Ben Johnston

Ben Johnston is a multi-disciplinary artist & designer who, after doing the agency thing in Cape Town, hopped over to Toronto to try life as a full-time freelancer. We chat with Ben about his murals for charities, the opportunities you encounter when collaborating (e.g. 3D Printed magazine covers - WHAAA?), and spending less time on the internet!

When did you fall in love with design and how did you get started?

I think the introduction to graffiti when I was about 13 years old would be the main thing that I feel kickstarted my life as an artist. Although I was too young at the time to realize it was anything more than spraying your name on walls, it was actually teaching me to study and deconstruct letters and as the years went on working on more complex pieces which forces you to think about colour palettes and layout. What works and what doesn’t. After a few years and couple run-ins with the law I focused more on fine art in school and finally got into Graphic Design in my early twenties. After doing the agency thing in Cape Town, I decided to leave for Toronto and work as a full-time freelancer with a focus on branding and typography. It was only a few years ago that I got seriously into mural design and painting after a friend asked me to paint a piece for the entranceway of their new offices. That piece was really the start of a new direction in my career in which more than half of my work is now murals for either clients or simply for fun. There have been so many amazing opportunities so far and a few mural festivals still coming up this year, so I still feel like it’s just the beginning!

What does a typical working day include for you right now?

It really depends on the project is on the go. Either way I generally start my days pretty early, get a bike ride in and then sit down for coffee and a look over new emails. From there if I’m working on a project in the studio I’ll head through between 8-9am and stick it out until it’s done, but if i’m painting I’ll head over to the wall and generally try and put in the hours and work until sunset. I find it better to put in long days and get the pieces done in less days rather than dragging it out. If i’m out painting during the week, if often means things are piling up at the studio, so it’s a bit of a balancing act.

Design work by Ben Johnston The Design Kids interviews Ben Johnston work-2

What are your three must-read design books, blogs or podcasts and why?

I really enjoy Adventures in Design. The illustrator and host Mark Brickey researches his guests really well and gets a little deeper than just talking about design. Some other podcast favourites worth checking out are Design Matters and 99% Invisible. The Great Discontent always has some great content and interviews as well.

Tell us about any collaborations you have been working on.

I’ve been big on collaboration the last couple of years as there is often so much more potential when more people are involved. Working with other designers has led to some pretty amazing opportunities like 3d printed magazine covers and installations out of materials I wouldn’t normally even consider working in.

As far as passion projects I’m currently working on some mural campaigns for charities in Toronto help bring about awareness for mental health, as well as a couple other things in the works.

Design work by Ben Johnston The Design Kids interviews Ben Johnston work-4
Design work by Ben Johnston The Design Kids interviews Ben Johnston work-4

Spend less time on the internet ‘researching’ ideas and more time sketching ideas.'

How do you solve conflicting ideas within a group of collaborators?

It’s important to try and get on the same page from the beginning and have a shared vision, otherwise you’re going to run into complications down the line. Figuring out what everyones role is in the project and keeping communication open means they there won’t be too many surprises and everyone should just have fun.

What has been some of the biggest lessons you’ve learnt along the way?

1. Explain your process and thought behind the project. Not all clients share your creative vision.

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How important is networking to you?

As I’m often sitting in my studio, I find it really important to make the effort to go to events and conferences to engage with other illustrators and artists as you not only need to do your own promotion as a freelancer, but it also really helps to build a strong network and database of people to collaborate with in the future.

Who would be the “dream client” that you would do anything to work for?

I don’t think it would be one particular brand, but a client that is open to your ideas and gives you creative control over the project. I’ve been lucky enough to work on some amazing projects the last couple years in mediums I had never thought of working in before, so I feel like there’s a client a project just around the corner that I didn’t think about before.

Whats on the cards professionally and personally in the next 12 months?

I really want to start travelling more and painting, so I’ve been in touch with a few mural festivals already, so hopefully that works out. I’m also hoping to have an exhibition in the spring next year, so that’ll take up a good chunk of my time. Other than that I’m loving what I’m doing at the moment, so I’ll keep putting up murals and collaborating when I can!

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Design work by Ben Johnston The Design Kids interviews Ben Johnston work-12
Design work by Ben Johnston The Design Kids interviews Ben Johnston work-12

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