Jonathan Sangster likes to read.
They read a lot.
Books cover their home. I have that on good authority, at least because Zoom can only tell you so much, but there are many shelves. Jonathan has managed to keep the stack by their bedside relatively lean—a solid two books for consumption, reading only one book at a time and likening juggling multiple titles to watching two movies at once. Still, Jonathan manages to read an average of two hours a day, so we can easily put them in the double digits category for books read per year. Some of us are lucky to count what we read on two hands. That’s not the admission of a proud philistine, mind you, it’s mostly about finding the time.
It’s all the more impressive given their commitments. There’s teaching at SAIC and working as a senior designer at Gale Partners, not to mention their own experimental—and truly impressive—type work they do within their private design practice. Oh, and they just opened and co-founded a new design studio in Chicago, Mx. Studio (but more on that in a bit).
Jonathan, of course, is no stranger to the city. They were an army brat born in Germany, but their family moved back to Chicago when they were six. It was then that they fell in love with Marvel comics, particularly the X-Men, where they became enamored with villains and anti-heroes like Magneto, a baddy that can control magnetism but will stop at nothing to protect his fellow mutants. Comics inspired Jonathan to draw and recreate their favorite characters and even invent their own. More importantly, the lettering and type jumped off the pages and into their subconscious, a steady drumbeat of POWs and BANGS that only enhanced the stories.
“One of the influences consistent in my life is literature and reading,” Jonathan says. “It starts there, even if you go all the way back. My mom was a teacher, so there was a particular emphasis on reading and writing. If you follow the timeline, that leads to comic books, which is a combination of art and literature. Even the lettering in comic books always struck me as a thing that was very significant and very intentional.”
Later on, in high school, under the influence of their friends, they became more interested in hip hop and graffiti. “When I have this conversation with my students,” Jonathan says, “I tell them, that’s the beginning. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was the start of my foray into graphic design—this interest in letters and what letters could be and drawing language in letterforms.”
“I think for me, my interest in typography and lettering is its ability to be communicative directly, indirectly, or somewhere in between,” they add. “I’m interested in visual rhetoric and what happens when you adjust or alter language. Like, what else can letters do? For me, a huge part of it isn’t just what the type is saying but also the feeling it creates. That’s what draws me to the visual nature of language. It’s never about what’s just said.”
At the time, however, graphic design wasn’t quite at the forefront of their plans moving forwards, and they even weighed joining the military and doing the ROTC instead of going to college. Jonathan knew they wanted to be an artist, however, but they were also well aware of that time-honored joke about the differences between artists and pizzas and how only one of them can afford to feed a family of four (and yes, this also applies to writers and musicians and any other artsy-leaning folks). Instead, folks encouraged them to pursue an applied art, like design.
“It made sense for me because I like to draw, I like letters,” they say. “Then I learned about typography and combining type and image. That was a path that made sense for me.”
“I’m really interested in the longevity of physical objects,” admits Jonathan.
“The tactile nature of visual communication introduces another interesting area. If I’m looking at it on a screen, I think, yes, I’m absorbing information, and it’s serving a purpose. But it seems like that’s more limited. With physical objects, the relationship between me and the thing is more significant because we both exist.”
Screenprinting has long been a love of theirs and something they gravitated towards early on in their artistic journey. But Jonathan vividly recalls that web design was really just getting introduced after they left college, whereas everything they learned before was print design. Instead of throwing their hands up, they had to adapt, and it’s something they stress to their students all the time. “You have to learn the principles of something so you can adapt and evolve. You have to ask questions and figure out what you need to know next,” they say.” Essentially, if you want to master how we design, you still need to understand the actual craft itself, or at least the very foundations.
Meaning, you’ve got to get in there and get your hands a little dirty. And that’s one of the things that makes Jonathan’s work as compelling as it is—the bringing of the handmade and the tactile in with the digital, and it’s a distinct feature that’s played out across their career.
“I try to blend these two worlds in a way that makes sense. Even if I’m working on a project and I’m creating a digital poster, I’ll think, alright, this is cool, but can we make the poster move or inject feeling based on time? I like the idea of taking a physical object and seeing what it feels like when it’s moving.”
Indeed, the type is very much alive throughout much of their work, whether it’s static pieces like the posters they designed for the release of the book The Transcode Manifesto or the numerous compositions with actual motion design. Two pieces from their ACAB series feature the words “stop justifying police violence” and “stop killing black people” swirling around in a circle with letters slowing down and speeding up, overlapping, and creating an almost palpable sense of exhaustion in a never-ending loop.
Much of Jonathan’s work acutely and insightfully explores race and the challenges of Black people living in the United States, likening it to being in a “constant state of revelation.”
“You have to go through this process of becoming more and more conscious and aware of how you’re situated in this country and what the context is based on being black, right? And that’s sad. As time goes on, it has nothing to do with what I do or who I am or how many degrees I have or the work that I’ve done. The position that I’m situated in has everything to do with the color of my skin.
“It would be irresponsible of me to not say something or not respond visually.”
“I don’t want to be super judgmental of colleagues in the field of design. But at the same time, I’m just one person that doesn’t have a large platform. I exist in a public sphere. I make work, and I put it out there. But I feel like there are a lot of companies that have very large and visible platforms, and they are all remarkably silent when it comes to something like condemning white supremacy or the murder of a 13-year-old child.”
“If you’re going to be a responsible or morally accountable citizen that specializes in visual culture and messaging, for you to remain silent in the public sphere, that’s unfortunate.”
Jonathan is also non-binary, and some of their personal studies focus on gender theory, feminism, and gender equality. Jonathan’s poster campaign “Choose,” for instance, explores and revels in one’s autonomy when it comes to determining their own identity, while “Gender Trouble” utilizes quotes from a Judith Butler book of the same name, blending the analog and the digital by layering 35mm photos and creating something ambiguous.
Writer and activist Rebecca Solnit also looms large in Sangster’s mind, and her book The Mother of All Questions inspired a downright dizzying piece using screenprints, wheat paste, and spraypaint on reclaimed wooden panels intended to challenge the viewer’s own binary thoughts. Created for Typeforce in Chicago, Jonathan landed on the Solnit quote “naming is a crucial part of transformation” in one of their journals. By manipulating and layering the text, the work hits on the significance of naming and confronts our assumption of how we view and perceive things.
“One of the weirdest things for me, looking at the field of design, is how intentionally so many things are gendered,” Jonathan says. “In terms of design and visual rhetoric, we’re the ones responsible for crafting and creating work that other people form opinions and thoughts around. That’s not something that I think should be taken lightly. That’s the thing that gives us the ability to reach inside somebody’s head and shift a thought from one thing to another.”
“Even in the handling and portrayal of gender roles or gender norms, this is something that isn’t handled very well in contemporary society,” they add. “It’s another one of those things that the design context is, if you bring it up, you’ll get a shrug, and someone will tell you that this is the way we’ve always done it. That’s not true; it’s that no one is requiring you to think about it intentionally, so you’re just not doing that.”
“We are digital gremlins and cyber sailors. We’re kittens with big eyes, and puppies with a keen sense of smell. We’re scumbags and bandits. We’re idealists and realists. We’re a sleight of hand and a binding spell. We’re tailors, crafters, cobblers, and fighters. We fall asleep queer and cuddly. We wake up and choose violence.”
That’s Mx.Studio’s design ethos, in a nutshell, the one you’re greeted by when you visit their newly launched site. Jonathan co-founded the studio with their partner KT Duffy, as the two had already collaborated on projects together for about a year. Using the formal title and honorific Mx. for the studio’s name as both designers identify as non-binary also serves as a mission statement. Not to mention that it’s a pretty cool name and because, typographically, they could make “Mx.” look damn good.
“One of the reasons we wanted to do this is because we weren’t finding a lot of places out in the world where we could work on projects that fit how we want to operate in the design world,” says Jonathan. “I always joke that my goal in design is to make really dope work with really dope people. And I’ve been able to do that. But KT and I also have this drive to do no harm. That is something we’re passionate about.’
According to Jonathan, their approach to the work also complements each other—Jonathan handles type visual experimentation while KT is a creative technologist. KT is “all about the squiggles and colors and shapes,” whereas Jonathan is very black and white and contrast-driven. Recently, they worked with Acre and Data Made on the Chicago Arts Census branding and identity. Currently, they’re doing a project for the community-driven Chicago Park District, developing their cultural mapping project that brings artists together.
“We want to focus on our values and our ethics and our morals,” they add. “We don’t like the idea of doing something just because, and we don’t like the idea of doing something just because it’s going to be more financially lucrative. Our alignment of vision, drive, and ambition is in line with what we want to do to contribute to culture. That’s really where Mx.Studio came from.”
Still, Jonathan has no plans to abandon teaching any time soon and is inspired to challenge the foundations of graphic design history, bringing in a more contemporary vantage point for their students.
“Teaching type, I think that we’re at this point in the canon where we don’t just have to highlight and focus on these design legends that are old, dead white men,” they say. “We’re in the 21st century. For me, it’s a problem if you can’t engage in contemporary design with what’s getting made or what’s happening now. Why am I falling back on Helvetica and Garamond? There are so many things that exist or are constantly getting made that are really cool, really functional, and really dynamic. For me, that’s a huge part of the research.”
Jonathan scoffs at the idea of teaching graphic design the same way it was taught to them two decades ago. “There are so many more things that have happened, so many more things that we have easy access to in terms of the body of knowledge that creates graphic design history,” they say. “If we’re not keeping up with new discoveries and helping students inform their work through that, then we’re doing something terribly wrong.
“I like to help. I try to. I try to engage with contemporary society and engage with people, ask questions, and contribute to a body of knowledge. That’s why I teach, and that’s also why I make my work.”
Recently, Jonathan talked to a friend that also started teaching, and they both reached the same conclusion—that it’s actually kind of awesome? “Like, you get paid to make cool work, talk about cool work, and help other people make cool work,” they say.
“Yes, it is awesome.”