Soul search

Can designers stay true to their ethical ideals while keeping a successful commercial consultancy afloat? In a paper delivered at last night’s D&AD student symposium, Michael Johnson revealed how hard it is to reconcile these two goals

People often ask about our ‘ethical’ stance. Probably as a result of a long string of projects in the cultural, Government and charity sector, they assume we’re hard-coded to save the planet, the arts, the children, whoever needs salvation at this particular moment. And it is true that we’re more interested in projects that open people’s hearts and minds to art, science, culture or charity. This is an area where our skills can have a genuine effect, not just line the pockets of our Lear-jetted friends in the City or American multinationals.

We’re passionately interested in what I call the ‘four Cs’: countries, cities, culture and charity, and I would argue these are the last uncharted frontiers for identity design – the clients are open to ideas and are looking for something different. They’re not closed to change, risk-averse or blinded by brand strategy in the way that many corporations have become. I joke in our defence that ‘We’ll definitely go to heaven’ – someone recently quipped that ‘You’re not just going to heaven, you’re designing the Pearly Gates’.

My accountant would wish us to do more blue-chip work, and we do try. We’ve had some successes, like More Than and our work for the Yellow Pages and Blackpool Pleasure Beach. But it’s also true that this year we’re doing Save the Children, last year we did Christian Aid, and the year before that, Shelter.

If you’d installed CCTV in the meeting rooms where we recently pitched to a loyalty management company, then a major museum, I fear the energy levels were completely different. We did try, honest, but I suspect they could tell where our interests lay.

Being ‘ethical’ has become phenomenally trendy now, but we’ve gently grown into our role, not written it in 36-point on our home page. We did more blue-chip work in the 1990s – and made more money – but for the past decade we’ve become more interested in the four Cs.

I’ll admit I’m sceptical of those who profess to be ‘ethical’, then accept with unseemly haste projects for Coca-Cola or Nike – if you’re going to talk the talk then at least try to walk it too (albeit in less fashionable trainers). But being ‘trendy’ and ethical and balancing the books is hard – inevitably, the big bucks arrive searching for the next big thing, and from Neville Brody to David Carson to Tomato, edgy, avant-garde graphics have sold their soul to the corporations and become swiftly blunted.

The deciding factor is often money. Johnson Banks has grown up, and competes for large identity projects against vast consultancies that seem to have far more resources, but are often less nimble. To stand a chance we need a decent office and a team of great designers, and that brings salaries, mortgages and break-even targets.

It’s no coincidence that those designers doing entirely cultural work are two (wo)man bands working on kitchen tables – they can survive on projects with £100, not £1000, budgets. The rest of us either behave like latter-day Robin Hoods (stealing from rich clients to fund the poor) or have discovered that while this sector may never have proper budgets, the people now have sufficient resources to ring us back the same day rather than the next week.

The paradox of ‘ethical’ design is lower fees, so the consultancies can’t employ many designers, or offer (highly unethical) unpaid placements. Students may be drawn to ethical design, but they will find far fewer opportunities. Every year an ex-student contacts me in a dilemma, juggling offers from a big branding group offering security and salary, versus a smaller consultancy where they’ll save the planet, make peanuts, but stick to the principles they held dear only a few months previously.

Another paradox is that much of the work fêted by designers has historically been fashion- or music-related. But it’s virtually impossible to think of a charity project someone like Peter Saville has ever done – fashion graphics provide many with their first inspiration but offers little or no ethical satisfaction. Our graphic heroes have historically been gauged on the quality of their work, not the Green credentials of their clients. It’s tough to name more than just a handful of designers (James Victore in the US, Pierre Bernard in France) who have rejected corporations for agitation. Maybe that’s changing and perhaps the new generation writing essays on ‘First Things First’ will actually try to live up to their words (rather than mentally signing up, then going home to count their cash).

But if the problem is not losing your soul, then the solution is very simple. Do good. Do good work. But stay in business. For many that’s a trickier mantra to maintain than it sounds.

Michael Johnson is design director of Johnson Banks

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