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Jaamal Benjamin, inspired by graffiti

The owner of Studio Grand tells us about his graffiti-inspired roots, the impact of his upbringing, and how type design pulled him out of a dark place.

TYPE Magazine: How and when did you become interested in type design?

Jaamal Benjamin: In high school, I started breakin’ and doing graffiti. Although I wasn’t a full-fledged graff writer, a lot of the homies were. I admired them, the New York graffiti culture and the manipulation of letterforms. Breakin’, graffiti, hip-hop culture and streetwear brands eventually lead me to study graphic design.

My undergrad graphic design experience helped shape my interest in art, mark-making, letterforms and making with technology. At first, I didn’t get graphic design. At all. I would draw graffiti-inspired flyers for my projects and fail. Eventually, my skills got better. I enjoyed the idea of using form and technology to create a visual expression. I often found myself interested in type but had no idea how to use it properly.

I started working for a design team lead by mentors and friends: Heather Furman and Alison Walsh. The brand guidelines for our account were the most robust and comprehensive guidelines I had ever seen. Simple, modernist, and created in collaboration with a designer named Yoshi Waterhouse. Yoshi was a direct protégé of the legendary Italian designer, Massimo Vignelli.

This is when my practice in design systems and typography began. I became obsessed—wanted to learn more—so, I enrolled in several classes and workshops. One day, I found Troy Leinster’s Principles of Typeface Design workshop at The Cooper Union and decided to sign up. Twice.

An early work of Benjamin’s, these specimen scans come from his Type@Cooper project, Ara Sans.

TM: Have you had any mentors or role models in the type design field you would like to acknowledge?

JB: I want to first acknowledge those who gave me a chance and supported my design career: Jeffrey Bouchard, Heather Furman, Jamie Merwin, Doreen Garner, Edward Crawford, Kali Meeks, Ennis Carter and Sara Green.

My type design mentors:
Cara DiEdwardo, Alexander Tochilovsky (Sasha), Troy Leinster, Hannes Famira, my entire Type@Cooper ’19/’20 Squad, Juan Villanueva.

Type role models (aside from mentors):
Tré Seals, Agyei Archer, Nontsikelelo Mutiti, Jon Key, Stephen Elbaz, Cyrus Highsmith, Uncle Ken Barber and James Edmondson.

Some design role models:
David Adjaye, Bobby C. Martin, Eddie Opera, Arem Duplessis, The Black School, Emory Douglas, Steve Powers, Tim Lahan and Kenya Hara.

Sometimes Benjamin will detour from more serious work to pursue something light and innocent, like this birthday card for a friend’s baby.

TM: Some type designers regard their work as more-or-less dispassionate tools; others regard their work as extremely personal. How do you regard your designs?

JB: When you dive into type history, you’ll quickly realize typefaces unpack legacies of predominately white male designers and their accomplishments. For me, I feel a responsibility to imbue my work with my roots and culture as a way of changing the design canon, leaving legacy and storytelling.

What I find attractive about art/design is its ability to create an experience, make change and communicate to others. And because of this, I believe I lean towards the work being personal. At the end of the day, I’m an artist at heart. So, I tend to bring that energy or approach to whatever I’m working on, in some shape, form or fashion.

TM: To what extent has your identity affected your career as a designer?

JB: I am a first-born American of Guyanese descent. My biological father left us at birth. Eventually, my mother re-married. Together, they were hardworking immigrants. If you know anything about Caribbean parents, then you know only three things mattered: church, education and chores. I was an acolyte every Sunday, did my homework, and always had something to clean around the house. I was the eldest of two, so I had to be pretty responsible at a young age.

As a Black man, I’ve been blessed to bring different perspectives to the table in my career. Those perspectives happened in many different overlapping forms. For me, sometimes it manifested in projects and collaborations. Sometimes in ideation and brainstorming. Other times, simply, in conversation and relationships.

My mother once told me, “Don’t ever change yourself for anyone. Live your life.” I’m incredibly in debt to my parents and for their effort to provide more for me. I try to bring those life lessons with me at each step of my career.

Benjamin says that his typeface Harlemecc “draws inspiration from the explosive expression of Black culture, fashion, literature, music and art, specifically that of visual artist and educator, Aaron Douglas.”

TM: What will the world see next from you?

JB: That’s a great question. Who knows!

At the moment, I’m developing a few type designs.

One of which is called Harlemecc. A typeface inspired by the cultural impact of the Black experience during The Harlem Renaissance and the works of Aaron Douglas.

Another is called Garvey, in honor of Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey. A typeface inspired by Garvey’s vision to improve, empower, and unite Black folks.
I’m also into learning new things in design. So, I’m currently learning generative type and art in p5.js. Maybe some interesting things will come out of that.

TM: Is there anything else you would like to add about your experience in type design?

JB: The type community feels pretty small. So far, the folks I’ve met have all been incredibly supportive and encouraging!

When I started, Troy Leinster and his TAs at the time (Annabel Brandon, Gene Hua, and Nobi Kashiwagi) nudged me to apply to the Type@Cooper Extended Type Program after expressing interest. I’m grateful for those guys and their support, otherwise, I might not have applied.

That year was rough for me. I was depressed, stuck, and felt alone in life, as well as professionally. One summer day, I was sitting out front the Brooklyn Museum when I received the news about my acceptance into the Type@Cooper Extended Program. Words can’t express the amount of hope and happiness I felt in that moment. It was as if the shadow of depression instantly dispersed. That acceptance email was the light at the end of my tunnel.

I recently heard one of my OGs say something like, “Wherever you end up is exactly where you’re supposed to be. Just get to where you want to go.” For those of you who feel “unseen,” stuck or are having doubts; for those of you who are on an unconventional path in your practice, career or life—remember to hold on to your dreams and don’t lose hope. The rest will work itself out. Just trust the process.

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