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A Farewell to FJ’s Art Director, Barbara Benton

You’ve been art director at Friends Journal for more than 35 years. What are the most notable changes from when you started designing the magazine and how you do it today?

While graphic design is the same task of visualizing and putting together a printed piece as it was in 1977, the process of production has been transformed. At that time, design happened with pencil, tracing paper, waxed type on illustration board, and hours at the library or searching through file drawers.

The evolution from that time to desktop design with photo and design software and internet resources has been a long learning curve, keeping my job fresh and interesting and me learning and stretching.

What drew you to graphic design and made you want to do it for a living?
How did you get the job at
Friends Journal?

Graphic design can include a lovely combination of thinking and detail, creativity, working alone, and working with others. It’s pleasingly hands-on, and I like producing a physical thing I can look at later and say, “I helped make that.”

After three years of teaching sixth grade, and as I was starting to take graphic design courses, I was at an event for war tax resisters. (Although I wasn’t a war tax resister, I was a “wannabe.”) My friend Lynne Shivers told me she’d heard Friends Journal was going to hire a layout person. I already had decided that doing design work at Friends Journal would be my dream job, and I was on the phone with the office first thing the next morning. I guess they were inspired by my excitement over such things as pasting small bits of classified ads together without getting them crooked, because they hired me right away.

What has been one of your favorite parts of the job?

I love working with poetry and beautiful photographs. When historical topics have come  up, I’ve delved into American Friends Service Committee’s archives to borrow old artwork and photos. I get very involved with the contents, sometimes to the point that the editors, I suspect, wish I would leave them alone. I would not have wanted to spend my time designing cereal boxes: I need meaning in my work.

Have you done all of Friends Journal’s layout and production work?

I never did it alone. There were various configurations over the years. We ran a typesetting service before desktop computers came in, and there were usually two or three of us, part-time and full-time, working on layout, design, production, advertising, displays, and so on. Alla Podolsky has been working with me for a number of years, and she’ll be carrying on as art director. She’s been a great partner, and I’m eager to see what happens as she manages all the work with some freelance help.

Nowadays, people don’t stay at their jobs very long. In fact, workers are encouraged to shuffle around. What made you stay at FJ for so many years?

I’ve often been brought to tears of understanding and appreciation when reading an article for the next issue. I want to present it in an accessible way, in a way that could be worshipful and have some sensibility and beauty. I heard a question on the radio during this election season of what it was like to talk politics in the office, and how people needed to be careful about what they said. But here, we share values and can talk about them freely. Friends Journal has been a flexible, supportive place to work. We’ve had our share of ups and downs, but the reason I’ve stayed here so long is that we think, speak, and write about things that really matter to me. It’s not just about making the pages look nice.

What brought you to the Society of Friends?

My brother was able to get a conscientious objector status in the Vietnam War and spent 1968 and 1969 in Algeria working for AFSC. I became interested in the Society of Friends at that point, largely because of the peace testimony. The Methodist church of my childhood, with its progressive thinking in many areas, seemed to aim me in this direction. Soon after I moved to Philadelphia in 1969, I found a worship group in West Philadelphia. It was a small, renegade “back-bencher” group of young people who met in an empty storefront. I now belong to a very established (and very vital) Center City meeting, but it’s exciting to know there is another new generation of passionate young Quakers springing up in West Philadelphia.

What issues are you passionate about?

Friends Journal has covered many issues that are important to me: care of the environment, building community, learning to listen for Spirit.

One of the issues I care deeply about is gender and equality. I’m proud that Friends Journal was talking about same-sex marriage in our pages at a time when it was an unheard-of issue to most people in this country, and that now it’s a major political issue. I like to think we had something to do with that.

I’m also passionate about funding for schools, about the issue of privilege. For our January issue, which focused on privilege, I couldn’t help looking for photos of great schools in rich neighborhoods and terrible schools in poor ones. I lived for 40 years within Philadelphia’s city limits, and then moved to Swarthmore, whose public schools are number one in the state. It is very troubling to me to know my local taxes are not going to the students who need them the most. It’s a priority to support city businesses and neighborhoods with my spending whenever I can.

What role do you think print publishing plays now that we live in such a digital society?

An artist can design a beautiful and accessible way to read on paper or online. I feel more contemplative when I read on paper. Online, I’m tempted to jump around, follow a link, or be working to figure out a new program or technology. It may be that digital publishing will reach more young readers than print publishing in the future, but it’s a treasure to have both.

What do you plan to do in retirement?

Read, exercise, garden, travel, see family more often, do freelance design work, and enjoy being newly married (we just celebrated our third anniversary). I want to paint my walls, be more diligent about attending meeting for business, and be involved with the Transition Town movement, which works toward stronger, more resilient and sustainable local communities.. Dance. Sing. Did I mention travel?

This month, Barbara Benton will be retiring after 35 years as art director at Friends Journal. Around the office, she is known for her passion, her artistic vision, and her outspoken nature.  

Barbara’s presence and enthusiasm will be missed. We wish her joy and grace as she enters this new journey in her life. Barbara may not be designing issues each month, but her vision and her spirit will be a continuous part of the life of Friends Journal as we move further in the twenty-first century.

Posted in: Departments, February 2013

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