Barefoot, and in loose-fitting black clothing, Michael Johnson shows the way upstairs in his studio and into an expansive meeting room. His outfit might suggest ninja, but his manner is peaceful. Instead of swords and throwing stars, in two corners of the room stand several guitars and a double bass. Electric instruments are on the left, and acoustic ones to the right. On the shelf: a collection of D&AD Pencil awards.
“Double bass is the best, but funnily enough that’s the guitar I play the least. I’d like to play it more but I get very distracted. I pluck it, in a kind of jazz way,” he says, then points to the acoustic guitars. “These are the things that get played most of the time.” One is by Lowden, a handcrafted instrument maker in Northern Ireland, and as he later explains, his studio johnson banks has helped the company with its brand strategy. “That actually was payment for some work we did for them. Their first fee was paid with guitars – that’s barter, good old-fashioned barter.”
It’s not the biggest job johnson banks has tackled, but it’s one that combined two of Johnson’s passions – music and branding. Usually, johnson banks is working for substantially bigger concerns, including blue chip corporations, major cultural bodies and non-profit organisations. It’s been busy lately, Johnson says, bringing over a cafetiere of fine coffee and some shortbread biscuits.
“We’ve recently launched a project for the Cystic Fibrosis Trust, and we’re doing a big museum in the Persian Gulf, which I can’t really name – not yet,” he says. “We also did a project that launched this year in Brighton – Brighton Dome and Brighton Festival. And there’s an investment charitable fund in Paris that we’re working on at the moment.”
These projects add to a whole array of well-known identities the studio has created, from the British Film Institute to Virgin Atlantic, homeless charity Shelter to the online insurance site More Than. Coffee is poured, and almost straight away Johnson flips over an A4 sheet from his notes and starts sketching. He wants to describe the studio’s four-stage process to branding and identity design.
“I do it in a linear way – one, two – research, narrative. And then design, implement – three four,” he says, drawing two arrows at the top of the sheet, and two below them. Often, he explains, brand consultants or strategists handle the first two stages, research and narrative. Designers frequently aren’t involved at this level, and some don’t even like the planning stages of projects. This results in a space between how a brand is verbalised by a corporation, and how it is visualised by a creative agency. It’s what makes branding such a tough area to work in. “There’s a gap there, and you’ve got to mind that gap, literally,” says Johnson. “It’s all very well agreeing a piece of paper with everything on it, or a 20-page Powerpoint presentation – ‘this is who we are and this is what we’ll be’ – but then jumping into design and the visual is very tricky, and this is where there’s always been a problem. It’s really hard for some companies to do that.”
The approach to branding that Johnson and his team have developed is very much part of the studio’s own ongoing evolution. Founded 21 years ago, its early work was in print design – posters, brochures, even Royal Mail stamps – with a little identity work now and again. Straight away, the studio began establishing itself from its base in Chelsea. “We put ourselves on the map,” Johnson says. “A studio, in its first three to five years, has got to do some intriguing-slash-interesting-slash-unique work, otherwise it doesn’t survive. Why would it, if it wasn’t interesting, unique or different?”
The turn of the millennium is when the company’s second phase began, according to Johnson. After extensive renovation work, it moved to the studio it now occupies, just off the main road that runs through Clapham, and the nature of its work shifted. With print being superseded by the internet, Johnson and his team began collaborating with other agencies and strategists on bigger branding projects.
The companies it worked with would do the research and strategy work – phases one and two in Johnson’s branding process. Then johnson banks would complete the project by picking up stages three and four – the design and implementation. Key identities for johnson banks during this period included Shelter and More Than.
The studio’s third era began between six and seven years ago, with johnson banks now handling the design and implementation, as well as the research and narrative parts of the brand development process. It takes a long time to learn how to bridge all four stages, and it’s challenging work, but that’s why Johnson loves it so much.
“Most people think that identity design starts here,” he says, pointing to arrow number three. “The client comes in, there’s a brief, you do the logo. It doesn’t work like that. If you’re a great big organisation, let’s say you are turning over tens of millions of pounds, you’re not going to jump straight to that. You want to make sure that the groundwork has been laid, and critically, actually, that everyone has had their say. Some of these projects are really political.”
“What we’ve found is that if you don’t listen to these many voices at this stage,” he points to phase two, “then it will come back to haunt you. You think you’ve nearly done the design work, and the person here in the square box who’s been ignored will suddenly say in a board meeting, ‘You didn’t ask me. I think this is shit.’”
One thing Johnson is keen to stress – which is highlighted by the four-stage process he’s sketched out – is that branding and identity is about far more than purely logo design. He’s drawing again, and explaining why he’s so adamant that too much emphasis is put on to logos, not just by the media and clients, but by designers themselves.
“I haven’t used the analogy for a while but it’s quite a good one. I sort of think about an iceberg,” he says, drawing a big chunk of ice, with a line to indicate sea level. “There’s this bit above the waterline, and then there’s a huge bit under the water.” He then draws a flag sticking out of the iceberg. “I used to use this iceberg analogy when I was trying to explain to clients that, yes, you stick a flag on the iceberg so that you can see it, and the logo or the symbol is like that flag sticking out above the water. But I’m really aware of the fact that under the water there’s this massive great bit of ice that’s full of all sorts of applications, all kinds of areas of the brand that still need to be designed.”
He continues: “There’s so much more to branding than just a logo. For years, my business has sort of been held back, and still is, by a lot of emphasis on what is on the flag. But you’ve got animations, you’ve got tone of voice, you’ve got brand architecture, you’ve got all the other things that an organisation does and it’s sometimes a little bit frustrating.” Branding can be developed, he points out, where far less hinges on the logo. One example is the Cystic Fibrosis Trust identity johnson banks recently created. Here the ‘is’ at the end of the word ‘fibrosis’ is rendered in a handwritingstyle typeface. The words Cystic Fibrosis form the logo, but are always followed by a statement – such as ‘Cystic Fibrosis a lifelong challenge’, or ‘Cystic Fibrosis chronically misunderstood’. It’s the crux of the identity.
“One of the American blogs said, ‘I’m not really sure about this.’ But the truth is you very rarely see that on its own,” he says, pointing to the ‘Cystic Fibrosis’ type on a poster, “because we’ve activated the identity and given it this sort of massive, rolling awareness campaign. Literally, every single thing that they do has to have a statement on it.”
Words, rather than a marque, are also central to one of johnson banks’ most recent creations – the identity for Acumen, an impact investor based in New York. And it’s very fitting that this is the case, firstly because the organisation itself is very good with copy. Secondly, because it takes quite a few words to explain what they do. Impact investment is all about raising money through philanthropic giving and investing it in meaningful ways. Acumen gets involved with asking wealthy people and successful companies for donations, and uses the money to fund alternative energy, irrigation and healthcare projects in West Africa, India and Pakistan. However, money isn’t given as aid. Acumen expects a return, just not a very fast one.
So how do you approach branding a non-profit like Acumen? Johnson and his team found the answer within the organisation’s own approach to its work. “It’s quite unusual for a client to say to us, ‘Actually, we’d like a manifesto,’” he says. “So we ended up with a strapline, manifesto, mini manifestos, what makes us unique, the impact we want to make, what we value the most, what we’re like, how we communicate. This is all stuff that we drafted with Acumen. And then what we have developed is a system of logos that outwardly look the same, but then you realise that they’re a series of very high level manifesto statements”.
The forms are all based on broken-down letters, and each appears in a scheme with relevant copy, and with a picture of a member of the Acumen team. Once again, the logo is not the core of the identity, but is something that activates communication about what the organisation does. It’s been an interesting project for Johnson himself. “Manifesto writing is strangely out of fashion, really,” he says. “I’m reading a book on manifestos at the moment. If you were in Italy in 1912, everybody had a fucking manifesto. Marinetti and all the Futurists. So I’m mugging up on manifestos.”
“Fantastic!” he continues. “From a writing perspective it’s a dream because we start with the manifesto, and then our task is: ‘What can we do with that?’ We actually tried visual ways to do it, and then were like kind of like, ‘We’ve got to use the words. It’s so obvious to use the words’.”
It’s no surprise that with this passion for words, Johnson writes a lot. He’s written several books, and is working on the second edition of Problem Solved, a tome all about branding and design. He pens articles now and again for the design press, and for the last eight years he’s been writing Thought for the Week on the johnson banks website. A weekly article can be a bind, he admits. However, now and again his words go viral on the design blogs, Twitter and Facebook, spreading the name of johnson banks far and wide.
Johnson is heavily involved in copywriting on branding projects as well. Evidence of this can be seen in the studio’s meeting room even now. The metal wall partitions are covered in printouts, held up by little round magnets, relating to the Science Museum’s tone of voice.
johnson banks gave London’s Science Museum a new and contemporary identity in 2010. It’s based on a word marque using type drawn especially for the project, and replaced a rather bland sans-serif logotype that didn’t capture the dynamism of the museum. Since then, the studio has worked on a number of campaigns for the institution. Now, Johnson’s team has been asked to turn its attention to the copy that’s used in all communications, from exhibit captions and signage to the website and brochures.
“They’ve got a museum of people producing copy, so how do we get them to sound more like the same person? There are a few people writing things which are active, conversational, chatty – that is far more fun and interesting. Great. Super. Exactly what you want from a 21st century science museum. But you’ll still find stuff up there like, ‘Visitors are encouraged to attend at...’, which are entirely third person, off putting, old school, you know. So our job with that particular task is to say, ‘This is your voice, use it.’”
From johnson banks’ point of view, studying the tone of voice in this way will add depth to its portfolio of projects. “If you go in and just show a bunch of logos then people think you’re a logo jockey and there are very, very few people who do that anymore, because why just do that when there is all of this that you can think about,” Johnson says, circling the underwater section of his iceberg drawing.
This interest in matters going well beyond graphic design has been evident since early in Johnson’s career. Rather than choosing a pure design degree, he studied visual arts and marketing at Lancaster University. It was a lot of work, but he got a first class degree. “I think I was always interested in graphic design, and I was also kind of interested in business, and I was trying to think of something that would maybe bring the two together,” he says.
During his studies, he did a project on the British Rail identity, which was marked by none other than Wolff Olins co-founder Wally Olins. “He just destroyed it, actually,” says Johnson. “I had to come to London to present and he just ripped it apart, but that was quite a salutary experience. He did weirdly remember me, even though he’d destroyed what I’d done, and I managed to get a job there. Identity of course being the main focus of their work, it made me really focus on identity branding – well, it wasn’t called branding then; it was still called corporate identity.”
After his spell at Wolff Olins, Johnson tried various positions, taking in Sydney, Melbourne, Tokyo a nd New York before returning to the UK to launch johnson banks. And he’s always been drawn to the area of branding – partly because it’s the most challenging. “It’s where all of these months and months of thinking have to be distilled down, sometimes into something that big,” he says, sketching a tiny flag on his paper. “It’s the hardest thing to do.”
Working with huge corporations like Virgin Atlantic, the fiscal rewards might be enticing to other designers, but this isn’t what drives him. Sometimes there’s the challenge of turning around companies that change direction with all the agility of supertankers. Even more rewarding is improving the fortunes of a charity or cultural body.
“A lot of stuff that I do is not for profit or cultural or third sector, so we’re driven less by the fiscal framework if you like. It’s to do with helping – I really like helping these organisations,” he says. “The rebrand of a charity can have a massive effect. Luckily in our case, nearly every time it’s been positive, and sometimes hugely positive.”
He continues: “We’ve been collecting the stats a bit, not that I want to turn into one of those ‘effectiveness’ design companies that just talk about effectiveness, and then forget how to design. They’re the kind of people who specialise in redesigning a pizza pack and selling more pizza. I couldn’t give two hoots about that. But drastically changing the way a charity raises money, or how many people visit a museum or things like that – it’s very satisfying when it works.”
There are some stats that Johnson is proud of. For instance, after johnson banks helped the bone marrow database charity Anthony Nolan with its identity, it saw a 45 per cent increase in funds raised. Meanwhile, Save the Children has doubled its turnover in the six years that johnson banks has been working with it. Charities do pay less than blue chip clients, but stories like this make it more worthwhile than shifting fast food or shampoo, says Johnson.
In the future, Johnson hopes that international work will continue to increase. The week after our interview he’s jetting off to Paris to see another charity he’s working with, and after that to New York for the Acumen launch. However, getting new clients overseas is a gradual process. Johnson has lectured in Japan, China and India, and talks at numerous design conferences in Europe and America, but only rarely does this kind of activity result in new clients. Nor do they give two hoots about his shelf full of D&AD awards.
Then there’s the matter of size. Johnson has kept johnson banks small. The team, which is like a family, has stayed at around 10. He’s drawing again – this time it’s pyramids, which represent design companies. Some, like Pentagram, he explains, are a number of pyramids all lined up horizontally. Others are very broad pyramids with a creative director overseeing a whole swathe of work, along with senior designers, middleweights, junior designers and so forth. He wants just one, smallish pyramid for johnson banks.
“Before I started johnson banks I had lots of different jobs and observed lots of different models. You know, the floating creative director and the senior designers kind of going off on one,” he says, drawing a squiggly line coming out of a pyramid. “When I started the company I had a fairly clear idea about staying relatively small because that seemed to be the best way to do the best work. The challenge when you’re small is how to get big projects because usually it’s a contradiction in terms – small companies do the small projects, big companies do the big projects.”
Some big organisations, he says, are only comfortable working with big agencies. They buy into the illusion that an agency that fields eight people to a briefing will devote 80 people to the project. But it’s about chemistry too, and being able to work with people over a long period of time – a rebrand can take two years or more. Ideas like having a client’s design team come and work in the johnson banks studio during the rebrand help too.
The afternoon is coming to its close, and Johnson has put on some light jazz by the Pat Methany Group. Attention turns again to his guitars, and he starts describing a unique presentation he gives using them. “I do this talk where I discuss the history of graphics and the history of guitar playing and I do the talk whilst at the same time playing guitar, which is a headfuck, actually.
“What you’ve got to try and do is choreograph the whole thing,” Johnson concludes. “You’ve got to set the slides on the presentation to play one by one, and then occasionally you have to play a group. It’s hard. I’m quite worried. The next one is 800 people. It’s meant to be relaxation, but actually it’s another layer of frustration. I don’t know why I do this stuff.”