Why a design degree isn't everything

Not all designers take the conventional route. Multi-award-winning Michael Johnson of johnson banks studied marketing...

With so many design courses available, it can be hard to imagine that anyone today would enter the design profession without first obtaining a design degree from a reputable university. There are some, however, for whom the traditional path was not the path chosen.

Michael Johnson is "creative and strategy director" of johnson banks, the design company he founded in 1992. A prolific, energetic and vociferous presence within the UK design scene and the winner of countless awards, he also has work in the permanent collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Johnson graduated with a joint degree in marketing and visual art from Lancaster University. "An unusual combination," he admits. "It left me with half a degree in two subjects, and not really qualified to do either, as a series of painful interviews in London rather swiftly illustrated."

Learning through experience

Anyone looking at Johnson's international client list is unlikely to conclude that he has been impeded by his lack of a conventional design education.

For him it means that he is well equipped for his chosen path, which he describes as "significant re-brands of big organisations," requiring "logic and analysis as much as favourite typefaces and favoured grids".

"My degree gave me a glimpse into two worlds," he says, "but while there, and once graduated, I effectively had to train myself through a combination of a huge book collection, very hard work and very public and frequent mistakes."

"Being 'untrained' has left me determinedly pluralist – I was never in a designer ivory tower so I never had to leave one, to be honest."

Words: Adrian Shaughnessy Illustration: Tommy Parker

This article first appeared in Computer Arts issue 232, a design education special packed with insight, inspiration and behind-the-scenes access to the world's most exciting creative minds.