Talia Cotton on working at Pentagram, inspiring students and creating meaningful design with code
Talia Cotton, a designer, coder and educator based in New York, is a bit of a creative powerhouse. Not only working with two teams at Pentagram in NYC, she also dedicates her time to teaching at Parsons School of Design, freelance projects and personal projects – phew! In our extensive conversation, we delved into all areas of Cotton’s creative practice, in which she describes the fast-paced and passionate world of designing and teaching; as well as the lessons we can learn from the expansive, experimental and exciting nature of code.
PT Hi Talia! How’s the last month been for you?
TC Haha. Oh my god. Very, very busy.
PT Can you tell us a bit about your role with Pentagram? What does an average day look like for you?
TC My role is quite different from most at Pentagram, in more ways than one. For starters, I’m on two teams, which is quite uncommon. On Michael Bierut’s team, I use the benefits of code for their otherwise traditional branding and design projects. On Giorgia Lupi’s team, I apply my traditional design background to anchor their data-driven branding and design projects.
But also, my role is a little different than most when it comes to my level of autonomy. Most projects I lead independently without many check-ins with – or direction from – the partners, simply because of our differences in expertise. The partners under whom I work simply haven’t had the training for ‘designing with code’ as part of their design education, and as a result, cannot direct the project to the same degree that I can because of this lack of education. Now, that’s not their fault! And I definitely don’t see that as a negative by any means. It’s just the status quo; it’s just a product of the state of design education in their time.
Because of this dual role and its responsibilities, an average workday is, as you would imagine, quite busy. I am involved in all stages of the projects, asking questions in the research phase, packaging the assets in the final phase, and presenting to clients and managing their expectations throughout the whole way. I also oversee some other projects, popping in when needed to direct. Coding comes in usually at the same time as the sketching phase, or in the ‘Round 1’ design phase. Think of it the same way you would translate hand-drawn sketches into something digital – changing the medium always changes the way it looks, so I try to always use code from the start.
I absolutely could NOT do the work that I do without the incredible backup of the project managers and people who keep things going on both teams. Specifically, Phil Cox on Giorgia’s team is probably one of the sharpest people I’ll ever meet, and always makes sure things are running smoothly and the clients’ needs are met. On Michael’s team, Camila Perez is probably one of the most organised people I’ve ever met and incredibly professional in her work with clients, and Tamara McKenna is the light that keeps everyone calm. I also owe so much of my ability to multitask to the talented designers who patiently follow my direction. Recently, I’ve had the pleasure to work with the very bright Nikki Makagiansar and the wonderfully reliable Melanie Martinez.
I was frustrated that the perfect combination of the two didn’t exist (spoiler alert: it does).
PT What led you to work with both design and code? Which came first?
TC Ah, the chicken or the egg. I’ve always loved science and math and all things creative, and when I applied for college, I was frustrated that the perfect combination of the two didn’t exist (spoiler alert: it does). I first attended school in business and psychology, choosing the less creative of my interests because I wanted to pursue something that ‘would make money.’ Transferring to Parsons School of Design I thought I’d be sacrificing all things math-y in order to pursue my more creative side, but there I took my coding class (at first reluctantly, believe it or not!) and the rest was history.
The reason it’s a funny question to me is because I often say I learned design and code side-by-side. I took about two coding classes while I was pursuing design, but chose to involve coding in the work for my non-coding design classes. So I was simultaneously learning good design principles and discovering how my power as a coder could contribute. My first job was no different: I worked in a branding agency, but I was the only one who used code. I was simultaneously learning how a brand agency worked, and learning how I could throw code into the heart of it.
PT What software and tools do you primarily work with?
In my coding projects, I also find myself using Figma a lot to analyse the architecture of certain shapes and letters. Specifically, since Figma is pixel-perfect, I am able to understand the inherent qualities of such shapes and letters, such as the length of their sides, their position on the canvas, the relationship or distance between them, and even the logic of their bezier curves. If you really want to get in the weeds, I find myself drawing things on a 100x100 canvas on Figma sometimes so that I can scale things up percentage-wise.
PT If you could only show one project or piece of work – one to define your practice – what would it be?
TC Currently, GBA is the best-published work that I have that expresses my designing-with-code philosophy: that where coding can make an impact on design is so much more than just automation and aesthetics; that instead, coding can impact design by addressing the important questions that all designers are asking today honestly and with meaning. Currently, the world of design is experiencing a very important shift in its priorities. More and more now we see that companies are asking for design that is transparent, that is unbiased, that represents everyone, that expresses diversity, that is driven by community… the list goes on. Based on the ways that I’ve seen code can be used, I firmly believe that when design is driven by code, it can tap into certain technologies of which it is in their nature to provide answers to these design prompts.
GBA is an important one because it addresses the ever-present theme of design bias in its use of code. The organisation provides a platform to undiscovered, underrepresented artists, many of whom are minorities. My design solution appears to be a never-ending collection of various artists’ handwritten versions of the logo to articulate their personal forms of expression, but I didn’t want to be the direct hand behind such designs; that would be imposing my own design bias on something that is supposed to represent people who are different than me. The design solution thus relies on the computer to do the drawing, sacrificing the articulation to something that is external to me.
PT How do you approach days where you don't feel the most creative?
TC I don’t have much of a choice when I don’t feel creative, because something is always due! Often, I find that a hard deadline forces me to work through something, and working through it is often where I find myself rediscovering that creativity.
Aside from that, I don’t think I’m original in saying that my creativity flows most when I walk away from something – but only after putting my head down on it for a while. I think if I work on something long enough that it takes up enough headspace so that when I walk away from it, the thoughts are still flowing, that’s the golden moment of creativity for me.
Oh, and I avoid looking at ‘visual inspiration.’ That’s anti-creativity to me. The ideas have to come from the subject and the subject alone for it to be truly ‘creative.’
No one wants to sell their soul to their job, even if their job is Pentagram.
PT Outside of the day job, do you find time to work on personal projects?
TC ‘Find time’ is a funny way to say ‘use up every last second of your time.’ And if by ‘personal projects’ you also mean freelance projects, teaching, and other endeavours, then yes!
I think there is a whole untapped world of meaningful possibilities when it comes to designing with code that even lends itself to designing for good, and I take every opportunity to explore it and reveal it so that others can realise it and tap into it as well. And I am committed!
As such, ‘finding time’ usually means that when I finish my workday, I immediately transition to my ‘night job,’ which can include at any given point both personal projects and freelance projects that I accept on the premise that they can help advance the public realisation of what coding can do. It also means that I often work in bed until I fall asleep, and work in cabs as I commute. It’s a lot, but it’s truly riveting to see the light turn on in people’s heads when they realise another way code can bring meaning to design on a pragmatic level. At the end of the day, (literally, lol), that is what drives me.
Pentagram is pretty time-consuming too. I’ll do late nights and weekends on that work too, which is sometimes my incentive to do even more personal work outside of it. No one wants to sell their soul to their job, even if their job is at Pentagram.
PT How did you get into teaching? Is this something that you were always interested in?
TC It’s funny, when I was in high school, my brilliant math teacher (Alon Krausz, the best teacher I’ve ever had) told me one day that he thought I’d make a great teacher, and I remember scoffing in his face as if to say, “Ew, a teacher? You’ll degrade me that low?.” I realised mid-scoff the implications of such a scoff since he himself was a teacher, but almost didn’t care (I think I saw myself having more of a ‘big person’ role, whatever that meant to little high school Talia).
The day I knew I wanted to teach, I was sitting in a branding class at Parsons by a teacher who was so terrible (this one will remain nameless, but he would skip class to go to Burning Man, to give you a rough idea), and I thought to myself: “I could do a much better job than him!” I think that day I committed myself to teaching, to ‘save the students’ from a bad education.
Since then, my reasons for teaching have evolved. Soon after graduating, I started the ‘Intro to Coding for Designers’ workshop because I wanted to make coding more accessible to more designers. When I had studied coding in school, there weren’t any teachers who were women, and I had noticed that as a result, many of my classmates who were women simply couldn’t envision themselves doing the same thing (it’s amazing how consistently that works!). I had also noticed that all of the coding teachers taught it as something quite experimental, and as a result, students had a hard time envisioning how it could be applied within traditional design prompts.
Today, I teach because I know I can get students excited, and I know I can get students believing that they can code. I have the traditional design background and job experience to be able to anchor it in a way that is pragmatic and functional. And I have the math and coding skills to be able to help an advanced coder get to an even higher level.
I continue to teach because semester after semester, it inspires me to see my students repeatedly discover their potential and individual flair within code.
PT With experience in teaching code to designers, what have you found is the biggest ‘hurdle’ designers face in the early stages of coding?
TC I don’t think there’s a single technical hurdle – that stuff all pretty much follows the rule: just dive in. CSS positioning is always one where people scratch their heads a little longer, but I think I might just need to change the way I teach it (related: if you think you’re bad at math, you’re not, you probably just didn’t have a teacher that taught it to you in a way that you’d understand).
The hurdle I see a little more consistently is a bit more abstract – and one that I also had to overcome – and that is the feeling of ‘I got this.’ Like learning any foreign language, there’s definitely a moment when things start to click, and then a moment when things start to feel a little more fluid, and all that takes a very, very long time of fighting through uncomfortable grammatical sentences and forcing yourself to awkwardly dive into conversations out of necessity. Coding is no different. I think it’s just important to remind yourself that to get there, you just have to dive in and continue pushing through.
For context, it took me about three years of using code on a weekly basis to get that feeling of ‘I got this.’ Now remember, I didn’t have many people I could turn to to guide me, so it might take people shorter now.
PT What resources, tips, or words of wisdom would you give to someone learning code for the first time?
TC One – question every output!
When designing with code it is so easy to make something look ‘cool.’ Since designing with code is still somewhat novelty, chances are within your first half-hour of coding you’ll already make something that most other design tools cannot, and that alone is something that will excite you and potentially impress people. But… it’s a trap (don’t hate me for saying that)!
Instead, approach it as a design prompt. Ask yourself what visual aspects of the output are solving the design problems, as you would any other design project. Ask for critique from friends and colleagues. Heck, use it for client work! If you don’t have an answer for ‘why’ it looks a certain way, chances are the design can be better.
Two – just have fun!
Coding can be daunting, and it’s a waste if you’re not having fun with it. Make something silly! Make something that makes you laugh! Play with the numbers and break your design! The more you’re having fun, the more you’ll spend time doing it, and the more you’ll learn.
Coding can be daunting, and it’s a waste if you’re not having fun with it.
PT Where did the idea to collate ‘Know Your Shit (A Design Reader)’ come from? Will there be a Volume 3?
TC Haha, oh my god you did your homework!
That was still in my days as a recent grad, and I was always trying to push myself to understand more design history and design critique, and was simultaneously trying to find ways to make it more engaging. Since I was supporting myself through school, I had a habit to print and bind all of my class readings to save money – and you bet I used this as an opportunity for some editorial design as well!
You could say that ‘Know Your Shit’ was the lazy man's version of my senior thesis, ‘Books for Smart Designers,’ a collection of volumes of essays and miscellaneous writings, each focusing on a different theme and how it applies to design. That had stemmed from my frustration with how designers in school didn’t like to read as much as they liked to design. I was convinced that uninformed design would make for worse design, so I made those texts accessible by highlighting the important parts, simplifying the dense ones, and overall making the whole thing more approachable. ‘Know Your Shit’ was after I graduated, and I didn’t have time to simplify and highlight, but I still wanted to make the texts approachable and exciting, which I thought the design helped to do.
And I saw results I hadn’t expected! I had originally bound “Know Your Shit” just for myself and published the downloadable PDF online, but pretty soon people were sending me images of their own binding jobs. One person even turned it into a book with a strap, which she wore as a purse!? I don’t even know.
Who knows if there will be a Volume 3! Currently, it’s not on the top of my list, but who knows what could happen. Higher up on my list of priorities is writing something myself.
Branding is an exercise in understanding people on a deeper level.
PT What are you the most excited about in the future of design and branding?
TC I’m simultaneously excited and afraid.
I’ll start with the bad. It is so easy to make something look ‘cool’ with code or impress audiences without much thought or planning, and we’re seeing more and more designers take advantage of this. I am so afraid that this cool factor of coding will continue to be abused and designers will settle for meaningless design in the interest of something that impresses people temporarily until they move on to the next flashy thing. When I’m having a bad day this fear is blown out of proportion and I envision some sort of futuristic design apocalypse where design is shallow and coding is wasted: where imagery is made out of flow fields and typography is fed into pixel processing and logos are generative (...wait, aren’t we there now?).
The potential for something exciting comes specifically from the intersection of branding and technology, or at the very least brand ‘thinking’ applied to technology. To me, branding is an exercise in understanding people on a deeper level, and translating that into something other people can understand (so already, that makes it a little harder to bullsh*t if you’re using technology). More recently, coming out of the somewhat tumultuous last few years, we’ve also seen that branding has been prompting us with more profound questions than ever; identities and audiences are more complex than ever, and branding is our opportunity to understand that. I look forward to witnessing more and more people trying to solve these complex branding challenges through technology. I think we haven’t even scratched the surface with that.