Nick Carson meets the founder of the small but perfectly formed studio that's been passionate about logos for almost two decades.
"I'm never happier than when I'm designing a logo," declares Michael Johnson. "I used to love designing posters, I still do, but you can't run a business doing that."
Johnson founded his multi-award-winning studio back in 1992 with a deliciously simple mission statement: to solve problems in an innovative and ingenious way.
"I always wanted to stay relatively small, but I also knew that I wanted to do large, significant identity projects," he recalls. At the time, these two ambitions were rather at odds with each other: "Small companies didn't get big identity projects back then."
Of course, one reason for the challenge presented by big projects was that before the design process went digital, everything took a great deal longer. "I created a piece of type this morning in 35 minutes that 20 years ago would have taken me two days," is Johnson's example. "It's easier now to have big ambitions, but still keep the physical footprint of your company small."
This distinction sinks in when Johnson compares Johnson Banks with two fellow world-class branding agencies: "The Partners have 50-odd people; Wolff Olins at one point had over 100. We have six." But with eight D&AD Pencils - seven yellow, one black - on the shelf alongside gongs from the Art Directors Club of New York and Design Week, it seems those six people must be doing something right.
Logos have fascinated Johnson since his student days: his 1984 dissertation explored how to rebrand British Rail. But despite being, he says, "unemployable" after hedging his bets and enrolling on a jack-of-all-trades Marketing and Visual Art course, he milked his connections and dropped his external examiner a line.
That examiner just happened to be Wally Olins, co-founder of Wolff Olins. "I could hear them in the corridor arguing, saying the work wasn't very good," he grins. "Luckily, Wally managed to persuade them to give me a job." In the mid-80s, Johnson recalls, logo design wasn't fashionable: "It goes in and out of vogue as a destination for graduates," he reflects. "I'm forever beating up colleges about this. If there's one part of the business that hasn't dwindled at all over the last two decades, it's branding. People will always need an identity, and someone to help them with it. Our position has got stronger and stronger, as people understand just how useful it is."
After stints abroad in Australia, Japan and the States, Johnson returned to his native UK and eventually decided to start his own studio. Now, almost 20 years later, he has racked up award-winning marks for the likes of Save The Children, More Th>n and the British Film Institute - and all with his core staff of six, which expands through carefully chosen collaborations with freelance copywriters, animators, web designers and photographers where necessary to tackle a given brief.
And as his 2004 book Problem Solved makes abundantly clear, solving problems lies at the heart of Johnson's design philosophy. "A classic pitfall is doing something that you think is fantastic, but doesn't enter the client's frame of reference at all," he warns. "Great ideas for the wrong problem, I call it - something I spent most of my twenties doing. Good designers have good ideas all the time: the trick is matching the right solution to the right problem."
Johnson's advice is simple: "Discover your client's comfort zone, and sit just outside it - just push them far enough," he says. "Push them too far, and they'll dig their heels in and you've lost them. There's a degree of skill in selling corporate identity."
When the British Embassy in Japan approached Johnson Banks with a tricky creative brief to solve, it was the last idea on the last page of the pitch document that caught the client's imagination. "They were planning a series of collaborations in Japan, between UK and Japanese organisations," Johnson remembers. "These collaborations could be quite broad: a British dance troupe performing in Japan, or a Japanese company working with an English designer, for instance. They were calling it 'UK Japan 2008' - a fairly tedious name - and wanted a logo that indicated it was a collaboration between the two countries."
Johnson Banks dutifully worked up a 15-page document, outlining four or five strong ideas, largely focused on the collaboration theme. "In Japan, the English word 'collabo' is quite widely understood," Johnson explains. "On the last page, we'd taken the letters 'U' and 'K' and the Kanji characters ni and hon, which make up the word 'Japan', and twisted and turned those four elements many different ways until we found a way to fuse the two languages."
It was an inspired piece of design, but the team had put it on the last page for a reason. "When we sent it, we had no idea whether we had ruined the Japanese characters and made them unreadable," Johnson confesses. "Luckily, even though we'd rotated one of them 45 degrees one way, and the other one 45 degrees the other way, they were such recognisable symbols that it was still readable. They loved it. The symbol is actually quite famous in Japan now - it was everywhere for two years."
Of course, sometimes the client needs a bit more convincing. When Think London, an organisation that encourages multinational companies to set up a base in the UK capital, approached Johnson Banks to create its identity, it took several weeks of dead ends before Johnson revisited an idea they'd actually crossed off the list early on. "Part of the brief was to sell everything that London has to offer," he recalls. "We started doing a skyline idea, and almost immediately rejected it as too clichd."
Johnson flipped it upside down and started doodling another skyline, built from the real reasons why a company might choose London. "People might pretend they come for architecture, but really it's the guitar shops, parks, theatre, concerts or whatever," he goes on. "As I was doing that, one of the designers came by and said, 'That looks a bit like a reflection.' I hadn't quite understood what I was doing, but as soon as she said that, I realised what a great idea that was."
Unfortunately, some rough sketches weren't enough to win over Think London. "They were really unsure at first," he discloses. "It took a while to persuade them. But after we developed it more, and explained that they could put in symbols for everything that they talk to their clients around the world about - computing, fashion, and so on - they realised that having a logo that says all that was quite valuable. It's quite bonkers actually - there are 44 separate symbols in that logo."
Since design gospel dictates that a great logo should work just as well at just 20mm wide as it does splashed across a billboard, this raises the obvious question: how can such a complex symbol possibly work? "Most people expected that to be its Achilles heel," Johnson confirms. "We actually drew it in three different versions - very large, normal and small. We often do that with our logos. We had to simplify it a little bit, but luckily, it did still work small. People are so used to the language of skylines that you can definitely recognise London - and then if you peer at the top, you can make out a tree, a gallery and all these other things."
The Think London and UK Japan 2008 projects both demonstrate Johnson Banks' fort; elegant solutions to tricky, multi-faceted problems. Nevertheless, when a particularly complex brief from Philadelphia's Pew Center landed on Johnson's desk recently, it resulted in a head-scratching moment. "There were all these separate constituent parts, dedicated to dance, heritage, fellowships, exhibitions, and more," he explains. "We were asked to help them to come together as one organisation, which was fine. But we soon realised that actually they still needed to be all of these things separately as well."
By Johnson's own admission, this was a "horrendously complex" problem to solve, and the first presentation didn't go at all well. "They said that we hadn't understood them, and it was much more complicated than we thought," he chuckles. "We just about escaped that meeting with a bit of chat about how we could fix it."
It soon became clear that a versatile logo to serve several purposes wouldn't be enough: this client needed a whole multi-tiered identity system that allowed particular schemes to stand alone when required. "Our solution has three states," he continues. "It's based on a series of coloured squares, layered onto each other, which progressively widen out. For each of the initiatives, the squares reshuffle themselves to become the biggest, and everything else is minimised."
The system comes into its own when animated, with the coloured squares flung in a heap like a stack of playing cards, shuffled, expanded and contracted as required. With each initiative represented by its own colour-coded tab, the simplest state of the logo has them all tucked neatly underneath to create a simple abstract graphic to use for the Pew Center as a whole. Progressively thorough versions introduce the individual scheme names, with the most expansive containing an unprecedented 25 words within one multi-coloured logo. It should be a mess, but it works.
"There's actually been a decline in graphic symbols recently," Johnson laments, as he moves on to discussing his studio's more typographic projects. "People are so keen to get their name across, that there often isn't room for anything else. This has led to a rise in logotypes - one of the major requirements of identity design is being able to push type around confidently. Luckily, all the designers here use type very well."
One such example is his identity for insurance firm More Th>n, for which the concept of nesting a greater-than symbol within the type came pretty early in the creative process. "We began to investigate typefaces that could sit well with that idea," says Johnson. "However, it soon became apparent that there wasn't anything on my computer that did what I wanted it to do." In order to echo the angular shape of the symbol so it would sit comfortably with the rest of the type, little details became crucial, such as an open, stencil 'R' and splayed 'M'. Having started with Futura, he moved onto VAG Rounded, but still wasn't happy. The only way forward was to do it from scratch.
"The More Th>n logotype itself is essentially drawn, and then we created two weights of an actual typeface," he adds. "It's a really great way to establish a tone of voice, because no-one else can use that type. Yes, it's expensive, but not as expensive as it used to be. We even delivered the logo within the actual font - you just hit Alt+M - and you can split the words up too."
Creating the logotype for homeless charity Shelter, with a similarly inspired tweak to turn the arch of the 'h' into a roof, was even simpler. "I think it was the shortest board presentation we've ever done," smiles Johnson. "I turned over the board and said, 'Here you go.' And they said, 'Oh, great.' I was in there for seven-and-a-half minutes." Having tried a selection of light sans-serif typefaces - "anything medium or bold looked horrid and clumsy" - the team settled on a particular weight of Helvetica.
When working with typography, Johnson's biggest piece of advice is to keep little details like this as subtle as possible - after all, there can be a fine line between genius and gimmick. "Some people might have been tempted to make the greater-than symbol a different colour, say, or emboldened the 'h' in Shelter," he concedes. "But if you want a logo to stick around for a while, you have to have the confidence to be subtle and trust that people will eventually see it."
But sometimes, as with UK Japan, the more off-the-wall ideas pay off - and even if they don't, they can paint slightly less radical concepts in a better light. "I worked with someone who said, once you've done a great solution, do something even weirder and more out there, because you never know," Johnson concludes. "That out-there idea can make your solution look quite normal."