Creative Pioneers: Michael Johnson on how to have (the right) idea

By Patrick Burgoyne

CR’s first online training programme, Mastering Creativity, will help unlock your creative potential, whether you are a professional creative, designer or commissioner of creative work. Additional expert insight for the course is provided by our five Creative Pioneers – Sir John Hegarty, Caroline Pay, Jim Sutherland, Zia Zareem-Slade and Michael Johnson. Video interviews with each of them are available as part of the course material but in this series of articles we are giving you a taste of that content.

Here, we interview Michael Johnson of Johnson Banks.

CR: Could you talk us through the process that you use here at Johnson Banks and the different stages that you go through when you are working on a project?

At Johnson Banks we approach the design process a little differently I think to some more – if you like – ‘creative’ companies. We often don’t start the creative section of our work for quite a while. There will be a long stage of research. Then there will nearly always be a stage of verbal work – if you like, ‘brand narrative definition’ – working out the brand architecture of how an organisation works together. And, then our third stage is our design stage. So, we might often not get to the design stage for somewhere between four and eight months. We are just trying to ascertain where someone is in a market; where they could be; where the gaps are; should they be in a gap? i.e. it’s all very well if there is a gap but is there a market in the gap? So, we do a lot of work on that before we get anywhere near the creative stage. Or, you could of course argue that a lot of what I describe is pretty creative as well. And, I would describe it as creative – definitely the bit where we write and where we create verbal narrative. So, it takes us a while to get to that stage. Then when we get to that stage it is your classic design stage.

CR: Could you talk about the use of research and interviews with people within the organisation that you are working for and how you use that process to inform the later design process?

We started working this way because we were getting increasingly involved in large branding projects but there was a stage – probably about ten, 15 years ago – where we might start the branding project in the wrong place. So, we would probably ask the wrong questions. Or, we had been told what the brief was and we would start designing. Now, that would sometimes get us into a bit of a pickle and we would realise two months in that we were designing great solutions for the wrong problem.

So, what we do now is we spend a lot of time trying to work out what the problem is. People will sit here in this studio and say, ‘We know there is something wrong with our brand but we don’t know quite what it is’. So, really that research time is getting under the skin of what the problems are or what they could be, trying to discover what questions really need to be answered. And, that is the initial stage. There is also a degree of pragmatism about doing this because it means you meet some very important people early. What you also do is you avoid that terrible situation, as a designer, of standing in a boardroom presenting something to people who have never met you. And, if they have never met you there is more likelihood of, ‘I don’t understand this’, or ‘Why have you done this?’ or ‘Why have you chosen that typeface?’; ‘Pink? Are you an idiot?’. All of the things that can happen in a boardroom when you get to something incredibly subjective like ‘Here’s your new logo’.

So, there is a degree of pragmatism and building trust about working in this way. And in our second stage, which is our verbal definitional stage, we are finding that incredibly useful because a lot of companies are increasingly interested in where they stand in the market and what they say and how they talk about themselves; what their tone of voices, the messages they use. In fact, I think we do as much as that now as we do actual physical design.

Possible design routes for Mozilla's new logo and visual identity
Seven design routes initially put forward by johnson banks for Mozilla: in a highly unusual process, the brand’s new identity was developed ‘in the open. , with each stage made public

CR: What about data. How has the rise of data and people relying on data impacted the creative process for you?

There is good and bad about data. The fact that you can track a brand before and after: very interesting, very useful. The fact that you can pretty much prove if something has worked. Certainly, in the NGO sector, you can see uplift, you can see thumbs raised, you can see awareness up or down. That is very useful. Obviously, if the awareness goes down that is very unfortunate!

There is another side to data which is a little tricky, which is the tendency to iteratively research – not with all of our clients but some of our clients. ‘We did a bit of research and that told us this, that and the other’, one client said to us the other day. And we said, ‘Who did you do the research with?’ and it turned out they had done it online with ten people. And, they had based major project decisions on these online interviews with ten people in Milwaukee or something. And, we were sort of thinking, ‘Hmmm, okay..’.

Now, I understand what happens of course. They get into the boardroom and someone – at director level says, ‘Have you researched this?’. Classic question. ‘Have you asked X about this? Do you know if Y will understand it?’ It is a classic non-executive director question, I have now learned: ‘Do you know if there is a market for this?’. So, they do something. They have to do something. And it can be completely derail a project. So that is the unfortunate side of data, I think.

Previous Ravensbourne logo, designed by johnson banks
Ravensbourne logo, designed by johnson banks

CR: In terms of actually coming up with ideas, what tools or techniques do you use to help you crack that? Are there processes that you use for that or is it much more intuitive?

The process of having an idea… Well, there are probably 12 books on that question! Currently, the way we do it is we attack it like a hive mind. So, we will have a kind of group meeting/briefing about a project. Usually we know a lot about it by that point. We very rarely write it down. We actually just have a decent briefing and kind of…spend a couple of hours just talking about it.

Then what we tend to do, is use these metal walls that you see behind [points to freestanding metal partitions in studio fir pinning rock up on]. We use them as a kind of sharing space for ideas. I kind of slightly stole this idea off a Dana Arnett, the Chicago-based designer at VSA. I went to see him once in the 90s and his office…well, first of all, the corridor to his office was covered – this was a public corridor actually, it wasn’t in the private corridor – it was a public corridor in an office space – it was covered in an annual report, which I thought was extraordinary. But they were just having a look – they stuck it on a wall. And, when you got inside his office they had a whole bunch of pinboards on rollers they had moved around the office and stuff was stuck on them so the work was done in public within the office. And, I thought this was a really good idea.

Also, I was slightly frustrated at the time about the fact that my designers tended to be still a bit ‘design college’ about their work: ‘This is mine and when is the crit Michael? OK I’ll show it to you on Thursday’. And, I find that quite frustrating. A, because I might be able to immediately to improve the idea or B, it might be a terrible idea and I’ll want them to stop work on it.

So, we started to adopt this way of working where we use these walls and it generally proves to be a very interesting [method]. You are working collectively. There are a lot of ideas there and we are relying in a way on the kind of scattergun approach, ‘Out of this will come something that will work’. I really don’t subscribe to the ‘genius graphic designer scribbles something in sketchbook, gives it to someone junior to work up’. I really don’t like that kind of thing. So I am just as likely to work up the projects myself if I have an idea on the bus.

We tackle it with breadth and time. We still protect quite long periods of time for the design process unlike – I think – quite a lot of people, who have kind of got themselves in this trap of doing stuff in hours…days or hours. We often work in weeks or months because generally speaking, the first week of ideas is useless. You can call it that, ‘Let’s get all the shit ideas on the wall and then next week we’ll do the good ones’. We quite regularly say that. But occasionally a first idea gets through, but that doesn’t happen very often.

Identity for the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage in Philadelphia, created by johnson banks

CR: how do you evaluate those ideas. What criteria do you use? Is there a process you use? Or, again, is it a more intuitive process based on experience?

Well, evaluating that wall of ideas is quite tough actually. Some of it is experience; some of it is gut feel; What I have learned about the client so far; some of the time, just having to be really honest with the designers about ‘well I think that is too close to something else’. You are obviously trying to find something that hasn’t been done before – it is quite hard to do in branding because a shit load of branding has been done. Branding as an entity has been in existence since…for the most of 20th century and now the 21st as well. So, you are sometimes drawing on a hundred years of problems really.

Sometimes something will appear overnight, and there is a little bit of paper of what it looks too like. But we are very, very keen to not do what we are used to calling ‘me toos’, you know something that is too close. Even if something is brilliantly fantastic, I sometimes have to shut things down.

But generally, we are trying to stay very positive and sort of say, ‘This is really interesting – where could we go? Could we take that further?’ But there aren’t any strict rules really for this. A lot of it is based on mind-gut feeling. The designers have to trust me a bit. And, then there is that interesting feeling when you see something that you can’t quite evaluate and you don’t quite know if it is really good or it is really bad. That is always an interesting sign when there is something on the wall and you are sort of, ‘Hmmm, I don’t really know’. That’s a good sign.

CR: What about for non-creative people, particularly on the client-side. How can you help them to evaluate ideas in a way that maybe gives them a bit more certainty. And is more useful for you and then doesn’t get into the real emotional, subjective response of, ‘Well I don’t like that colour’ or ‘That typeface’?

There are different ways, I think, to help clients through the evaluation process. One way, is to not just show one route. I kind of admire people who show one route but I think it is A,naïve and B, arrogant. That only you know the route… ‘Only I know the route that you must have’. And, I don’t really subscribe to that. We will often show them more than one idea. Sometimes we might show them all the ideas. That’s really fascinating. We’ll take them through the journey and this room will be full of ideas. And, then we’ll say, ‘And, we think these are the three that are working the best’. Nearly always, they agree with us. And, actually ‘the journey’ – if you like – is a really fascinating way of doing it. Because they…What you can then do is show the red herrings of why things didn’t work, as much as what does work. So that can work really well.

Some clients are really not used to seeing design work, and that is very interesting, like a roller coaster process. Recently, actually, one of our clients, who knew that his client team might not be [fine with evaluation] actually drew up evaluation criteria and agreed them with his team before the design presentations. To stop them going, ‘I don’t like that because’, ‘Well, no, actually, I don’t like that’. They had to have a reason. And, then he would force them to go back to the criteria: Is it this? Is it this? Does it challenge the market?; Is it saying something unexpected? And, that is quite a good idea. I remember thinking at the time, ‘oh, really?’ but actually, hmmm, I might take that, I might steal that – for certain types of very forensic clients it is quite a smart idea.

Science Museum logo by johnsonbanks

CR: Which leads onto the next question about how you then help a client or group of clients to convince the other people within the organisation. If they have to then sell this thing on internally to their stakeholders, how do you help them? Do you do something as formal as to give them a presentation that they can use or to give them a sort of cheap list or something that they can then use to get it through?

There are lots of different ways to do it, but with the scale of companies that we are working with, we are often having to present multiple times. I just did a narrative presentation yesterday which is at draft 29. I think I have done the presentation 12 times in the last two weeks or so. It probably wouldn’t be that unusual to keep redoing the same presentation. Now, that is an expensive way to do it, obviously, because they are paying me to effectively cascade the idea into the organisation.

Normally, at a certain point, yes, we take the agreed presentation and we give it to our clients in a form that they can then take and indeed sometimes workshop. And, that is the most successful way to do it, in that there is a sort of handover of the idea to them. And, then there is a lot more ownership involved there. Increasingly, you are seeing people workshopping or asking to workshop, or us suggesting it – to be fair – where you take, ‘Here’s the agreed idea: We know this is working – we are working on the guidelines but let’s take it back out to the people that we talked to and let’s workshop it’. Which again, if you asked me five years ago, I’d go ‘arrghhh’. But now I can really see the benefit of that. Because people get really engaged with it, especially if they were people that were also asked in the first stage. Eight months later you go back to them and you say, ‘Look we think this works. A, do you agree? B, let’s see if you can make it work in your day-to-day’. It is very, very powerful and you see it working really well. It works fantastically well with tone of voice and messaging as well because you say, ‘We have agreed we are going to say this at the top level, now how would we adjust that for your market, for the people you are talking to?’ And, we would do the same for the design. It is very powerful.

A book on branding by Michael Johnson
Branding in Five and a Half Steps, by Michael Johnson; Published by Thames & Hudson, £29.95

CR: Are we talking about co-creation here. Because that has become something of a buzzword and something people are increasingly talking about collaboration rather than handing over a solution. How has that percolated into what you do? And, how big a part of the process do you think that is going to become in future?

I think that co-creation and collaboration is an interesting topic because we stopped the whole, ‘I’m the designer, you’re the client’ thing a long time ago. Possibly earlier than some. Just because I didn’t like it – it felt very ‘them and us’. I also think I was discovering even then some of our clients were equally as design aware as we were and were also equally able to have a good idea or at least make a good suggestion. So, we have been trying for sometime to be much less protective about an idea and stop doing that designer thing, ‘What do you mean you don’t like Helvetica?’ or, ‘What do you mean you don’t like purple?’ and sort of go, ‘Okay, interesting, tell me about that?’. And, so, a lot of our first design presentations are much more like workshops actually. Now, obviously, it is beholden on me, especially me, to steer this in the direction that I want them to go. I don’t want them to go down a route of something that doesn’t really work or I can see won’t really work. Sometimes I have to let them see that for themselves.

Once a route is agreed, we quite often have in-house design teams in here, working at Johnson Banks, sort of on placement, on reverse placement if you like. It works really well. We did that sort of by accident once and now we have started suggesting it. Because an in-house team maybe doesn’t get the variety that you might get in consultancy so it is interesting for them to come to Johnson Banks for two weeks at a time, bring projects here, or work on them with us and then take them back. And, then, yes, you do get this really genuine sense of, ‘Oh they have really taken that idea and are running with it’. In my business, in the branding business, if people can’t run with the idea, if they can’t take what you have started and use it, it is probably going to fail, if I am honest. If it is too complicated or if it is too simple, or if it is not quite fit for purpose or if we got the pictures wrong or the tone of voice wrong, then they will struggle to use it and it will eventually get dropped. Often, they die a long and lingering death I find. It doesn’t happen that often but it does happen.

Michael Johnson will share more insights on Creative Review’s online training programme, Mastering Creativity.


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