Gillian Benjamin’s career journey in graphic design began, unofficially, by designing layouts for budget porn magazines in London during her gap year. She went on to study at the AAA School of Advertising, followed by a brief stint at an agency and then furthered her studies at UCT, where her personal projects soon turned into actual job opportunities. In 2012, Gillian founded her own multi-disciplinary design studio, Make Content, with a focus on social design. “I’ve always believed that design has to have meaning beyond just being aesthetically pleasing or beautiful. It needs to serve a deeper purpose and deliver real impact in some way,” she explains. By breaking down in-depth research into digestible, manageable chunks of information and infographics, Make Content helped NGOs to communicate effectively. Although the studio-side of the business has been in hibernation since Gillian took up her current position as the head of the Design Support Programme at the CCDI, we thought it’d be interesting to take a look inside her archives for Graphic Design Month and learn more about her personal and design evolution along the way.
About Magazine (2005)
My journey with graphic design began as a young kid sitting with my grandfather and watching in delight as he hand-lettered my name in an array of different styles. He was a graphic designer – the old school kind – and could create, with ease and perfection, a range of different typefaces straight from the tip of his pencil. His studio was a place of delight, with many different kinds of papers to scribble on and a drawer full of different kinds of pencils, pens, rulers and stationery – the possibility of just using them all would enliven my mind with excitement and anticipation. Growing up around his craft definitely influenced my thoughts about what I wanted to be when I grew up.
I then studied at the AAA School of Advertising. Design school was a difficult time for me filled with a lot of early 20s angst wondering if I was pursuing the right career. The visual communication course at the time was 98% practical, and being quite a nerd I felt frustrated by lack of design theory to ground our practice. The projects that stand out for me during this phase were ones where I could combine my own photography with design. One example is ‘About Magazine’ – a response to an open brief to create a magazine on a topic of our choice. Each edition of ‘About Magazine’ would unpack an overlooked area of everyday life. The issue I created was dedicated to trash. For one of the articles I hustled my way into the front cab of a waste removal truck for the day. Here I interviewed the garbage men and took their portraits. Looking back through the years, this direct engagement with people, and the use of photography to capture them, seems to be a golden thread running through my work.
Green Duck wine label (2006)
After AAA I got a job at Riot Creative (later Coley Porter Bell) as a junior designer. Taking a job in an agency felt like what I ‘should’ be doing, but there was a sense of disquiet and tension within. I recall wondering how my colleagues were okay with being at the office from 9am to 5pm – headphones on and at the computer screen – while my inner being was clawing at the walls. Perhaps it was the lack of direct engagement with people, or the commercial nature of the work, but after a few months I was applying to study at UCT and left after six months on the job. Pictured is a wine label produced for a bio-organic farm while there. Of all the work I did in those months this is one of the only pieces I remember – perhaps due to the fact that we got out of the office to do visual research at the vineyard.
Barometer Magazine (2009)
I then went to UCT originally planning to study architecture but then pursuing a Social Science degree in Anthropology and Environmental Science. It felt like a big risk going back to study while all my friends progressed in their design careers. I’m so glad I had the courage to do so as it turned out to be an incredible three years of learning, made even more enjoyable because I was able to process what I was learning through a design lens. During this time I kept a notebook of all the project and business ideas that came to me as I was taught theories about how the world worked, and translated these into action-based design projects.
One such project was the Barometer Magazine that I set up with the aim of getting students to be a little more environmentally conscious. I rallied a group of student writers to create content while I did the design and photography. It was a budget single-colour run, but it was really fulfilling to see the final printed product (on environmentally-friendly paper of course) around campus and in people’s hands.
Another project completed while at UCT was a compendium documenting a country-wide tour taken by the Masters Architecture students. I joined the tour, shooting images along the way. We did a small print run, again printed in black and white, but we splurged a little on the screen-printed cover and cloth binding. I really enjoy the effect of bold and simple design applied to tactile / industrial paper stock.
‘We Can’t Afford Not To’ (2009)
Self-initiated work usually gets you the real work, and this was the case with my first job after university. The head of Equal Education had seen my work on the Barometer Magazine and asked if I could assist in designing a publication they were writing. The publication argued the need for every school to have a library (at the time only 7% had libraries – I don’t think this figure has shifted much in the five years since then). To humanise quite a dry argument we interviewed learners affected by the issue and then put their quotes alongside their portraits as chapter openers throughout the publication. This piece of work combined photography, infographics and text to convey an argument, and set me on a social design trajectory for the next four years.
Equal Education annual report (2009)
For Equal Education’s 2009 annual report we played on the political language of a newspaper and created a tabloid-sized, three-colour newsprint publication. The format broke from the normal A4 annual report style and gave us space for beautiful pull quotes and typographic illustrations. Sent to funders and supporters, the annual report is key in sharing success stories to ensure continued financial commitment.
Equalizer Magazine (2011)
The Equalizer Magazine is created for Equal Education’s members who are predominantly high school students from poor and working class areas. This special edition was launched for a student march that saw 20 000 people march to Parliament in Cape Town.
Research trip (2011)
In 2011 I joined Equal Education on a research trip to rural Eastern Cape where we visited schools with serious infrastructure issues. I shot stills and video on the trip, and used the images in later publications and posters. The trip was important in terms of experiencing the realities of rural education first-hand. Standing in a classroom with huge gaping holes in the wall, feeling the wind rushing through the space and seeing how learners struggled to learn in these conditions impacted me profoundly. Experiences like these shape how you see the world and what kind of work you deem meaningful. Having a deep understanding of the issues Equal Education was fighting for was key in driving me to create communication I felt justly advocated their cause.
Ndifuna Ukwazi fact sheets (2012)
In 2012 I decided to formalise and set up Make Content as a social design consultancy offering graphic design, photography and film. I hired my first staff member and rented solo office space. Soon after we were briefed to create a series of fact sheets to educate the public on how the City of Cape Town creates their budgets. The intention was to show people how they could participate in the budget process and hold local government to account. This was one of the first projects where I was acting as creative director and not designing myself – a process that takes a bit of getting used to as you have to learn how to verbalise otherwise instinctual, second-nature design impulses to help guide the project along.
This project was tough and time consuming as we were trying to convey extremely complex processes as simply as possible (and it had to be designed in English, Afrikaans and Xhosa). That said, it was very fulfilling seeing a process as complex as the annual municipal budget cycle displayed in a single infographic.
Make Content stationery brand (2013)
Like most designers, I have a deep love of materials. I was able to delve a little deeper into this through three-dimensional work for exhibitions and commercial interior design projects. Marrying graphic design, materials and space is hugely satisfying. To allow a permanent avenue for this experimentation we launched a small stationery brand producing clocks, calendars and other printed goods.
Cape Craft and Design Institute (2014-)
Two years of fun running Make Content led to a job offer at the Cape Craft and Design Institute (CCDI), driving the implementation of the provincial Design Strategy. The scope to work in an organisation, build a team and learn new skills drove my decision to move away from self-employment and back into the world of being an employee (and as anyone who runs their own business can attest – it gets a little lonely).
My work now focuses on helping business and the public sector better understand how to use design processes and design thinking to improve the products and services they create. Essentially design thinking unpacks the process designers go through to innovate, and lays it out step by step, creating a journey that if followed usually leads to improved products and services. I organise workshops to teach design thinking, run co-creation workshops, and am overseeing three really exciting design-driven projects this year.
The first is a project in healthcare where we will be building a multi-disciplinary design team (made up of a behavioural designer, an anthropologist and a graphic designer) to look at the flow and design of patient folders through a hospital, with the aim of improving the design of the folder and the process by which it travels. So while I don’t create tangible design outputs anymore, I am still definitely designing.
The images above are from a co-design workshop hosted in December 2014 to imagine possibilities for a shop front in Harrington Street, and from a customer-journey mapping workshop I facilitated at RLabs in late March 2015, teaching young tech entrepreneurs how to use design thinking to help them identify new business opportunities.
See more Graphic Design Month features.