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A Love for Stranger Things — With Ed Benguiat & Mitch Paone

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Over the past few weeks, you may have seen the name “Ed Benguiat” trending far more than usual. The legendary type designer has created 600 typefaces over an impressive 50-year career, including ITC BookmanEdwardian ScriptTiffanyPanache, and Souvenir.

But recently, Ed unknowingly fell back into the spotlight through the popularity of the hit Netflix series Stranger Things. Audiences began searching for the man behind the opening sequence’s unique and highlighted typeface. Soon after, articles on Telegraph and Film School Rejects began to appear, highlighting the man behind the ITC Benguiat typeface.

So with all this recent buzz going on, it made me all the more excited to hear Mr. Benguiat discuss type and design with “2010 Young Gun Winner” Mitch Paone this past Thursday.

Image by The Charles
Image by The Charles
Image by The Charles

The Art Director’s Club, on West 29th Street, was hosting its second installment of their One2One series. The series pairs an ADC Hall of Famer and Young Gun Winner to share their viewpoints on design, while being in opposite points of their careers. Mitch Paone, Founder and Creative Director of DIA Studio, also happens to be a fluent type designer outside of the office. So naturally, I expected the discussion to focus on their love for typography and viewpoints on design.

That wouldn’t quite be the case.

Ed was first introduced by a speaker as having started his career as a prominent jazz percussionist. As those early days of dedication towards music were described, the 88-year-old design legend smiled fondly. After the introduction finished with a thunderous applause, Ed opened up by saying, “I actually like music more than graphic design.”  In the past, having added, “I’m really a musician, a jazz percussionist.

I was shocked.

Mitch has described himself similarly. His deep, original passion had been composing music — not necessarily design. Beyond his commercial career, Mitch has been the pianist and bandleader of the jazz-funk group Non-Static.

I couldn’t believe it. These were designers at the top of the industry — ones whom I deeply admired and wanted to be one day. I expected them to eat, sleep, and breathe passion towards design. Not…music? It didn’t seem to make any sense.

But as the two men went on describing music, the context they put it in began to change.

A letterform is like music. It’s got to carry a tune…have balance,” said Ed, adding “Music is essentially sounds placed together to be pleasing to the ear. Type and letterforms are the same thing, yet for the eye. So, music might be more visceral, but design does maintain the same level of intensity.”

With each note they would compose, both men in their youth would meticulously go back over it to ensure it worked perfectly in the greater composition. Mitch described his admiration for old typography in a similar fashion:

Why do we still use old fonts despite so many new ones being created through modern technology? Well, back in the 19th and 20th century, type had to be perfect. There was no room for error. There was such care, precision, and meticulousness. It meant months of work, versus days. And that strive for perfection created a timeless quality.

Ed would add, “You should never be satisfied with your work, no matter if its design or music. Only when the poster has been sent to the printer or the album has been pressed, are you forced to put the pencil down.

Mitch admitted to falling in love with Ed Benguiat’s typographic style when he was only 17. As a young musician, he connected with Ed’s Americana fonts, noticing how jazz culture and New Orlean’s style influenced shapes and curves in the letterforms. That inspiration helped make Mitch want to become a type designer himself.

I started to see that their love for music didn’t take anything away from their love for design.

It added to it. 

These outside passions, like music, were their source of inspiration. It gave them the principles and values of which they designed from. Even their trademark styles.

I realized it was not only OK to have passions outside of design, but rather finding inspiration through other pursuits, interests, and passions is in-fact necessary for great design.

At the very end of the discussion, both men were asked what they would want to do by trade if they weren’t designers. I expected both would say musicians for their answer. And again, my assumptions proved me wrong.

Mitch answered, “a winemaker.

Or a “fine-art farmer” as he called it. He drew upon the paradoxical nature of creating elegance from dirt. He described the passion, dedication, and intensity that can go into the craft. That unexpected variables come up and, through them, the product always comes out differently.

The world throws curve balls, but you still have to make something beautiful at the end of the day. Constant dissatisfaction keeps the winemaker moving forward and striving for a higher level of perfection.

Winemaking was just another unexpected passion that paralleled Mitch’s deeper principles and provided inspiration in designing.

And for Ed?

Surprisingly, an actor.