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Graphic Design

MICHAEL JOHNSON

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MICHAEL JOHNSON

Cover: UK Japan 2008 (2006) Initiative to highlight UK and Japan collaborations Back cover: British Council Exhibition in China (2010) Mandagrams


Glenfiddich (2008) Barrel art


ZIG ZAG

MICHAEL JOHNSON

When did you first become aware of graphic design? What were your early influences? There was a lot of art around me as a child: my mother is a painter and I had a grandfather who was a pretty decent cartoonist. So art at school always came fairly naturally and by my teens I was starting to design alphabets, do awful band posters and make clumsy attempts at re-drawing favourite record sleeves, the usual stuff.

in Visual Art and Marketing. It left me slightly qualified in both but not overqualified in either.

Is there a personality type that’s well suited to becoming a designer? Well, there’s no doubt that there’s a patient, systematic approach to designing that’s a useful personality trait, especially on long-winded corporate projects. Conversely there’s that need for spark and inspiration, to snatch an idea from nowhere at the eleventh hour and save the day. It’s actually quite hard to find designers who can combine the two, they tend to be one or the other.

Marty Ehrlich (2006)

What did you study? Do you think design education has kept up with the times? Paradoxically, there was some family pressure to NOT be a ‘commercial artist’ and I ended up doing a hybrid degree

Graphic design education now is a vast machine producing many thousands of students, presumably because the demand (at least at school level) is there. It’s tricky to see more than the absolute cream ending up actually doing it in real life, but there’s a view that design education prepares people for all types of job and career, which is probably true. And at post-graduate level there are some design management courses now, which is encouraging. So where did you learn your trade, did you teach yourself? Effectively, yes. I did in theory study some graphic design but in truth I learned much more from the three books on graphics in the library – Pioneers of Modern Typography, Meggs’ famous book and a book on Milton Glaser. And I carefully studied The Face and ID magazine, which were then at their peak, so there was a lot to see and learn from on the bookshelves. Formally speaking, I probably did more photo­ graphy and printmaking than graphics at college.


Science Museum (2010)


After a short stint in London I then travelled and worked worldwide (Sydney, Melbourne, Tokyo, New York) and that was where I really learned how to be a graphic designer – on the job, being thrown in the deep end, learning through happy (and unhappy) accidents. Would you recommend that approach now? Is it even possible these days? It’s harder now because there’s less time. People are maybe less forgiving. I spent the first six years post-college just swilling about, trying lots of different jobs and countries. I’m not sure that there is as much freedom to ‘find yourself’ as there was then. My end-game had always been to do identity work, but the challenge was (and still is) that you have to be a particular type of agency to handle big and/or important identity projects. The paradox, if you like, is that interesting, cutting-edge graphic design didn’t seem to mix with identity work and two quite different types of design company had developed. On one side, very serious and corporate companies, with little enthusiasm or appetite for unusual design. On the other, the experimental

and the avant-garde, with no interest in commerce, the long-term or the strategic. I’ve always been determined to challenge this status quo – to challenge the prevailing view that branding was dull. Sure, the machinations of corporate design tend to push you back towards that which is safe, which people in the boardroom will like, and it can be hard to keep your momentum. But you have to just grin and bear it (unless you want to be a door slammer, and a walk-outer, which is kind of risky) and keep trying. What got you interested in ‘identity and branding’ as a design specialisation? Even at college I was fascinated by what was then called identity (I still call it that) – my major college project concerned it and an early couple of years at Wolff Olins just enhanced that. I spent my twenties learning the craft of graphic design in general, but I always wanted to steer johnson banks in that direction.  Identity and branding seems to ‘fit’ our skills well – we can practice our strategic and management consultancy skills and get serious traction in the boardroom agreeing a ‘verbal brand’ before


Phonetikana (2009) Typographic research project fusing phonetic English with Katakana (Japanese)


Royal Mail (2006) Beatles stamps


moving onto the visual side of branding. Get both sides right and you can really supply solutions that both work and stay relevant for years. So how do you go about creating a successful identity? It’s very difficult. You’re trying to create something that doesn’t look too familiar – usually. It depends on the brief, but most of our clients come to us looking for something that will make what they do clearer, more understandable, more differentiated. When I first entered the business in the late ‘80s there were designers doing projects where the goal often seemed to be to look like other people – following the crowd. One famous company did endless solicitors’ and lawyers’ identities by repeating the same formula over and over. And there still is a lot of ‘generica’ out there. I found it a little depressing, for a while, until I realised that it leaves the door open to people like us, searching for the new. We’ll invest time up front into finding a unique verbal basis for our projects then throw the entire studio firepower at visual solutions, often with all the

designers pitching in ideas. Once we have a great idea that works, we’ll look for at least one more so we’re only ever presenting one or two great ideas rather than a spectrum of ‘great’ to ‘mediocre’. We’re looking for ‘great’ and ‘greater’. So that’s the challenge, making sense but avoiding a generic response? Well, there’s a whole lot of default settings within each category. We’ve been doing quite a lot of work in the education sector recently and you can’t help but notice – universities all look alike. They all have crests and shields. They all have serif type and they all use blue or purple. It’s remarkable. So we would usually say, at a very early stage, “Here are your competitors” and ask, “Do you admire that? Do you want to look like that?” Most of our clients say “No, no, no! We want to stand out”. More and more they need to differentiate whatever sector they’re in. It’s hard to survive if you’re the same. Is that more difficult now that an identity has to work across so many different channels and media? As time goes on that will become a bigger factor in what we do. A few


A selection of poster designs Advertising/Design (1999) The Modern Poster (1998) Blackpool Pleasure Beach (2005)


A selection of logos MORE TH>N (2001) Direct insurance Are you warm enough (2005) Lisbon Biennale to highlight global warming Land Securities/CSC (2008) St David’s shopping centre Shelter (2003) Homelessness charity Think London (2005) Inward investment organisation for London Unit (2009) Unit Architects specialised in ­modular architectural solutions Knucklehead (2004) Film and TV production company Virgin Atlantic Airways (2010) Mouse (2008) Microsoft – Europe-wide digital advertising scheme


V&A (2005) Send a letter Alphabet/letter shaped postcards designed for V&A summer fete


years ago we started asking people up front if there were key applications for their project – we didn’t want to make the assumption that it was their fleet of vehicles only to find out it was there business cards or something else. Now the number of channels an identity has to transmit itself through is vast. And it’s only going to get bigger. Take the Virgin Atlantic rebrand job we recently completed. The initial buzz of a project like that is the sheer scale of the planes, and seeing the new identity on the ones repainted so far is actually very cool. Paradoxically we also had to help them right down the other end of the scale, with tiny logos that would still be readable on travel websites and smartphone app symbols. So from the side of a plane to 40 pixels wide, we had to make it work. And sometimes you have to make a trade-off. Things that look great on an A3 piece of paper often just don’t hold at smaller sizes – we used to call them ‘small-use logos’ and there’s still an argument for making these a special case. Like the favicon that sits at the top of the web page, in the address bar, sixteen pixels square. (It’s quite

fun designing for sixteen pixels though, in a slightly masochistic fashion). You could argue it’s the new test of a logo to work, or have a version that works, at that size. How has your own role at johnson banks changed with time? Do you remain hands-on? Yes, very. Probably too hands-on for my designers’ liking! I guess I should try to be less involved but I do like to roll up the metaphorical sleeves and try to crack whatever problem is at hand. Although I’m not as fast as I used to be, if I’m honest. Can’t seem to use ­Illustrator as fast as I’d like… Given the complexity, is it possible to create just one identity that scales? In theory, it’s still possible, but more and more you’re developing versions for different sizes and applications. One thing we’ve been exploring in our work has to create identities that are continually evolving, and have multiple states. We’ve been at the vanguard of flexible identity for a number of years now. By ‘flexible’, I mean a solution which can modulate, or flex. We did an identity

recently for the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage in Philadelphia, where even the master marque has various states, then each division of the organisation had a kind of remix of the master logo. It’s very unusual and recognises a new type of organisation, which is in flux and modulates rather than the fixed, rigid structures of the past. And we’ve just done a scheme for the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance where the main logo actually turns in space towards the bit of the organisation you’re dealing with. Look at the work Wolff Olins have been doing for AOL. The AOL marque stays in one place but what’s behind is everchanging. AOL are trying to persuade us they’re an interesting and flexible brand, and in terms of their identity at least, they succeed (your experience of their service may of course differ). What kind of clients are attracted to your approach? We occasionally get clients whose current brand has come to the end of its life-cycle and we have to start afresh – I’m thinking here of the work we did to create the MORE TH>N insurance brand in the UK. 


Pew Center for Arts & Heritage (2009/10)

Then there are clients like the BFI or the Science Museum, slightly institutional brands that have finally decided they need to address brand architecture and/ or identity issues – in their cases it was imperative that they adopted dramatic new identities to reinvent them in the eyes of their public. Then we have charity brands, where it’s become a very competitive market and they desperately need to stand out.  Then there are cultural clients who suspect we may be able to find a way for them to have an unusual and flexible identity and they’re interested in that.  Did there used to be a time when this was a much simpler business?  I suspect that 30 years ago we would have been jumping to the ‘logo bit’ much quicker, yes.  Now we spend a lot more time ensuring that we’re starting the visual side of things in the right place. There’s nothing worse than a) designing a great identity to the wrong brief or b) creating an amazing idea that get’s shot down in the boardroom for political reasons. So we’re learning how to do both…


How does that work in practice? Don’t people want to see results, fast! Well on a big identity project we’ll begin with a research/interviewing stage, then move on to brand scenarios and the positioning stage. It’s very rare now to jump directly to the visual component.  Sometimes we have clients come to us who are absolutely adamant that they know what the problem is, and the solution. In fact, we had a meeting like this just yesterday. What I have to do is say “Okay, but we’re going to talk to all these people anyway, just to check we’re starting in the right place.” We do that for anything between a month and three months. With an ID project you’re trying to verbally agree what the ­organisation stands for. These early stages are designed to get agreement on the words, before we move on to the pictures. So, for example, the Science Museum is all about “making sense of science”. The BFI is all about “illumi­nation”, and so on… Finally, with the overall concept in place we’ll start work on the visual side, and that can go through many stages and drafts depending on the type of client.


Ravensbourne (2010) Design Institution specialising in digital design and innovation


Why is there sometimes perceived to be a tension between business and creativity? I think it has often to do with the types of people on each side, one side not truly understanding the other. As long as one side understands the value of the other and there’s mutual respect, things are fine. In my case I’m a sort of a mixture of a designer and a businessman, so as long as I can keep my two heads in agreement we can progress a little quicker. I think it’s beholden on good designers to demonstrate the business benefits of design as much as possible, especially in challenging economic climate. So endless personal projects that result in screen-printed poster sets leave me a bit cold now – I’m much more interested in rebranding a charity and seeing them raise many more millions because of the work we did than winning some questionable gong for a made-up project for somebody’s uncle. You’ve done some memorable jobs for charities but that field hasn’t always been associated with great design, has it? Eventually, as a younger designer you get bored of bashing brochures out and

want to do something with a bit more meaning. You start to think, “There has to be more to this.” There is a reason why we have so many charity, cultural and educational clients.  When we started working in the charity sector there wasn’t a single piece of work you could point to and say “Now that’s a stand-out piece of work”. Then we did Shelter. That was a really strong project and seven or eight years later is still one of our most referred to. And that’s exactly what you want – an identity that looks cohesive years later and is maybe even timeless. Thankfully, now people have begun to wise up to the fact that you can do interesting design work in the charity sector.  Of course you could argue there are too many charities in the UK. And they’re all chasing same money, especially when times are tough.  How and why does so much design end up compromised, is there a fault in the process? You do have to be pretty ‘strong’ at points on projects where committees or politics or too many cooks threaten

to devalue what’s been started. Luckily now we’re ‘grown-up’ we don’t have to have many tantrums any more – people are listening. Also, it’s essential for a good designer to navigate this – just storming out of boardrooms over a choice of typeface is pretty naïve. If there’s a good reason for a choice, or direction, a good client will listen. What do you think design actually adds to the world? And when done badly, what does it take away? I do still believe that good design can make this world a better place, at all levels. Bad design is continually frustrating, aggravating and almost polluting, but I think there’s a role for things that don’t work or don’t communicate – to make people like me want to change them, for the better.


V&A and me (2010) Bespoke celebrity maps and trails of the V&A museum


COLOPHON

PUBLICATIONS 01 CHRISTOPH NIEMANN Illustration 02 MICHEL MALLARD Creative Direction 03 FUN FACTORY Product Design 04 ANDREAS UEBELE Signage Design 05 HARRI PECCINOTTI Photography 06 KUSTAA SAKSI Illustration 07 5.5 DESIGNERS Product Design 08 NIKLAUS TROXLER Graphic Design 09 JOACHIM SAUTER Media Design

2009 2009 2009 2010 2010 2010 2011 2011 2011

with Carrérotondes asbl MAPPING AUGUST. An Infographic Challenge 2010

PUBLISHER Design Friends COORDINATION Silvano Vidale LAYOUT Nicole Goetz INTERVIEW Mark Penfold COPY EDITING Nadine Clemens PRINT Faber Imprimerie PAPER Scheufelen (Heaven 42 softmatt) PRINT RUN 800 (Limited edition) ISBN 978-99959-717-0-0 PRICE 5 € DESIGN FRIENDS Association sans but lucratif (Luxembourg) BOARDMEMBERS Silvano Vidale (President) Arnaud Mouriamé (Vice-president) Nadine Clemens (Secretary) Heike Fries (Treasurer) Mike Koedinger (Boardmember) Guido Kröger (Boardmember) Pit Kuffer (Boardmember) Stéphanie Rollin (Boardmember) Anabel Witry (Boardmember)

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This catalogue is published for Michael Johnsons's lecture at Mudam Luxembourg on October 05, 2011 organized by Design Friends.

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Michael Johnson - Zig Zag  

Michael Johnson - Zig Zag

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