Owned and run by its worldwide network of partners, Pentagram produces groundbreaking creative work across all disciplines, from architecture to identity. Partner Angus Hyland takes Nick Carson through his corner of the collective portfolio.
Name-checked among the UK's top 10 graphic designers by the Independent On Sunday in 2002, Angus Hyland has a minimalist approach to his craft. A Pentagram partner for 10 years, this has won him a clutch of other accolades, including a D&AD Silver Award, two Big Crit Critics Awards and the Grand Prix from the Scottish Design Awards.
Hyland fans out a selection of past projects on the table. "Oh no, I don't have a top three," he muses, when asked about his favourites in his portfolio. "Everything anyone ever does is flawed; you're always looking to improve upon those flaws for the next project.
"Graphic design is useful in the fact that it's so diverse, and Pentagram's a generalist agency," he continues. Certainly with the combined expertise of the 17 partner-designers spread across London, New York, San Francisco, Austin and Berlin, this collective can design anything from a business card to a building, fittings and all. "Some partners are more specialised than others," Hyland concedes, "but on the whole we'll take on whatever comes through."
While each partner operates autonomously - cross-discipline collaboration is common, but projects are always steered by one lead partner - Pentagram's archives are communal, available for any partner to dip into when pitching for new work, even if they weren't personally involved in the project. The company also publishes regular volumes of work and ideas, including the Black Book, an 800-page cherry-picked compilation of the last few years' creative output.
All of which means that, in the context of personal self-promotion, the situation of a Pentagram partner is slightly out of the ordinary. Hyland stresses the difference between a portfolio and an archive, extolling the virtues of keeping the latter up-to-date and easily accessible. Pentagram files each piece of work with two captions: 50 words of basic context, and a more detailed conceptual explanation five times that length. But this shouldn't be used to justify yourself: "It should be self-evident that the way you've solved the problem is clever."
While most creative professionals won't have enough of a back-catalogue to fill the rows of rainbow shelves that Pentagram boasts, the basic principles of maintaining a carefully managed archive in this way can scale to fit any level of experience, and it makes compiling a bespoke portfolio a quick and efficient exercise. "If your archive's big enough, you can cherry-pick anything," reasons Hyland. "Putting everything in is rarely the best thing to do: targeting your audience is all part of the communication process."
Taking his own advice, he explains a recent project. "Matter is a nightclub, part of the O2 Arena," he begins. "But when they came to us, they didn't have a name or an identity - just this empty space."
Although the client already operated well-established clubbing brand Fabric, they were keen to keep the two venues recognisably different. "When they came to see us they liked the portfolio, but the truth of it is, this is a destination, not a product or service," argues Hyland. "It is what it is: the experience. It's about being there." In short, there's no sense branding an empty shell.
Illustrating the benefits of running a truly multidisciplinary practice, Hyland successfully brokered a relationship with a fellow Pentagram partner, architect and interior designer William Russell. "Six months later, when there was a clearer sense of the design - how they divided the space, what kind of people they were looking to bring in - we started to look at it in terms of a name."
Among the shortlist they provided was 'Matter', a word that hints at the raw, elemental structure of the space - a similar, albeit grittier, ethos to the name 'Fabric'. "It seemed useful to draw some of the equity of Fabric into Matter," Hyland acknowledges, "but so that they feel like cousins, not twins."
Unusually, the first graphical solution they presented was accepted, perhaps owing to its simplicity and versatility. "We wanted something from which you could extract the name, and still have a visible mark," Hyland explains. "We also wanted to do something antithetical to the circular Dome. Architecturally, Matter is very different to everything else that's there: it pierces the edge, setting off from the O2 Arena as a sharp, angular thing."
The resulting logo combines clean, sans serif type with two 'L'-shaped sections, forming a rectangular frame that fits the proportions of the golden section: a classical aesthetic rule that Hyland respectfully calls "sacred geometry". With the word-mark removed, these sections become Tetris-style architectural components in their own right, echoed throughout the club's interior.
"This was a holistic project: everything from the name to the cocktail menu and the wood on the dance floor," Hyland goes on. Including the interior design of the vast three-floor space, it took the best part of a year from start to finish. His team's task was to produce a strong, identifiable brand to tie it all together, but he reasons that elements of that can be subliminal, such as the logo's geometrically perfect backbone: "It doesn't have to be self-evident, otherwise we'd all just be doing big ideas that hit you in the face."
Compared to one of Pentagram's large blue-chip corporate accounts, where brand usage guidelines can stretch over 500 pages or more, the documentation they left behind was minimal - partly testament to the simplicity and versatility of the concept. "It's not a corporate logo; it should live and breathe on its own," opines Hyland. When documenting the work in a portfolio, therefore, a healthy range of applications is crucial to demonstrate its full potential: "Its simplicity belies the fact that it's actually very recognisable."
Besides his day-to-day work, Hyland also brings his substantial experience of publishing design - including book covers for Canongate, Phaidon, Penguin and Polygon - to Laurence King Publishing, having acted as their consultant creative director for the last four years.
His involvement in the second project is less clear-cut than the first: "My concern is the overall list; the Laurence King brand," he explains. With no internal resources, the arts-focused publishing house puts out up to 80 illustrated books each year, on themes that tally well with Pentagram: graphic design, architecture, product design and fashion.
Hyland outlines his role: "I basically help run a roster of designers. I chair, for want of a better word, the design meeting when concepts come in, and shape and facilitate that on the client side. I do design the occasional cover, but less and less." So in a self-promotional capacity, especially given that art direction is - as with all work created under their roof - credited to Pentagram rather than Hyland, how would he present this project in his personal portfolio?
"I would explain it exactly as I just have to you," he bats back. "We design a lot of the corporate stuff, so I'd put it in my portfolio; it works well as an overview of all the titles."
The last project he reveals is a stylish edition of Coleridge's Rime Of The Ancient Mariner, commissioned by illustration agency Heart. Part of a literary series called Beat, it acts as a showcasing platform for their talent.
"All the volumes are different, but they share the same format," Hyland explains. "They wanted each of their illustrators to illustrate one bit of the text, and our job was to come up with the look and feel. Because this is an ancient text, we opted for a traditional, bookish feel."
Heart had already allocated illustrators to particular extracts of the poem, but rather than laying out artwork at the end of the process, Hyland's team at Pentagram created the "design super-structure" within which they could work, a process that he likens to curating a Royal Academy exhibition.
"They either worked absolutely within the allocated frames, exploded outside of them, or even integrated them into their work. We used a particular shade of petrol blue throughout - not just for the text, but we gave it to all the illustrators as the sea colour, to help tie the diverse range of styles together."
From Hyland's 25-year archive, all the projects that we've discussed have been recent ones: but then he's an advocate of careful pruning, and believes that older work is often superseded. "Prior to Pentagram, very little would still make it into my portfolio," he admits. "Perhaps the odd bit here and there.
"It may be different with a building, but anything over 10 years old tends to betray its time - not just in the yellowing of the paper, but in the way you've applied the type, the ink, or whatever. I might retain three or four bits a year; in a good year maybe five. But change is the only evidence of progress, isn't it?"