Simon Benjamin

Simon Benjamin is only 27, but he has
already had several careers. At age 14, inspired by Sean Henry, a
T-shirt and poster artist in his hometown of Kingston, Jamaica, Benjamin
began airbrushing and stenciling T-shirts and banners. “I guess I
was designing and didn’t even really realize it,” he
recalls. What started as a pastime evolved into a vocation, and he
started selling his creations; six years later, he began working as
Henry’s assistant. “That was the first time I realized you
could make money designing,” Benjamin says. “In Jamaica,
there are not many people doing design in an interesting way who are
making a living off of it.”

Benjamin relied on his
entrepreneurial instincts again after graduating from college with a
bachelor’s degree in business management (and a minor in
international relations); he became a party promoter, organizing dance
events in Kingston for which he also designed flyers and posters. Though
successful as a self-taught designer, he yearned for a more formal
education. So, in 2001, he started a bachelor’s degree course in
graphic design (with a focus on motion graphics) at the School of Visual
Arts in New York.

Benjamin is now a designer/animator at the New
York–based design outfit Freestyle Collective. The tall, soft-spoken
Benjamin has worked on station IDs for Comedy Central, Fuel TV, and BET,
as well as in-store promos for Rockport shoes. His projects—an
animated reverie for Fuel TV showing fish, ocean, and waves that turn
out to be the daydream of a surfer stuck in traffic; a montage of
silhouetted jazz iconography for BET—are compelling but hard to
pin down to one aesthetic. “My style ranges from drawing cartoons
to drawing people in a semi-realistic way, but it’s always fairly
loose,” he says. To maintain that quality, he incorporates
hand-drawn elements when he can: “I like to put my hand in there.
That’s where I’m coming from, a drawing background.”

One can discern Benjamin’s roots in his personal projects. In
“e.e. cummings vs. Kingston,” a project he began as a
student at SVA, he layers hand-drawn illustration, archival newspaper
photography, text, and ani-mation to create a poignant lamentation about
a time in the ’70s when political strife in Jamaica erupted into
violence. “I wanted to do something about Jamaica that people
don’t really associate with it,” he maintains, noting that
outsiders always link the country to Rastafarianism and reggae. “I
wanted to do something else.”

The restlessly creative
Benjamin—he has lately taken up photography and directed a music
video—professes a deep admiration for filmmaker Michel Gondry;
there is something in Benjamin’s loose style that is reminiscent
of Gondry’s use of the rough-hewn and hand-made to conjure flights
into worlds of the imagination. Part of the charm of this approach, of
course, is in acknowledging that no creation will ever be flawless.
“Embracing the mistakes makes things more interesting,”
Benjamin says. “I’m not into things looking perfect and
having perfect symmetry.”