5-10-5: Ben Wagner, Graphic Designer and Illustrator

BenWagner_PortraitPlease introduce yourself.

Hi there! I am a freelance graphic designer, illustrator and brand consultant based in Brooklyn, New York. Since graduating from the University of Wisconsin, I have worked with Firebelly Design, Crate & Barrel, Poppin, Gap and Kate Spade New York. Outside the studio I am an avid instagrammer, novice chef, voracious reader and staunch Fleetwood Mac fan.

The arts or horticulture?

The Arts.

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What is your typical day (daily routine, I should say) around New York City?

Every day is different, because sometimes I work from my clients’ offices and sometimes I work from my home studio. Typically, I wake up before 8am and go for a run (if I’m feeling particularly ambitious). I enjoy a quick breakfast with coffee while checking email and scrolling through my social feeds before catching the subway into Manhattan. I spend the day either meeting with clients or running errands around the city: pitching a potential brand partnership, grabbing flowers for a photoshoot I’m styling later that day, or visiting MoMA for inspiration. A few times per week, I meet friends for dinner before heading home to work on personal projects, read a book or watch a movie. I work a lot—maybe too much—but I feel fortunate to be doing something I love.

BW_04You studied graphic design and business at University of Wisconsin in Madison. Graphic design, like gardening, is not always respected as a profession- a character in the British show Peep Show sarcastically mocks a graphic designer -“Hello, can I redesign your logo? Yes that would be 100,000 pounds for a squiggle”. Gardeners are perceived to have lower social and financial prestige, and being reduced to caricatures of lust objects for bored housewives hardly improves public perception. What led you to graphic design and what appeal does it have for you?

As a creative yet fairly rational person, I appreciate the balance of artistic expression and strategic problem solving that design provides. Additionally, I have seen the effect that design can have in legitimizing a brand or business—more so today than ever—and I enjoy being a part of that process. Many of my current client projects are more based in strategic art direction than in traditional design.

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Graphic designers are primarily concerned with the visual and spatial relationship of typeface and shapes, just like we gardeners consider our outdoor spaces for visual effect in 3-D. Plants and hardscaping are our ‘typefaces’ and ‘shapes’. For someone like you to make the connection through your images is unusual. How did you become interested in plants?

I have always been interested in and inspired by nature. I used to think I wanted to be a biologist and did a lot of drawing and painting of plants as a child. In my illustration work, I continue to draw inspiration from nature in terms of geometry, scale, color, pattern and proportion.

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You worked on product design (plates, seed packages, tea towels) using plant motifs for Crate and Barrel (In fact I have that cherry tea towel in the kitchen!). Gardening is a slower process than design and conception, although we still do plan on what to grow and how to combine! How long does the initial conception take to be refined and executed into the final product?

It really depends on the project. Because of production lead times and sampling, products take much longer to design than print or web pieces. Sometimes I’ll be able to repurpose an idea I’ve had bouncing around for a while, but usually I sketch/brainstorm in response to a specific brief, determine which style is appropriate and then execute. There are always a few rounds of iterations and revisions before both the client and I are happy with the final product, or until time runs out!

Hens and chicks at Sprout, Brooklyn, NY.
Hens and chicks at Sprout, Brooklyn, NY.

The British menswear designer Margaret Howell confessed in a recent interview with Mr Porter: “I’m not really into designing something for a show or just for decoration. Design is about aesthetic and usefulness.” Too often we are flooded with designs that are beautiful, but rarely functional or user-friendly. How would you reinvent some of the tools or accessories in gardening?

The form vs. function debate is a timeless one in the design world, but I would argue that most gardening tools already fall well on the “function” side of the spectrum. A little facelift wouldn’t hurt!

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The foundation for any creative individual begins with traditional pen and pencil, and you have not eschewed them completely. People have different media through which they prefer to work with – watercolors for their translucence, oil paints for deeper tone and more forgiving of mistakes, and graphite charcoals for monochrome renderings. What media do you like to work in?

I try to avoid the computer as much as possible, so much of my work still starts with pencil and paper. I pick the medium based on what is most appropriate for the project, depending on what texture, tone or feeling I am hoping to communicate, although I do have a soft spot for watercolor.

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Instagram has become the de facto visual social media tool. What do you hope to project to your audience via Instagram? I get a playful visual sensibility from you through graphic details like the chevron patterns of a coffee shop to the perfect spiral symmetry of an Echeveria discovered in a floral shop.

I use Instagram as a way to document and share details of my daily life, in an admittedly curated and aspirational way. As a designer, it’s also useful to show that I have visual sensibilities that can transcend a computer screen or printed page. I try not to take it too seriously, though!

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Some people argue that inspiration nowadays seems too accessible with the Internet, especially with Instagram and because we have become desensitized, creating an individual ‘style’ without referencing online and having the experience of the moment is lost electronically. A student at London’s Central Saint Martins, a major incubator for fashion professionals, remarked in Dazed: “We see so much online without even intending to that it’s impossible not to be influenced, but there’s more value in finding inspiration from something real.” What is your perspective as a creative person who uses Instagram and is visually attuned to experiences firsthand?

I think it’s very difficult to create something truly original these days. This is neither good nor bad; it’s the nature of living in a world where so much has been previously created, and information is so readily available. I would agree that desensitization, the acceleration of trends and aesthetic homogenization are clear negatives of the digital age, but they are far outweighed by the tremendous access to information and potential for exposure that the internet provides. As a designer, it’s important to diversify your influences (both online and offline) and be conscious of the line between inspiration and imitation. Also, seeking inspiration is all well and good, but ultimately you have to dedicate time to getting work done!

“Succ-u-LOVE.”

Gardeners are no different from style arbiters – we constantly edit – adding and subtracting what we like or dislike – to fulfill our ever evolving vision that is naturally dynamic. Whether through your graphic design, photography or illustration, how do you stay focused enough not to let superfluity overwhelm the original idea? We may visit a magical place or have an enlightening experience, but find ourselves overwhelmed to appreciate the subtle details, missing the overlooked that is actually the ‘big picture’.

In my opinion, one of the primary roles of a designer is to identify the main problem and keep that in mind throughout the duration of the project. An editing eye is one of the most valuable traits a designer can possess. When all else fails, follow the K.I.S.S. principle and “keep it simple, stupid!”

Sometimes we find ourselves in a creative blockade, unable to sustain the initial momentum that propelled our artistic endeavors. What is your secret to keeping fresh, not stagnant, and not veering into the well-trodden path?

I’m afraid I don’t have a secret solution for this, as creative motivation ebbs and flows for me. I try to keep a variety of clients and balance of types of work. I make an effort to do personal work without an end goal that is more experimental in nature. I also try to outsource or be as efficient as possible about administrative tasks so I can spend more time creating.

Judging from your images, it must be hard to shake off the urge to garden especially when you begin to see urban terraces full of container plants or tiny brownstone front gardens decked fully in greenery! What kind of garden do you see yourself having in the future?

Living in the city has its perks, but I haven’t had a private outdoor space for almost 10 years. I actually miss mowing the lawn, if you can believe it! I do have a fiddle leaf fig tree and a windowsill garden with herbs and succulents in my apartment. In the future I would love to have a small yard and garden with flowers, vegetables and a hammock.

Through my friendships with people in the creative sector, I notice a collecting instinct – one friend goes after florist frogs, another interesting pebbles. Do you collect anything that could be connected to your work?

I’m trying to be more of a minimalist when it comes to possessions, especially while living in a New York City apartment. I do have a small collection of mid-century ceramics, but I try to make sure that anything I buy is functional as well as decorative.

Ivy clad facade of row houses in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, NY.
Ivy clad facade of row houses in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, NY.

I see that Brooklyn Botanic Garden is a popular destination for you and your friends to break from the urban jungle. Do you have other favorite gardens or green spaces to escape as well as unplug from the virtual world (when you aren’t instagramming)?

I love Central Park and Prospect Park (thanks, Frederick Law Olmstead!). I have recently been taking more trips upstate to hike in the Hudson River Valley and hope to continue this year. There is also a great community garden a few blocks from my apartment in Park Slope where you can volunteer or just hang out with friends, takeout and a bottle of wine.

Growing one’s food has resonated well with us millennials, but growing for aesthetic enjoyment has yet to catch up. Speaking from an outsider’s point of view, how would you entice your peers to partake and participate in the joys of plants for beauty aside from cut flowers?

Art and plants are some of the best (and cheapest) ways to liven up your living space. If you’re cursed with a black thumb, get off your screen and go outside, go for a walk or seek out a public green space in your area. There are well-documented psychological and health benefits to being in nature.

Say that you are marooned on an island, what is your desert island plant?

Blue agave—I love its size, shape and color. Plus, I could make tequila if I happened to be marooned with some distilling equipment!

What creative individuals, living or deceased, have inspired you to pursue an artistic career?

My parents, Maurice Sendak, Roald Dahl, the team at Pixar, Matisse, Paul Rand, Charlie Harper, Ken Done, Ira Glass, Tom and David Kelley. To be continued…

Boston Ivy cloaked in red.
Boston Ivy cloaked in red.

What do you look forward to the most?

I’m still relatively new to freelancing and to New York, so I’m looking forward to being a bit more settled in my routine. I’m hoping to start an online shop to sell original work later this year. I can’t wait to travel and see more of the world. And I always look forward to summer!

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Any quotes or advice you wish to impart to our readers who desire to be innovators in their fields?

Work hard and play nice. Go after what you want. Be persistent. (Be more persistent.) If something isn’t working, change it. Don’t compare yourself to others. Experiment and take risks. Surround yourself with peers who challenge and inspire you to create great work. Stay optimistic.

Oh, and be skeptical of advice!

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