Creative Careers: Ben Van Dyke
Currently an Associate Professor and Chair of Communication Design at the University of Buffalo, Ben is also Vice President of DesignInquiry, an international design collective focused on design research and education. He cites the Detroit-born typographer Ed Fella and the crytptographer Claude Shannon as strong influences. (Shannon, in addition to also playing a lot of basketball as key to his interests in complexity, is famous as the “father” of information theory, and the digital computer and digital circuit design theory. It’s also worth noting that one of Ben’s most well worn books is Complex Knowledge, Organizational Theory and Studies in Epistemology by Haridimos Tsoukas.
How did a Western Michigan boy who believed that he was neither smart nor talented wind up engrossed in this heady material, as well as in the production of some of the most sensual typography in contemporary graphic design? “In K-12, I was convinced that I simply did not do well,” Ben describes.
“For whatever reasons, I did not learn how to learn until later.”
As an undergrad, Ben spent most of his college education as a painting student at Kendall College of Art. He switched to graphic design, “almost at the last possible minute.” It was a rocky transition at first. Ben tried to transpose some of his aesthetic concepts from painting to design with little early success. “I am pretty sure… no, I know,” he confirms,” that I made some terrible paintings that were terrible design ideas.” Technology, on the other hand, came easily. Using the computer allowed him to get stuff out of his head quickly and Ben recognized how much had been bouncing around in his mind that was coming out slowly and messily in painting. At the close of his undergrad studies, ”I knew I really wanted advertising job… I wanted the cool clothes, and I wanted the good salary.” He got the job he wanted in Grand Rapids, rising to the role of art director.
Although he entered and left advertising for different reasons, Ben is articulate and precise on where he situates the field. “Advertising is a visual landscape that we reside in—and the directive of efficiency and productivity to maximize financial return is to be as simple as you can. This all co-exists,” he adds, “with the fact that complexity is a human state, and advertising works to implement a veneer of simplicity.”
Prodding the limits of the commercial realm, Ben started creating moments of complexity in his advertising work. Ultimately, this led him away from advertising and toward graduate study at the Stamps School as the ideal forum for his work and ideas.
“It was scary to make the change from advertising to grad school,” Ben recalls, “from making tons of money to making none at all.” But Ben knew that the grind and pace of the corporate advertising world was not sustainable—and with a second child on the way, he made a bold life change, a necessary creative leap into an environment that valued experimentation and complexity. Ben loved the change and the opportunities that he was able to confront and seize.
As a grad student, and today, Ben’s creative practice entails typographic installations that use visual and written language to talk about complexity and communication through extended forms of gesture, legibility, secrecy and revelation.
This is the written word writ large and in space, frequently employing materials and techniques that range from wood block letter forms to laser cut lines of type and vinyl stretched and suspended from corners, tops of walls and tracery arches.
The trajectory of Ben’s interests and work asks, “is there a place for complexity and, correspondingly where are the places for accessibility?” Rather than presuming a hierarchy or an absolute, working through the questions and the forms is part of the practice of inquiry.
From the start, Ben recalls, it was the questions that drew him to Stamps. Beginning with the admissions process, he remembers he felt really scared by the hard questions he was asked in the faculty interviews. Now he has come to seek out these questions in his own practice and teaching. Working through grad level classes in fields from Anthropology to American Culture also profoundly affected Ben’s thinking about his career. Conversations with Hannah Smotrich and Jan-Henrik Anderson and questions he could not answer at the time helped to direct a creative path that now seeks complexity. Another revelation came at a Penny W. Stamps Lecture by kinetic sculptor, Arthur Ganson. Now in the process of incorporating arduino controllers in a project, Ben cites the encounter with Ganson’s work as an inspiration and one of the highlights of his interdisciplinary education at Stamps.
Immediately following his MFA studies, Ben was presented with both a full time teaching job offer from Buffalo and the opportunity to pursue a Fulbright to work in the Netherlands. Buffalo graciously held his appointment for the Dutch year, which was “eye opening to say the least.” In The Hague as artist/designer in residence at NLXL for 2006-07, Ben Van Dyke worked with his design heroes Joost Roozekrans and Bob Van Dijk. The work and the inquiry were wide ranging, including but not limited to designing Dutch police cars and fire trucks, fashioning type out of sea foam and tackling projects for the European Space Agency.
Obsessed with complexity and systems theory, with math, pattern recognition, and chaos, Ben’s studio culture in the Netherlands brought to the foreground questions he feels are really relevant to discussions of the future of design. The University of Buffalo has proved to be a good launching pad for continuing some of these lines of thought and lines of type, with kindred spirit colleagues in his department and in other areas of the university, particularly in Architecture.
In design, as in basketball, Ben is an experimenter, seizing on the moments of emergent forms and languages before they become crystal clear. He adds, jokingly, but with a tone of deep recognition:
“Somehow I can’t but help try and screw things up a little bit if they are legible. But that’s what makes the world interesting, isn’t it? To invite inquiry and inspection, to always keep your game growing and changing.”
Visit benjaminvandyke.com to learn more about Ben's work.