Living it small

There’s just a couple of people, plus a little dog called Betty, and a row of The British Design and Art Direction yellow pencils manning the compact Johnson Banks office in Chelsea, when I go to visit. This was around the turn of the year when everyone was away, but the gaffer, Michael Johnson, prides himself on running a small outfit. He doesn’t want it to be much bigger than the six or so people he has at present. Instead, he’s buying an old Baptist chapel as a studio in Clapham so that they can all spread out.

Do you believe that “don’t want to get any bigger” thing? I tell Johnson that my contacts book is full of people who told me the same thing five, ten or 15 years ago – and who are now running huge, or at any rate big, offices (or alternatively, have vanished without trace). But the intention is good, and to some extent Johnson practises what he preaches – by the simple expedient of turning down bread-and-butter work in favour of more desirable commissions. Desirable in two ways: high-profile stuff like work for the Government, the Design Council and the British Council: and high fee-paying work (not always the same thing) for corporate clients such as PolyGram, BT and Yellow Pages.

Those in the design business probably feel they have known Johnson Banks longer than they have: this particular corporate design consultancy has been going only since 1992, and the amiable Johnson (previously to be found at Wolff Olins) quickly built a reputation – just in time for the change of government and the new emphasis on design. Tom Banks, incidentally, was a business partner who left the practice after a couple of years and is now, as chance would have it, at Wolff Olins. But, insofar as the public is concerned, the breakthrough came in 1998 when Johnson designed the Government’s first “annual report” and then a series of posters for the British Council’s bases overseas that seized the attention of the national press.

This is the poster series that neatly sums up ideas of old and new Britain by splicing images together. A Stubbs horse becomes a Damien Hirst sheep, Shakespeare becomes Stoppard, and so on. It is an almost naively simple device, and it works very well. Previously, Britain’s poster image overseas was retro in the extreme. “I went to the British Council offices in Jakarta,” Johnson recalls. “Along the corridors, you had Welsh castles on one side, and Morris dancers on the other. It was scary, really.”

As we talk, Johnson starts pulling clocks out of boxes. These mark a subsequent phase of British Council work. Intended to be teaching aids in overseas classrooms, they have acquired the status of cult objects. There’s the clock where the numbers are replaced by words: “One”, “Two”, “Three” and so on. There’s the clock which spells out the mysterious way the British tell the time: “five past”, “a quarter to”. And finally there’s a very Michael Johnson clock indeed: the one where the numerals are replaced with British icons, often oblique. Such as Henry VIII at six o’clock. Geddit?

There’s also a big board book for the classroom, where icons are similarly used as a teaching aid, each symbol explaining a word. The cover boldly announces its function: LURNING INGLISH. What all the English-as-a-foreign-language students will make of this Molesworth material is anyone’s guess.

Johnson is not at all embarrassed about being associated with New Labour, or, for that matter, heading a consultancy which is, as he puts it, “umbilically linked to the nature of being British”. Or rather, New British. “I am quite © political. I just couldn’t have worked for the last government. Warm beer and cricket was just not me,” he says.

He remarks how the new administration delivered a shot in the arm for cultural clients of his such as the Victoria and Albert Museum, or the Design Council. “Suddenly, everything moved up a gear – or three gears. There was a mandate for change,” he says.

Now he is going further in his government connections: he is designing the identity of the forthcoming referendum campaign for the Single European Currency. This is technically a cross-party affair, but primarily a matter of Government policy. Johnson was well placed, since he had worked for the Labour Party before the May 1997 election, on tiny, but noticeable things, such as mugs and umbrellas for party conferences.

“Without the change of government, what would have happened?” he ponders. “I think we would still have been doing OK. The Tories were never going to do an annual report. And maybe the British Council would have thought twice about spending the money on the things that it did, and so on. So yes, the new Government has had an effect.”

His team designed the V&A’s William Morris exhibition, which happened to be one of the most successful the museum has ever mounted. He is heavily involved in the Science Museum’s Wellcome Wing project. He’s getting there. And he admits that it was, on the whole, a good thing that he was not out on his own during the so-called “design decade” of the Eighties. “I was watching and learning during the Eighties, working for other people. I watched one company go bust. I learned a lot from other people’s mistakes. I was determined to stay small, but to have clients as big as I could possibly have.”

The old idea that big corporations demand to work with big design consultancies is finally on its way out, he says. There is Johnson Banks, a handful of people with computers – but it can pull in what he describes as “some pretty chunky clients”. This is where the late Nineties score over the late Eighties. Although, some of the old culture clings on. BT hasn’t let him loose on its overall corporate identity yet, but watch out for Johnson-designed identities as sections within the organisation are rationalised.

So, if he wants to stay small and has proved that he can handle big clients that way, how does he cope with the inevitable influx of commissions that fame brings? “Well – we do turn away work. At certain times last year we turned away a lot. You have to, if you want to keep things small, lean, and so on. Also – we don’t really market ourselves. There’s no cold-calling. We don’t really look for work,” he says.

This may sound incredible to all the designers out there who are light on commissions, but here is Johnson calmly telling me that he doesn’t go out looking for work – and that if he gets offered too much of the wrong sort, he refers it elsewhere, or just says no thanks. It’s pretty cool, and from certain other people I wouldn’t believe it. But from him, I do. And he admits that the perfect mix of work from a satisfaction point of view is by no means the same as the perfect mix from a financial point of view.

“Eighty per cent of our work is fantastically interesting, 20 per cent is humdrum. That’s a good ratio. I call it the Robin Hood Syndrome. We need the blue-chip stuff to pay for the cultural work. If we just did the cultural work, we could find ourselves struggling,” he says.

Everyone in the practice is a designer, though responsibilities vary. There are no administrative staff. “We’re very Nineties – I like answering the phone myself,” says Johnson. Very Nineties in another way, too: he is planning to make a TV series with Diverse Productions for Channel Four about the nature of English identity – something that bounces off his work on the National Identity Zone in the Millennium Dome. It makes sense: with his long hair, black-rimmed specs and designer clothes, he will make a good TV frontman. And he’s the right person to give an overview, too, since this is the way he tends to work. He describes himself as a “planner” as much as a designer. “I have to work out in my head what it means – it might be a word, a phrase, a drawing. Then we take it from there. Every project is worked on by me with one or two other designers.”

Anna Davis is the account director – Johnson the creative force. The one who gets to meet the clients depends on the nature of the client. Although it is a personal approach, it is a very professional one: for instance, the consultancy prides itself on making detailed estimates for its work, never sliding in hidden extras, and never exceeding those estimates unless, in Johnson’s words, “something has gone drastically wrong”.

It might seem, then, that anyone could do this. All you need, in accounting terms, is a small studio, lots of computers, a few people, and the phone numbers of trusted collaborators. Johnson says that the office would have had to be twice the size a few years ago to handle the work: also, to establish from scratch, you would have to spend around 30 000 on equipment. Well, anyone can try for a loan. But that’s not the point. The point is Johnson and his knack of being able to distil briefs that may be complex, diffuse, or workaday, down into simple, intelligent, witty messages.

Be that as it may, and despite everything he says, I am still prepared to wager folding money on one thing: that Johnson will be in command of a considerably larger design practice – both in billing and in staff terms – before very many years are out.

Millennium guidelines

This is typical Johnson Banks: a detailed, beautifully produced and time-consuming piece of design work which has been done simply for the fun of it. There’s no reason to do it beyond a desire to produce an alternative to the conventional designer’s Christmas/New Year card. But the level of design attention is extraordinary.

The Millennium Guidelines presentation looks very corporate, very official, with its silver and blue ring binder, its thoroughly believable sections (Identity, Applications, Living the Brand), its earnest considerations of typeface (Century New Style), body copy (Lorennium Ipsum), colour (the Millennium Moods palette of dark blue, sea green and silver), logotypes, packaging, promotional devices, brand values, and a valuable do’s and don’ts section.

At a glance you’re fooled, such is the consummate professionalism of the thing. But the more you look – and the further into the document you go – the more absurd it becomes. The typeface, for example, is nonsense, yet curiously logical: an amalgam of characters from the past 2000 years. The suggested spiky Dome haircut is good, but I preferred the subversive quality of the stated millennium brand values: ‘big yet small’, ‘global yet local’, ‘the end yet the beginning’, ‘modern yet historic’, and so on. A bit of a dig at Blairite speech patterns lurking there, perchance? The Millennium countdown calendar proffers key dates (‘Day 275: conception date for Millennium baby… Day 0: World ends’). The instant logo stencil kit is very close to the bone with its images of new dawns, eggs hatching, time ticking.

But perhaps best of all, there is no direct mention of the progenitors of this merry prank, which sent it out in its hundreds. Instead, there is a neutral message running on the backs of all the pages: ‘for more information call The Brand Team on 0171-351 7734’. Ring that number, and the chances are that you’ll get Michael Johnson picking up the phone.

Millennium Guidelines is such a very well presented spoof that it provokes a spasm of reflection: if Johnson is prepared to spend so heavily on something that takes off both his own craft and by implication some of his own clients in this way, then how, exactly, do you know when he IS being serious? How tongue-in-cheek is he on the day-to-day work – the British Council springs unbidden to mind? My advice is: don’t worry about it. With work of this calibre, you can count yourself lucky to have him at all.

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