02 Nov Ben Johnson: Surprises, hidden elements and designing towards simplicity
We’ve been following the work of Cape Town desinger Ben Johnson for many years. We’ve watched his foray into fashion videos, lusted after his L’MAD silk scarf design collab, listened to his #NowPlaying playlist, featured his then-current poster work back in 2013, and a whole lot more in between. Now we’re catching up with Ben again to coincide with his newly launched updated website, which, in addition to being easy on the eye, also shows off the focus of his more recent work: art publication design.
Rather than imposing his ideas or aesthetic on a project, Ben believes in taking an inclusive approach working together with the artist to bring their vision to life together. This way, he says, the design of the book can be congruous with the themes of the content and create a holistic, richly layered outcome.
The last time we featured your work you were doing a lot of posters for parties and exhibitions. How did this segue into focusing on art book design?
I knew from early on that it was either book design, architecture, or furniture that I’d like to make a career out of. I like to tell myself that in some ways a book is, or has the potential to be, a piece of furniture (or a very small building, depending how much of a headache you decide to give the printer and binder).
I’ve always been making publications in one way or another, but earlier in my career it was far easier to bag a poster job than get someone to throw you a wad of cash to publish a full-on book (co-managing EVOL also gave me a weekly poster-platform to make whatever I felt like, so I could blow off any steam I had built up that week). But the two always existed side by side, and still do. Posters are great to work on, I’ll always enjoy doing them, but with books you get to make something far more in-depth and layered.
You can really dive deep into whatever world you’re trying to create. You start forming narratives and experiences that unveil themselves as you page through; building anticipation and creating a rhythm in the book’s flow with the subtlest decisions. It’s also obviously a 3-dimensional object, and by pushing production techniques, you can really make it come alive. It’s nice to know that when you go to sleep at night, it physically ‘exists’ somewhere, instead of just sitting at the bottom of some 16 year old’s tumblr.
At the end of it all, being able to sit with the artist and have them discover connections in their work that they wouldn’t have otherwise noticed, or simply seeing them excited with how their work has been portrayed, is a fantastic feeling.
What is the process generally for an art publication design project?
The first meeting with the artist is an important stage; this is where the approach gets formulated. With the right amount of empathy and reading between lines you’re able to get a good idea of what the artist has in mind (even if they can’t fully verbalise or visualise it yet themselves).
From there it’s a healthy mix of late nights stumbling through various approaches, and conversations with the artist about where the project is going. This mix is important, if (/when) one gets over-excited and goes too far in resolving the design without the artist, it can become daunting or impossible for them to enter the process and get their opinions/criticisms in.
Alongside this there needs to be a degree of painstaking back and forth with the printer and binder, checking what’s possible with production and budget. At times one has to really bend the rules here to be able to keep the integrity of the project intact, it’s never as easy as you’d like it to be. Books are difficult creatures, with expensive taste. A good rapport with your printer is worth its weight in gold (Hi Ian!).
Then there’s the content. Ideally you get it all at the beginning, and can work with it and find hidden parallels and contrasts that shape the design further. Quite rare. Sometimes there’s even time and circumstance to allow for the design to dictate how the content is created or documented. Very rare. Then there’s always the placeholder image and text route; when you get the content in sporadic bits and pieces. In this approach things can change considerably once you have all the final content in front of you, as one can only predict and plan so much. Sometimes this means melting the book down slightly and squeezing it into a different shape.
Nearly done, there’s the driving back and forth to the printer/binder checking on things and putting your million-dollar signature on proofs and dummy copies.
Finally the book comes, and you slide it into your shelf, and have a little nap.
How would you describe your design aesthetic currently?
The design should always reflect the content at hand, so it’s not easy to say. There’s also the variable of my mood at the time. Things sway between wild and eye catching, to subtle and understated. Generally I try to challenge the medium I’m working in, make it do something it shouldn’t, or hasn’t done before (when appropriate). I enjoy surprises and hidden elements that reveal themselves as you interact with the project, making it an experience while still being practical and informative.
Within all this, working toward simplicity is the aim, which I believe can be achieved in the most frantic/absurd projects by juggling the imagery, text and production techniques for long enough (and trying to resist filling gaps with ‘decorative polyfilla’ along the way).
Do you think that over the years your design style and approach has changed much? If so in what ways and what has influenced it?
I think I am definitely refining it, and learning more about what makes certain things more successful than others – hidden things that are so obvious but you don’t realise, and then wonder why you aren’t fully satisfied with a final design in the way you intended to be. I’d also like to think I have slightly less to prove as opposed to, say, 4 years ago; so decisions are made with a clearer head, though I still definitely have a very long way to go in this department, to become fully confident with my work.
I am influenced every day, not necessarily by other graphic design, but rather by cities, interactions, buildings, art, furniture, the space I work from and live in, chats with my partner Bella etc. These things are what I admire and aspire to, they make up the world for me, so the trick is to try to distil this into design. It all sounds very poetic, and though it can happen, I’m well aware this is easier said than done.
Also – John Baldessari, always.
Which local artist’s work do you most admire and/or collect?
Collecting art is something I really enjoy, I/we (Bella and myself) try to collect as much as possible. Some of the local artists already in our home are Cameron Platter, Jared Ginsburg, Georgina Gratrix, Rodan Kane Hart, John Muafangejo, Nico Krijno, Stefan Krynauw, Jaco Van Schalkwyk, Walter Battiss, Dan Halter, Davis Ndungu and Kerry Chaloner. I hope to one day add Michael McGarry, Zander Blom and Athi-Patra Ruga to the family.
Then there’s also the collection of ‘craft’ art collected from around the continent/rest of the world, which means just as much to us.
In your opinion, good design is…
Your brand new website has been some years in the making. It’s stunning. Can you tell us a little about the overarching effect you wanted to achieve?
Thank you 🙂 But ‘years in the making’ is probably the wrong wording; it’s more like ‘years in limbo’. I recently realised it was getting a bit pathetic, and had to do something about it, but I didn’t want to overthink it. So I just tried to find a neutral, effective way to get across the work I’ve done in the most simple, informative way possible.
What new and exciting projects are next for you?
There are always a couple of nice book/design projects coming up, but the most exciting project is definitely the publishing and editions company Rodan Kane Hart and I are busy setting up. The name’s BAD PAPER, and with it we aim to work closely with artists to publish limited and larger-run artist books, as well as artwork editions, be it sculpture, painting, print or whatever. There’s also a keen interest in music and how we can integrate that into the mix.
We want to create a space for the artists to take risks, try something they perhaps wouldn’t usually feel they could, in both books and artworks. Blurring the line between those two elements is important too, in the current context of online publications and digital media being a more responsible and efficient way to distribute information, there’s even more reason for the book to be a physical artwork in itself, and to be cherished as such in our lives.