The rise of design luminary Natasha Jen has been nothing short of meteoric; she has served as a leading art director for major studios, opened her own studio Njenworks, and attained the coveted position of partner at the illustrious Pentagram studio, all before the age of 35. With a trajectory that boasts such versatility and flow, it’s hard to imagine that there was ever a time when Jen was wanting for opportunity, but as it happens this is exactly how her story begins.
“I was born and raised in Taipei, but I couldn’t get into colleges there because the education system is completely based upon exams. In order to get into universities there, you had to pass this big national exam, with tens of thousands of students competing with you. After I graduated high school, I kind of just wandered for 4 years doing random jobs.”
With her prospects of finding a fulfilling career in Taiwan scant, Jen turned her eyes to new shores. Having developed a penchant for the visual arts at a young age, Jen knew she wanted continue her education in the realm of the arts, but felt an uncertainty as to what options she had.
“Growing up in Taiwan, I think many people didn’t have a sense of design as a profession—I certainly didn’t. Pursuing fine art was the only choice that I actually knew of, which is why I started by pursuing painting.”
In 1998, when she was just 22 years old, Jen applied to the School of Visual Arts in New York City for a fine arts degree in painting. She was accepted shortly thereafter, and with a new life waiting for her on the other side of the globe, Jen packed up her things and brazenly stepped into the unknown.
“It was sort of like moving to outer space.”
Though her intrepid nature guided her through her new surroundings, Jen still faced the same archetypal trials of the immigrant experience: the language barrier and cultural adjustment. Despite New York’s diverse composition, Jen found that the majority of her peers in university were American, and thus challenges of integration plagued her early encounters.
“Cultural differences are subtle, but permeate into everyday moments. You don’t know what people are talking about sometimes because you didn’t grow up here. You didn’t watch the same TV as they did, you didn’t know the same celebrities they did, you didn’t read the newspapers as they did. All of that creates a barrier around you.”
With the passing of time, the barrier broke down and Jen found herself becoming more and more acclimated to life within the United States. After one year she transitioned from a major in painting to one in graphic design, and in 2002 she graduated from SVA with honors. Her degree in tow, Jen soon set her sights on securing employment in the city.
“After you graduate, you have a one year grace period to find a job. Every minute is counting. That’s a lot of anxiety.”
Fortunately Jen was able to secure an internship at the very studio that would go on to take her on as a partner a little over a decade later: Pentagram. From there, Jen began working at a host of studios like Base Design and 2x4, inc., and eventually founded her own studio, Njenworks. No longer counting the minutes left on her visa, Jen soon established herself as a fixture of the U.S. design scene, pulling in clients big and small. Jen explained that there’s an inspiring entrepreneurial spirit that she has come to identify with the United States.
“America has a long history of innovation, that’s in the blood. They have a notion that anything is possible here. That’s a very American belief system, and that’s part of what makes it America. It’s a place that encourages creativity.”
Now having lived in the United States for more than half of her life, Jen notes that there has been a shift in her own cultural identity. Once an outsider looking through the window into American culture, Jen now finds herself in a role where she is influencing and building upon that culture. New York is now her home, and though Taiwan will always be an integral part of who she is, she is increasingly aware of how American culture has seeped into her being.
“The childhood part is fading more into the background. It’s not as dominant as you might think. I think that’s a common condition in immigrants who have lived here for a long part of their life. Their cultural existence becomes a blended blob; it’s very hard to slice and see which part is the American part and which is the native part.”
The hallmarks of her cultural metamorphosis have become more apparent with every return to Taiwan, but at the same time Jen has developed a keener perception of the things that set Taiwan apart from the rest of the world. She recalls a fondness for the more gentle tempo of life, the food carts dotting every corner of every street, and the perhaps most of all the warmth of the people.
“I would say that Taiwanese people are some of the friendliest people you’d ever meet. It’s not bragging about where I’m from, it’s just something that I noticed after being away for two decades. People are extremely considerate towards each other.”
Whether coming from Taiwan or elsewhere, those looking to start a new life in the United States would be hard-pressed to find a better model of success than Natasha Jen, and with that sentiment in mind we asked if she had any parting wisdom to offer.
“You have to have a desire to be here. The important question is why did you come here in the first place? That is the core of everything. If there’s a clear reason, that desire motivates you to do things. It motivates you to try, to fail, and to get up and do it again.”