It’s hard not to think about the best in brand identity without thinking of johnson banks. From massive corporates like Virgin Atlantic to charities like Save the Children – the small team at johnson banks always turn out well thought through brand identities that are built to stand the test of time. At the helm of this small team for nigh on 25 years has been Michael Johnson – famed designer, writer, strategist and tidy guitarist; he’s one of the most respected designers in his field, with an awards shelf groaning under the weight of D&AD Pencils and other silver-ware.
D.A.D: How many kids do you have and how old are they?
MJ: Two. A Joe and a Molly, 19 and 17.
D.A.D: Tell us a bit about yourself and your career so far.
MJ: I had eight jobs in eight years and effectively started johnson banks once I became unemployable. If my maths are correct, it’s 24 years and counting since then.
D.A.D: Have your kids ever actively helped out on a project – maybe with research for a project like the Science Museum?
MJ: Well, there’s often been discussion around the kitchen table, and yes they’ve been in various photoshoots (of course). Whether they’ve actively influenced a project directly is a bit debatable. But I did go through a stage of designing children’s books that never quite got off the ground. Maybe they will finally make it into print for the grandchildren…
D.A.D: johnson banks seems to have made a shift into working with clients that make a real difference in the world – charities and educational organisations. Has this shift been in anyway influenced by fatherhood and a want to preserve a decent future for your kids?
MJ: The desire to want to make a ‘difference’ with what we do really started in the ’90s when I found I was far more motivated and engaged by projects that really seemed to have some sort of societal impact. We did, for example, a well known set of posters once for the British Council that contrasted old and new Britain – they grabbed all the headlines, but I was secretly much more taken with a parallel set that grappled with the idiosyncrasies of the English language. Once I realised that they were being put in hundreds of classrooms worldwide and might help someone learn a language, the penny kind of dropped.
Then when we got the chance to redesign Shelter’s identity that opened a lot of not-for-profit doors, the Science Museum attracted cultural projects, and it all kind of grew from there.
I guess, perhaps, subconsciously, I may be pursuing this for the kids? I definitely think that the creative world needs a few more role models that value ‘doing good’ a bit more than just doing ‘good projects’ for the makers of fizzy drinks and trainers.
So I have a much wider view of this now – at first I thought it was intriguing to help hundreds and raise thousands. Now we’re helping millions and aiming to raise billions.
Oddly, I think sometimes the pressure of ‘kids’ often forces people the other way – I’ve lost count of the amount of times senior designers have said to me ‘I’d love to come and work at johnson banks but I’m making £90k at something-or-other-brand and I have a family to support’. It may make people more conservative just when they should be taking more risks.
D.A.D: So does keeping the team small at johnson banks allow you to take on more of the kind of work that interests you, but perhaps doesn’t pay big bucks? Or do you still have to have the odd Virgin Atlantic size rebrand to allow the studio to take on the kind of work that makes a difference?
MJ: Well, thus far the bias to ‘good’ clients has meant we weren’t physically able to become 35 people – there’s not enough guarantee of a work ‘pipeline’ and we’ve never wanted to be in that position of ‘having to do this nasty project to pay everyone’s mortgages’. We do still work with blue-chips, of course, as long as they share our view of the world, and we’re starting to see a level of NGO/Not-for-Profit/cultural client with just enough budget to make it more feasible across the board.
D.A.D: As a small studio you seem to put out an unprecedented amount of (great) work. Plus I know you’ve written a book and are writing another – what are your tips for juggling that kind of workload whilst also being a good dad?
MJ: Well you’re very kind – I’ve always been keen that we should be judged by 80% of our work, not just the 20% we wanted to share (whilst the rest would be hidden away). That 80:20 good to bad ratio has always been important to me so it’s rare that we let a project ‘slide’ (although, inevitably one or two a year just don’t hit the mark).
As regards books, yes Problem Solved went to a second edition in 2012 but the idea of another book was gnawing away at me, so I’ve spent the last two years trying to codify an approach to Branding that all parties will (hopefully) find useful – both strategists and designers. All being well it will be out this Autumn.
D.A.D: Your kids are at an age where they’re probably starting to think about Higher Education – have either of them taken an interest in a creative path?
MJ: Yes. One’s just finishing his 1st year at The Bartlett (Architecture). The other’s going to St Martins to do a foundation in September.
D.A.D: And what are your thoughts on the current state of design education and education in general? Have those thoughts changed much now that it’s your kids who are being effected by the impact of £9K a year fees?
MJ: Well, I know why the fees are there, but when one of them’s on a seven year Architecture course? I guess it means that you really want people to get something from their time at College, not breeze through and stumble out with a 2:2.
D.A.D: Are you pleased your kids have taken a creative route in their education? (Mind you I don’t know any graphic designers who’s kids have become lawyers or dentists – so maybe it’s inevitable.) Were your parents creatives?
MJ: Well the eldest did say he wanted to do something creative but ‘definitely not’ what I did (!). The youngest? We’ll see – but that’s the beauty of Foundation to my mind (i.e. having time to experiment, spread your wings, then decide). In terms of grandparents they have a painter on one side and a cartographer on the other, so perhaps some of it is genetic? Who knows…
D.A.D: Do you have any top tips for new fathers that are also running a design business? What’s your secret to success?
MJ: Mmmm. A good laptop? A home office? Fast wifi? A good, supportive and flexible team? Truth is the ‘work all day and night’ ethic long treasured by designers doesn’t really match with family life, so it can mean a serious life re-calibration for many. But, in a good way.
D.A.D: What’s next for johnson banks? Will we see an architecture arm opening up in ten years time? A rebrand to johnson & johnson perhaps?
MJ: Well, the youngest and I have a running gag about her taking over the firm – but in the meantime, we have a huge new project in California and a book out in the Autumn. Maybe, just maybe, things are on the up.