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The Signature Style of Graphic Designer Ben Johnston

A Cape Town expat practiced in the timeless art of hand-drawn typography

By Terence Dick
Photography by Naomi Finlay

Earlier this year, Toronto’s Catholic District School Board voted unanimously to study ways to reintroduce cursive into the curriculum. Long-form writing may have fallen by the wayside in the age of PIN passwords and electronic keyboards, but everyone still needs to sign their name at some point.

All this debate in education coincides with a renewed appreciation for handcrafted typography (cue the six-hour lineups last March at Honest Ed’s to buy some of those iconic hand-painted signs). Artists’ signatures have always been important – so much so that in graffiti they become the artwork itself – but a reliance on digital design programs has lead to a standardization of fonts, which some creative folks just can’t bear.


“People like the sense of nostalgia and the handcrafted quality of my work,” says artist Ben Johnston. In particular, they respond to his bespoke typefaces, signage and illustrations. Based in Toronto, the self-taught graphic designer grew up in Cape Town, South Africa, where he dabbled in street art and spray paint before briefly studying industrial design. Wanting to focus more on creating and less on construction techniques, he gravitated toward lettering – finding inspiration in everything from neon tubes and sign-painters’ brush strokes, to letterpress blocks and chalk on blackboards.

References to art nouveau and pop art appear throughout his work, which has a traditional look that has attracted such high-profile clients as Nike and Lululemon. Earlier this year, the 27-year-old spent a month in Asheville, North Carolina, creating an elaborate 1,485-square-metre mural for the Sierra Nevada Brewery Company using only Sharpies and scaffolding. The result could easily be the work of a grey-haired geezer in paint-splattered coveralls, but a graphic designer today needs to master computers as well. And Johnston has.

“Anything done by hand has a time and place, and doesn’t necessarily work for all projects,” he says. “But if you can draw something amazing and then digitize it, it can live across multiple platforms.” Johnston’s finely detailed lettering piece “Everything is Possible,” for an editorial in Aston Martin Magazine, demonstrates just that. He started where he always does – with pen and paper – but rendered the work with a 3-D printer. The result unites ink on the page with cutting-edge additive manufacturing.

The return to cursive is not simply a matter of style; signatures are reminders of what make us unique. Not only does an autograph identify us at the bank, it tells us who we are.

See a live mural by Ben Johnston at Toronto Design Offsite Festival’s opening party at Smash (2880 Dundas St W), 8 pm-midnight, January 21.

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