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Ben Johnston

Freelance Designer

Ben Johnston is a Canadian-born designer who grew up in Cape Town, South Africa and has been working in Toronto as a freelance designer for the past three years. We talked about how he ended up in graphic design after a brief stint of studying industrial design in school. Ben talks about the work he's doing now, the realities of being a freelancer and the often difficult process involved to land on the type of work you really love to do.

Tell me a little about what you do and what fills your days at the moment.

I’m a freelance designer and lately my work has started to become a lot more multidisciplinary. As opposed to doing just digital work, I’ve been doing a lot of mural painting and exhibition work as well. So, silk screens, hand painted work and hand drawn things--very mixed media. Opening myself up to different types of work has opened the door to some great opportunities and being able to work with some great clients.

You’re entirely self-taught, is that right?

Yeah, I studied industrial design and product design for about a year and a half but I didn’t really go to college much [laughs]. So, I decided to drop out, it just wasn’t really my field. I enjoyed experimenting with different materials and building stuff but I’ve always been more focused on the graphic side of things. I left school, got a Mac and just taught myself the programs and went from there.

“Now my work has progressed again from being digital focused to including murals and other forms of work. I found a real interest in seeing the work I was doing on the computer come to life and be in large spaces.”

What made you decide to move out of industrial design and focus more on graphic design and mixed media?

The program I was in was a four-year program and I only made it through about a third of it. I had just always been more interested in graphic design and graffiti when I was growing up. I realized that I wasn’t really interested in building everything and spending all my time in a workshop. I was more interested in the concept phase, coming up with ideas and that sort of thing.

I think it was sort of a natural progression, realizing what I didn’t want to do helped guide me into an area of what I did want to do. Now my work has progressed again from being digital focused to including murals and other forms of work. I found a real interest in seeing the work I was doing on the computer come to life and be in large spaces. Seeing the way it worked visually at such a large scale as opposed to just living on a small poster was really cool.

You’ve been freelance for four years now. Was it always your goal to work for yourself and how did that come about?

I haven’t worked at a lot of different places but, I had mostly worked in ad agencies. I found that the level of being able to come up with cool, creative stuff wasn’t really there for me. It wasn’t matching my aesthetic need and what I wanted to do. So, I carried on pursuing freelance clients and luckily some really interesting projects came in and I’ve never really looked back since.

When I first moved to Canada, it was quite difficult to find work in Toronto, because people are looking for very specific things here in advertising. I just didn’t really find an agency that I wanted to work with, so I carried on getting interesting projects and never really looked back since. I think it’s one of those things that you don’t really plan too much, it just kind of falls into place.

“I also make sure to keep a few side projects going... It’s all related to design in one way or another but it’s about stepping away and doing something that makes you think a little differently for a bit.”

One of the things about being a freelancer is that you have a lot of administrative work that goes along with the creative work. How do you balance your time amongst those two?

It is pretty difficult. I honestly go to a lot of meetings. I try my best to minimize those as much as possible--if I don’t have to meet someone, I try not to. If I do I’ll normally schedule a load of them for one day. So I’ll do a full day of meetings and then I’ll still get four or five days to do work that week. For example, today I had three or four this morning. I try to get them all done in one go and then from there I can focus on the work. Once I leave the studio it’s difficult to come back and work, so I try to minimize that disruption as much as possible.

On top of that, I also have a producer I work with now who helps minimize a lot of the admin work.

Do you ever have periods where you feel burnt out or disconnected from your work? How do you manage those and bring yourself back?

It doesn’t happen too often these days but it definitely still does on occasion. If I’m going through a phase like that I try to just step away from the office for a little bit. Whether it’s a few days or a week, I just take some time to chill out and do other stuff.

I also make sure to keep a few side projects going. Whether it’s illustrations, 3D prints with other people or building stuff. It’s all related to design in one way or another but it’s about stepping away and doing something that makes you think a little differently for a bit.

For me, it’s usually less about taking a break and more about changing up what you’re doing. I don’t really take too many holidays because having a break is good but it also doesn’t really solve the fact that you still need to do creative stuff when you get back. It’s good to keep your mind on track but just pick up something else for a bit, you know?

“The outcome isn’t completely up to you all the time, but I think there’s always room for a really good compromise. You have to know how to deal with that.”

What are the main tools that you're using every day that make up your workflow?

I start every project with sketching, rough work and concept based stuff. Then I move to the computer to fine tune. What tools I use depends on the outcome of the particular project. Some projects require a hand done finish right till the end. Sometimes I’ll do rough ideas on the computer, play around with it and then go back to paper.

Illustrator & Photoshop - I mostly use Illustrator, I need Photoshop for certain things but I’d say it’s 90% Illustrator.

Calendar - I use my calendar to put all my jobs in there. What needs to be done on different days and I map it all out so I can see what the whole month looks like. A lot of projects take more than a week to do, so I need to plan in advance.

What would you say is a major part of your job that you don’t think people realize is involved?

I think a lot of people don’t realize just how much admin there is with each project. People can be quick to judge the outcome but forget that you’re working alongside a full team at a corporate company to push something creative. There is so much background that goes into even a small project. For a single mural, for example, there can be 20 different meetings, and meetings about materials and it’s just one little mural.

Sometimes the admin and managing relationships can take as long as the work itself. I don’t think a lot of people realize that. Also, how much compromise there is, learning to balance that with sticking to your guns. There’s a balance between being firm with people and also remembering that they’ve hired you, they’re paying. The outcome isn’t completely up to you all the time, but I think there’s always room for a really good compromise. You have to know how to deal with that.

You’ve had some practice with that now but was there anything that helped you navigate those challenges when you were first starting out?

I mostly sought out the advice from my peers who had been doing it for longer, but a lot of it was learning as I went. In the beginning, the work didn’t always go as planned, because when you’re younger you’re pretty headstrong about what you want to do and where you see yourself going--it’s not always very realistic.

I think it’s just about waking up to reality and changing your mindset to working with somebody instead of for somebody. It’s about collaborating with the client. Other than that it just takes time, dealing with enough clients. Hundreds of clients later, you figure it out. It doesn’t always go perfectly, but most of the time it does.

What would you say is the hardest thing about what you do?

I think it probably comes down to being just one person. It can be difficult because there’s so many different things to do all the time. So, even if I’m at meetings all day on Monday, I still have a project due for Tuesday. Some people think with freelance you can work whenever you want, and not work whenever you want, but 10 or 12 hour days are pretty standard.

I don’t mind that at all because it’s that much more satisfying at the end of the day. I can turn around after each month and look at a decent body of work from just one month. It might be a few logos, and a mural or two. You can see progression quite quickly when you freelance. When I worked at agencies, I didn’t really know what I was working on most of the time, you’re just working on bits and pieces. As a freelancer, I have to see every part of the project through until the end.

“Once you find what you really want to design that’s when you’ll be the happiest and that’s definitely where I am right now. So, I think I must be on the right track at least.”

Why do you do what you do? Why is it meaningful to you?

I’ve just really got a passion for it. I’ve always been interested in arts but when I was younger I didn’t know what field specifically. Now, I feel as if I’ve really found my area of expertise.

I like to find a balance between working behind the computer and outside painting walls. Once you find what you really want to design that’s when you’ll be the happiest and that’s definitely where I am right now. So, I think I must be on the right track at least.

It can take a long time to get there though, to find your feet. It took me until about two years ago. When you’re starting out you just don’t know much and you haven’t done enough to know what you truly enjoy. You have to do a lot of work that you don’t enjoy as much to figure that out.

It’s about consistently working and pushing yourself. Experiment, try new things and just try to stick out those first few years because they’re not going to be the most amazing.

When you find your own style and your own voice and what you love to do, you can do anything.

Who would you want to see on Ways We Work?

Piet Parra - He’s an artist in Paris who has found a way of making his illustration into art. He’s exhibiting his stuff in SFMOMA and other crazy places. To see that from young people, turning illustration into art, it’s pretty amazing.