In the winter of 2009, two Swiss graphic design grads found themselves bundled together in a haphazardly furnished, shed-sized apartment in Brooklyn, New York. It was the first time either Ivan Weiss or Michael Kryenbühl had ever been to America, and they were there on a six-month residency as part of their 2008 Swiss Design Awards win. “It was during our time in the U.S. that we realized we could start a studio together,” say Weiss and Kryenbühl. “There, we got closer to each other than to our girlfriends. We did everything together, we even lived in a box together—if we could do that, then we could do anything.”
This is how the pair founded Johnson / Kingston, a studio now based in Bern, Switzerland, that produces brooding, monochrome graphics, designs often characterized by edgy typefaces and a shattering collage of texture. Johnson / Kingston’s approach, in its own distinct and contemporary way, is a form of montage: it takes various elements from classic graphic design and less charted forms of digital manipulation and splices them together. More often than not, the studio creates bespoke typefaces for projects, and experimenting with code for web commissions is always on the agenda.
Johnson / Kingston most recently garnered attention for its identity and web design for B-Sides, a music festival in Lucerne. The website is as beguiling as it is navigable, with an arresting typeface formed as a digital echo of letters made from twigs and string. A combination of a surprising interface and a subtly DIY aesthetic articulates the character of the festival and its line-up. What’s most fascinating about the site is its use of an algorithm that generates the imagery of each individual band, and how the commenting section and input of a visitor creates unique T-shirt designs.
“With the site, we wanted to show that a designer can do different things with web design. By combining various techniques, they can create new visual experiences on the screen. What’s become a ‘normal’ web experience through the proliferation of template design doesn’t have to be how it always is. It’s better to surprise a website’s visitor by using an unlikely layout in order get their attention,” say Weiss and Kryenbühl.
“The design is not about style. It’s about creating an experience that challenges and changes the way people interact with a platform.”
This ambition also extends to e-readers. Johnson / Kingston see potential in this format, a platform it says is largely ignored by the graphic design community. With a self-initiated project called ‘These Ain’t No Books’, Johnson / Kingston proposes a new way of designing an e-publication, one that doesn’t mimic print but rather develops a form of its own. The project includes a printed manifesto (playfully laid out to mimic the potential arrangement of content on an e-reader), and explores how “the future of books is built upon networked platforms, not islands.”
Ultimately, it’s the element of surprise and challenging convention that makes the output of Johnson / Kingson so arresting. “It’s why bespoke typography is important to us,” the designers say. “In a time where we see so many typefaces every day, and often the same overused ones, it makes a lot of difference if you create something special—something rough and angular rather than clean and polished. That strangeness produces a certain power.”