Mind your language

Michael Johnson’s posters for the British Council’s offices have endeared him to the media. Tom Bawden looks at other elements of the job, which will jazz up the council’s classrooms.

Johnson Banks uses language as the focal point of a new campaign it has created for the British Council, to promote the “new Britain” brand abroad through its 900 English language classrooms. The campaign, which is part of a bigger review of council offices, goes live at the end of this month.

“I made nine trips to British Council offices around the world. Talking to non-English people about the English language, it occurred to me it is an incredibly idiosyncratic language. I wanted to express that in a way which was entertaining, informative and would liven up the classroom,” says consultancy creative director Michael Johnson.

Johnson Banks has created 42 language-oriented cards to be used in council classrooms.

“These are particularly interesting because the language is integral to the design, which is itself about language. So the language and visuals work together,” adds Johnson.

Johnson initially found the task daunting. “Looking at a page of irregular verbs and trying to work out how to communicate them in a fun way was difficult at first, but we really got into it after a bit and realised what a rich language English actually is,” he says.

The classroom cards are supplemented by 12 corridor posters which aim to depict new Britain, and have been widely featured in the press. Three clocks are also part of the campaign. The clocks’ numbers communicate British culture: for example, England football captain Alan Shearer is at number nine.

“When we started doing the posters it was tempting to dump the heritage aspect altogether, but we realised we couldn’t do that. People still come to England for that and it’s important. So, instead, we quite literally combined heritage with contemporary images. We put Rowan Atkinson’s face together with Benny Hill’s on one image, and a George Stubbs horse transmutes into Damien Hirst’s pickled sheep [pictured left],” says Johnson.

In the longer term, Johnson is working with the British Council’s in-house design team on interior concepts (DW 4 September). When completed these will roll out to the British Council’s classrooms across the world.

“At present, British Council classrooms vary considerably from country to country and are often drab and institutional. This is a waste of a potentially great branding opportunity. More than 1.2 million people attend a class each year, or 130 000 people a day,” says Johnson.

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