INTERVIEWED BY Michaela Stehr IMAGES courtesy of Ben Johnston
Cape Town-born, Toronto-based artist and designer Ben Johnston chats to VISI about how he got into typography, his work in the US and Canada and what he looks to for inspiration.
Tell us about how your design journey began.
I went to school for Industrial Design but dropped out after realising it wasn’t for me and started to teach myself the basics of graphic design. Shortly after, I started working at a small PR company and then eventually moved into advertising, all the while freelancing and starting to work on paintings for group exhibitions. After a few years of agency life, I decided to go freelance full-time and haven’t looked back since. Shortly after moving to Toronto about five years ago I also started painting murals, as well as designing custom typographic pieces for adverts, billboards and agencies across the US and Canada. It’s been a journey of discovery so far and I’m still loving every day I get to design.
Why did you get into type? What drew you towards lettering?
I think I’ve always had an affinity for letters, from a brief stint painting graffiti when I was a teenager to working on branding projects and custom packaging. It’s incredibly complex so I still feel like I’m learning every day, and with each new project, I learn a new set of skills. Transferring the designs onto walls has also been really challenging, but getting to see your design grow from a laptop screen to the side of a building is a very rewarding process.
Tell us about the process behind creating one of your mega murals.
Each new piece is custom designed for the space and is either a self-driven concept or is an interpretation of the brief from the client. I always start with loose sketches, followed by refining on the computer and looking at multiple colourways, finding the best fit. From there, the logistics of a painting are worked out and any potential issues are dealt with before painting, which then takes anywhere from two to five days depending on the size. As long as you’ve done all the correct prep work, the installation is relatively seamless. I’ve slowly been moving into a more minimal approach, so it’s generally the design process that takes longer than the painting.
Where around the world can people see your work?
I currently have pieces around the States and Canada, but I’m hoping to add some murals in Spain, Serbia, Japan, and hopefully Cape Town, later this year. I’ve also started focusing on smaller paintings and installation pieces that are going to some group exhibitions. The goal is to paint in as many cities as possible.
Who or what do you look to for inspiration?
Design is all about muscle memory – the more you draw and practice the easier it becomes. Scrolling through blogs for hours is just procrastinating. I personally prefer to look around the real world at old signage, shadows and anything else that sparks interest. There’s a lot more inspiration out there than on your phone. Typography is everywhere you look, so there’s no shortage of inspiration.
Do you have a favourite or more sentimental piece of work, whether a personal or client-based project?
I love every new piece of work I do, otherwise I wouldn’t take the project on, so I’m pretty happy with my past work. Saying that, you do learn from each new piece so looking back at old work is never as good as you thought at the time. I’ve got a lot of exciting pieces coming up, so I think I’ll have a few new favourites soon.
What do you have planned for the rest of 2019?
I’m currently working on a large sculpture for the Art Gallery of Ontario, which is a little nerve-wracking as it’s all new stuff for me. After that, I’m going to be working on an exhibition I’m having in Toronto this coming May, which will be my first solo show. I also have a few speaking engagements, one at OFFF in Barcelona and another in Serbia. Other than that, I’ll be painting at a few mural festivals and travelling around painting murals. I’m also hoping a project will come up in Cape Town soon so I can come back for an extended visit.
See more of Ben’s work at benjohnston.ca.