now.” She wanted to “connect to people in different ways and not be so specific to this one story,” enabling everyone to relate, whether or not they were personally affected.

Although film is a very different discipline to the other graphic design projects that Marina and her team usually embark on, Marina sees a similarity. “You are creating stories to tell, or are putting together a story, and it has to be compelling and touch people and communicate,” she says of both mediums. “So there is still an idea of building a strong narrative.”

The result is a beautifully minimal, contemplative film. In the poignant words of Marina, its slow pace is intended to “get you out of this crazy digital way that we relate to everything, and we don’t relate to anything.” These nuances also help to remove the viewer from their everyday dynamics and engage more closely with the enormity of the topic addressed in the film.

Speaking of the Holocaust, Marina says, “It’s a subject that is so over-explored that we wanted to do something that was slightly different to the narrative and the clichés that come with it, and try to create a slightly fresher angle.”

Red Trees film by Marina Willer
Red Trees by Marina Willer.
Red Trees film by Marina Willer
Red Trees by Marina Willer.
Red Trees film by Marina Willer
Red Trees by Marina Willer.

The Stanley Kubrick exhibition at the Design Museum

As a designer with a great passion for film, the opportunity to work on the design of the Design Museum’s upcoming Stanley Kubrick exhibition has been a real privilege for Marina Willer and her team. She’s enjoyed re-watching his films and reading about “one of your favorite film-makers,” while having the chance to create a cohesive language throughout all the exhibition’s assets.

Speaking of Kubrick, Marina says, “He’s such an inspiration… I think there’s something very universal and ahead of its time [in his work].” She finds that everyone can connect to his pieces in some way, whether they’re more into mainstream or niche films. She also points out that some of the subject matters brought up in his work are relevant today, such as the theme of humanity versus artificial intelligence, an issue that she’s very interested in. This, together with the intriguing design elements in his filmography, make for an exciting project that we can look forward to seeing at London’s Design Museum very soon.

Dancing on stage

If you’ve had the chance to hear Marina speaking at a conference, you may have been one of the fortunate souls that got to see her dancing on stage, while a video of her works was being played on a screen. To explain this joyful phenomenon, Marina says, “I was thinking, ‘What do you do when you’ve got two minutes of your work on the screen?’ Do you just stand there like wood, or do you do something that makes everything a bit more natural?”

This dance, that brings some light to the dark topics often discussed in Marina’s talks, is completely true to who she is. However much she cares about the tough things going on in the world, she’s also very jolly, likes laughing and says that “just being depressing doesn’t help anyone.”