Ed Benguiat

The great American type design legend Ephram Edward Benguiat (pronounced Ben-gat) was born in the mid 1920s (“Ed Benguiat”). Ed Benguiat was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York (“Font Designer”). At an early age, he watched his father use creative abilities as one of Bloomingdale’s display directors. Inspired by his father’s art supplies, he gained knowledge on various design skills including speedball, showcard, and sign lettering. In his youth, he experimented with his father’s brushes, pens, and drafting sets. Although he was captivated by design during his childhood, this passion took a backseat during his young adult years (Halperin).

To my surprise, Benguiat had a strong interest in airplanes. The hobby began as a young adult when he desired to serve in the armed services but wasn’t old enough at the time. His creativity was even present when he wasn’t designing and with the help of his father he forged his birth certificate to serve in the Army during World War II as he claimed, “most kids did (Halperin).” During his time in the service, he served in Italy under the Air Corps as a fighter pilot (Shalat) in 1944 and 1945 (Vincent). Benguiat continued this interest into his adulthood and raced planes when he wasn’t designing. He was even a member of a flying club called The Flying Birdmen. Sadly, he had to retire his plane flying days about ten years ago due to aging (Bomparte).

Those who know of this typeface designer will certainly identify him by his design skills but for a time he was known for another artistic skill. After his time in the, his path took another creative turn, this time to music. He took the stage name Eddie “E.D.” Benart and devoted himself to become a progressive jazz drummer. As a percussionist, he played for big names including Woody Herman and Stan Kenton. His success led him as far as being ranked as the third best drummer in America (Halperin). His rhythm and musicianship took him very far in New York.

The aspiring musician didn’t see a prolonged rewarding career in music, so Benguiat slowly returned to design. Although music was his true passion, being a musician was no longer practical as traveling would be difficult with a growing family. Benguiat described his return to his first interest of design in an interview. In one of his most famous quotes he remarked: “I’m really a musician, a jazz percussionist. One day I went to the musician’s union to pay dues and I saw all these old people who were playing bar mitzvahs and Greek weddings. It occurred to me that one day that’s going to be me, so I decided to become an illustrator (“Ed Benguiat”).” This switch was a risk but would later pay off in his design career.

The multitalented artist upheld his appreciation for music through design and attested a strong correlation between the two subjects. He states that while music is pleasing to the ear, in the same manner graphic design is pleasing to the eye (“Ed Benguiat”). The designer beautifully states, “a letterform is like music. It’s got to carry a tune…have balance (“A Love”).” Additionally, he’s known to say that “as long as there is a need for new music there will always be a need for new typefaces.” He confesses that he never intended to be a designer and “accidentally tripped into the graphic design community.” As Benguiat entered into the world of design, he began to surprise many with his interdisciplinary creativity (“Ed Benguiat”).

So how did Ed Benguiat begin his design career? While he was still exploring his passion in percussion and jazz music, he enrolled in the Workshop School of Advertising Art in New York (Shalat). After being inspired by the school’s advertisement to “be an artist” and with the use of the GI Bill, he began his education in illustration (“Ed Benguiat”).” He thought he was interested in becoming a nude illustrator like the well-known artists of the time but others influenced him differently. After being persuaded from this interest and accepting the fact that his illustration skills wouldn’t live up to the legends, Benguiat journeyed down the design route.

Pushing illustrations aside, he studied calligraphy, layout design, and typography. At the Workshop School of Advertising Art, he became the protégée of Paul Standard, a Russian-American calligrapher (Halperin). Benguiat put in some serious hours to learn the craft of type. Under his mentor, he would sketch full sheets of letters until they were as perfect as the human hand could produce. His design education, learned skills, and apprenticeship under Standard paved the way for Benguiat’s future graphic design career and success (Bomparte).

Ed Benguiat teaching my father brush lettering.

Benguiat started his graphic design work at several ad agencies, publishing houses, and studios. In one interview, he recalls his first design job where he retouched illustrations at a publishing company called “Ideal Publishing.” He was given the unusual task of masking the cleavage on women in fashion magazine illustrations. This job wasn’t “ideal” for Benguiat and gave him little hope for big success as a graphic designer (“Ed Benguiat”).

Thankfully, he received his next big break when creating his first font and this eventually lead to his ongoing typeface design career. He titled this font Norma Script, which he named after his wife. This typeface was inspired by one of his professors at the Workshop School of Advertising Art and took Benguiat only three days to create. With no experience on bringing fonts to submission, Benguiat presented the font to the Photo-Lettering, Inc. type house company and to his surprise they accepted it (“Ed Benguiat”)!

Benguiat found further success when he was commissioned to design type for the Ford Truck Company. He continued the family name tradition and titled this font “Johnnie” after his son Jonathan. There is beauty in both of Benguiat’s first fonts but when asked about his opinion about his own work Benguiat declares that his early fonts were “disgustingly ugly.” And like most designers who claim that their work is never complete the type designer remarks, “I don’t really like anything I’ve ever designed. I find fault with everything.” Benguiat was truly his own toughest critic. The designer couldn’t help but find all the “idiosyncrasies” and constantly thought about the changes he would make to his work. This taught him to leave his work for weeks or months to verify is he was satisfied with his work.

One of the only font families Benguiat that was proud of was his self-titled serif font, which became very successful in the type industry. Along with Norma Script, Johnnie, and ITC Benguiat the designer created over 600 typefaces published through the International Typeface Corporation and Photo-Lettering, Inc. (commonly known as ITC) that are known around the world.

Ed Benguiat worked at several big name companies in the design industry including Esquire magazine and the same type house that accepted his first font, Photo Lettering Inc. Photo Lettering Inc, also known as PLINC was the go to type house for lettering up until the introduction of the Apple Mac computer.

 

My father in Benguiat’s studio in the 1980s

In his font designing process, he stresses the importance of “BC” or Before Computer designing. He wants people to better get a glimpse of the extensive work and dedication designing a font involves. The designer comments on the precision and re-drawing stages of producing fonts and how those methods have become easier thanks to the digital age. What used to take hours to complete now took minutes. For instance, back then, outlining a letter and then filling in with pen and ink would be laborious and time-consuming, but now the same letter could be scanned in and then, digitized in a fraction of the time. Although the computer and recent technology has been a great aid to modern designers, Ed Benguiat asserts that “the computer is only as good as the person behind it (“Ed Benguiat”).”

Benguiat’s legacy continues on today. His fonts and logos can be seen in several well-known brands. Ed Benguiat is responsible for creating logo typefaces for many popular brands including the New York Times, Reader’s Digest, Sports Illustrated, and Esquire (Vincent).

For a number of years, he taught at School of Visual Arts in New York. Although Benguiat is in the stage of retirement his words and passion for design continue to inspire young artists today.

 

Bibliography 

 

“A Love for Stranger Things – With Ed Benguiat & Mitch Paone.” The Charles NYC – A Digital

Agency in SoHo, NYC, 2 Feb. 2018, thecharlesnyc.com/journal/adc-one2one.

 

Bomparte, John. Personal communication. 5 April 2018.

 

“Ed Benguiat.” The Type Directors Club, www.tdc.org/awardwinners/ed-benguiat/.

 

Halperin, Elisa. “Edward Benguiat.” ADC • Global Awards & Club,

adcglobal.org/hall-of-fame/edward-benguiat/.

 

Shalat, Andrew. “A Font of Information.” Macworld, Macworld, 1 Apr. 2001,

www.macworld.com/article/1002078/25benguiat.html.

 

Vincent, Alice. “Stranger Things: Meet the Design Genius behind TV’s Most Talked about Title

Font.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 4 Aug. 2016, www.telegraph.co.uk/on-demand/0/stranger-things-meet-the-design-genius-behind-tvs-most-talked-ab/.