Advertisements on billboards, text in album sleeves and letterforms on book covers – the art of typography may be taken for granted, but artist and designer Simon Johnston has made quite a name for himself in the field.
In the exhibit “subject/verb/object,” which is currently on display at the Design Museum in Everson Hall, Johnston explores the nature of visual language and the relationship between visual aids and their semantic roles. An artist talk and reception featuring Johnston will be held tonight at 6:30 in Everson Hall.
As both an artist and designer, Johnston distinguished the two fields. Both are forms of expression, he said, but while design is an expression on behalf of someone else, making art deals with personal concerns and interests.
“Making art is making an aesthetic and philosophical proposition … so [it has] more self-expression, freed from utility,” Johnston said in an e-mail interview. “Design is operational, it has work to do, [it] is about use.“
Johnston, who attended the Bath Academy of Art in England and the School of Applied Arts in Switzerland, got his start studying under notable graphic designers Armin Hofmann and Wolfgang Weingart. Along with Mark Holt and Hamish Muir, Johnston founded the London-based graphic design firm 8vo as well as Octavo, a magazine that focused on typography.
Though his background is in design, Johnston said that he has always been obsessed with language and how language is seen. In an editorial published in Octavo, Johnston described typography as “the point where content and form meet,” and with an acute awareness of both sides, Johnston lets the words and typeface speak for themselves in his work.
“All visual forms speak to us in a subtle way,” he said. “The different shapes of typefaces might suggest qualities that reflect or amplify the content of the words … for an identity you have to look very carefully at the relationships between the letter shapes involved, as they will work better in some typefaces than others.“
Johnston highlights what he calls the “secret subtext” of seemingly insignificant words with “Investigation.” In the piece, Johnston paints over and deletes text in pages of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations and pares the book down to a single word: “This.“
“I was always spending happy hours as a child reading the dictionary – there’s a whole world in there,” Johnston said. “You have to love language to be a good typographer.“
For more information on Johnston, visit simonjohnstondesign.com. To learn more about the Design Museum, go to designmuseum.ucdavis.edu.
Text by Rachel FilipinasPhoto by Liam O’Donnell