Samar Maakaroun has transitioned from running her own thriving studio to becoming a partner at the iconic design collective Pentagram. In our exclusive interview, she shares the remarkable journey leading her to this career landmark.
You spend years working as a designer, rising through the ranks until you reach senior level. At this point, you've built up enough confidence and experience to set up your own studio. You make the leap, and it's a huge success. So why, then, would you even consider ditching this newfound independence and going back to your previous firm?
The answer, in Samar Maakaroun's case, is simple. That firm is Pentagram.
In case you weren't aware, Pentagram is the most respected design studio on the planet. Founded in 1972, it's famed for both its iconic work and its flat hierarchical structure. Its leaders, such as Paula Scher, are counted among the greatest designers living today. And so being invited to be a partner here is the design world's equivalent of being invited to be the new James Bond or Doctor Who. It's that big of a deal.
So we were keen to learn how Samar got here, why she's made the leap, and what it can teach us about achieving our own goals. In our exclusive interview, she tells us the full story.
Right to Left, then back again
Samar joins Pentagram's London office along with her team from Right to Left, the design studio she founded in 2021 to straddle different cultures and typographic traditions. And the commute, at least, will be familiar to her. Samar spent 2017 to 2021 as a design lead and consultant at Pentagram, working first with Angus Hyland (2017-2019) and then with Domenic Lippa (2020-2021).
Returning as a partner, she stresses, was not her idea. "They approach you; it's not something you can apply for," she explains. "My understanding is that every couple of years, they float names and discuss potential candidates in their partners' meetings. There's an examination of what this person could bring, and then they call you for a meeting, which is very confidential."
And no wonder. The tricky thing is that because Pentagram is essentially a collective, all 22 existing partners had to agree on selecting Samar. So, the decision-making process inevitably had to be long and complex.
"You have to meet everybody one by one between London, New York, Austin and Berlin," she explains. "You start with the people you know, then work your way out. Once London says okay, they will fly you to New York. You talk to everybody there, and then they vote again."
It all sounds quite arduous, but Samar emphasises these were unlike normal job interviews. In fact, they were as much an opportunity to decide if she wanted to join the other partners as it was for them.
"It was basically a mutual exploration between myself and Pentagram," she clarifies. "I wanted to find out what it would mean for me, and they wanted to find out about me as well. Since the aim of these conversations was a partnership, it was not just about the work, we were all looking for some synergy in approach and thinking. Pentagram is a community of sorts, so that's really important."
In another era, an ethos of "you have to like each other" might have led to homogeneity when it comes to things like race, gender and economic background. But partnering with Samar, who was born in the Middle East and speaks multiple languages, demonstrates how little interest Pentagram has ever had in that kind of thinking.
Indeed, Samar explains that she doesn't even come from a creative background. "My family is not creative at all," she smiles. "I grew up in Lebanon, in a city close to the Syrian border, and I'm the only one in my family who forged a creative career. Where I grew up, until I moved to Beirut at 17, there were no museums or exposure to the arts in any way, shape or form. When I decided to study graphic design, I barely knew what my career would look like, and my learning curve was very very steep. So to end up here is a magnificent turn of events."
She attributes her success in part to her father. "He always told me: whatever you do, do it in the best way you can," she recalls. "No matter the scale of the ask, if it’s a favour or a job, do this for yourself. And if you apply this, somehow your best will get better, and good things happen."
Taking the leap
Being invited into discussions about the Pentagram partnership clearly fits into the category of "good things happening". But that didn't mean it was an easy decision for Samar.
"Right to Left was only two years old at the time," she points out. "So I was thinking 'Okay, there's potential,' but I didn't really know where this could go. I'm a planner; I'm a methodical person. So I thought, 'Okay, maybe if I meet all the partners, I can gather enough data to inform my decision.' But ultimately, it had to be an intuitive choice."
And, of course, the partners had to make their choice, too. "After you meet everybody and they vote, they call you to inform you of the result," Samar explains. "But even then, you can't announce it because there's a particular time and way to do that. Andrea Trabucco-Campos [another partner who's just joined Pentagram New York] was at a design event in London, and we had to meet secretly! There was a certain level of cloak and dagger because, until everything is concluded, you don't want to talk about it."
Now everything's official and out in the open, Samar's ready to start an exciting new chapter in her life. But at the same time, she's keen to stress this is less of a dramatic change and more of a natural evolution. Because, in one sense, she never actually stopped collaborating with Pentagram.
"When I started my studio, I wanted to inspire the designers there," she recalls. "So I started talking to my network, to bring people to do talks in the studio… and most of them were Pentagramers. So, when you look at it like that, actually, it's one long story; it's a connected thing. And it's really all about the people.
"The people at Pentagram are the kind of people who get excited about design and craft without the egos," she says. "It's the culture. So when you think about it like that, it turns into just doing the same thing under a different name, but with much support. It's a continuation, not necessarily an end and a beginning."
Best of all, she smiles, "Pentagram has a fantastic support system in terms of IT, HR, and finance. And that means I don't have to spend time managing that side of things and can immerse myself more deeply in the design work."
And the partners? They're thrilled, too. "We are all so excited about Samar joining Pentagram," says Paula Scher. 'Samar is a wonderfully gifted designer with a multicultural background, excellent visual vocabulary, keen intelligence, and incisive wit. She is a spectacular addition to our international group."
Pentagram partner Marina Willer adds: "I am so delighted to have Samar as our new partner in London. I have worked with her on several projects; she is a wonderful designer who will bring a breath of fresh air to Pentagram. She thinks and works differently from us because of her unique cultural mix, simultaneously approaching design in Latin and Arabic alphabets. It's very exciting to add her perspective to Pentagram."