VOL. MMXIII..No. 202

In Conversation | Thought Leaders and Iconoclasts

The Bold and the Beautiful: Michael Johnson on the Power and Principle Behind Brand Identity Design

 

 

 

Michael Johnson is founding partner of johnson banks, one of the leading creative agencies in the world with such brands as Virgin Atlantic, The Guggenheim Foundation, and most recently Mozilla as clients.

 

Michael’s new book, Branding in Five and a Half Steps (2016, Thames Hudson) is a fantastic visual guide to building a brand identity, with crisp and concise examples that illustrate the steps necessary for innovating a compelling brand.

 

But make no mistake: this is not just about communications design, rather, how bold graphics act as signposts for market competence and corporate values. Johnson’s book isn’t just about design, but how the process of designing a brand identity is as critical as the icon that comes to symbolize it.

 

We knew we had to talk with him about the trends in visual language of brands, the power of typography, and that annoying habit new clients have of wanting a logo before they’ve even established what their brand is about.

 

 

  1. LESS IS MORE: THE POWER BRAND IS STRIPPED DOWN.

 

MICHAEL JOHNSON: I think that there’s no doubt that the ever-present global brands that surround us on Main Street, TV and the web are increasingly simplifying the way they communicate. Nike has just become a swoosh, Apple its symbol, and McDonald’s its arches. Even relatively complicated brands such as Starbucks have edited out much of the original detail of their mark.

 

We may of course, be just living through a semi-revival of minimalist design tendencies. In Europe, modernism never really went away, but in the USA it became such a prevalent corporate style that by the 1970’s, it was almost inevitable that post-modernism throw all that reductionism out of the window. Fast forward to the 21st century and stripped-back, pared-down, “flat” designs are all the rage again, so “less is more” is being re-discovered by a new generation of designers.

 

At top, a page from Johnson’s book highlighting the global iconography of public transportation. Below, johnson banks’ recent work with mozilla.

{ “The ever-present global brands that surround us are increasingly simplifying the way they communicate. Nike has just become a swoosh, Apple its symbol, and McDonald’s its arches.” }


 

 

  1. PURITY IS BLACK AND WHITE. BUT DON’T OVERLOOK THE POWER OF COLOR.

MICHAEL JOHNSON: think every designer loves the idea of stripping a brand back to just black or white, and there’s no doubt that sometimes it can look outstanding to remove all the color.

 

The French telecommunications brand, Orange, is clear and direct in both name, type, and it’s ownership of the color orange.

 

But, increasingly, sectors are color-coded. For example, banks are still overwhelmingly blue. Emergency charities over-rely on red. Personally, I would nearly always advise our clients to “zag” when faced with a sector that “zigs” — especially in regards to color. If you can own a color, that’s a remarkable achievement – think of Orange’s [a European telecommunications brand] use of orange, for example.

 


{ “It’s a mistake to start the ‘design’ phase too early – way before any meaningful decisions have been made over what an organization stands for.” }


 

The Hillary Clinton campaign emphasized the forward-moving arrow, which allowed infinite opportunities for messaging and iconography.

 

  1. DON’T GET CAUGHT UP IN LOGOS. BUILD A BRAND STRATEGICALLY.

MICHAEL JOHNSON: It’s all right and correct to want to have the “right” logo but in my opinion, some clients dwell for far too long on the precise minutiae of letterforms or a symbol’s curves when what we should all be worrying about are the broader aspects of brand identity – the design toolkit, the tone of voice, the messages, the visual assets, and so on. Increasingly brands are a huge “iceberg” of applications that need careful thought, yet still too much time is spent obsessing over the logo that sits above the waterline.

 

It’s a mistake to start the “design” phase too early – way before any meaningful decisions have been made over what an organization stands for and its “reason to be.” I spent the 90’s designing great solutions for the wrong problems.

 

 

So we started changing the way we worked, insisting that there must be initially, a research stage so we could understand the market, who stood out, who didn’t, and why. Then we started developing a verbal, strategic step. Within just a few weeks we could begin to define what kind of brand our clients wanted to be – and this quickly became a key strategic tool.

 


{ Johnson’s book isn’t just about design, but how the process of designing a brand identity is as critical as the icon that comes to symbolize it. }


 

The Paul Rand-designed UPS logo on the left was the brand’s first attempt at modernization. But later, the brand further streamlined and removed the superfluous package.

 

 

Once these two steps are completed, only then can we start the design — Step 3 – and often there is a blurring of the two as strategy influences design, and vice versa.

 

  1. GREAT BRAND IDENTITIES EVOLVE, BUT THE MESSAGE STAYS THE SAME.

 

MICHAEL JOHNSON: I think this can play two ways. Clearly very simple and “timeless” designs such as FedEx or Mobil are incredibly simple and rely on letterforms and designs that almost look “undesigned.”

 

Conversely, there’s another type of “classic” where a brand idea is first to market. While there had been some “blurred” identities before it, the Tate [museum] was the first public-facing brand that moved through different states of focus. The original idea was so strong that even when it was redesigned last year, they kept the same idea and simply rendered it in easier-to-use dots.

 

Wolf Olins created the museum’s iconic identity  in 2000 featuring a blurring of the name, which became further blurred with its most recent permutation, as re-designed by North in 2016.

What brand design can’t plan for is force majeure – for example, when something happens that was unforeseen and out of their control. Paul Rand’s string/bow on the original UPS logo did, eventually start to look a little old fashioned. Or when changes at the top of an organization mean that a new director demands a change, and just as a brand is starting to become a classic, it can be wiped away. This is often a huge mistake.

 

  1. NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE POWER OF A BOLD TYPEFACE.

MICHAEL JOHNSON: There’s no doubt that type is a very unique way to express an organization’s voice. If there’s the time, money and enthusiasm, bespoke typestyles and typefaces can quickly do a great job and make a brand instantly recognizable. Even if there isn’t time to commission, just the judicious choice of something unusual, or less ubiquitous can make a difference.

 

Once everyone used Helvetica. Then Meta. Then Gotham. Now Circular is the typeface du jour. The pressure to conform is always huge – but the paradox is that every project ends up looking the same. Over the last decade, a massive amount of organizations have adopted simplified, sans serif fonts. Some London companies seem to have given up choosing any other fonts and just specify the same ones each time. This strikes me as inordinately lazy but again, there are very clear cycles in typography.

 

>> Michael Johnson, Branding in Five and a Half Steps, published by Thames & Hudson, 2016. Click here to purchase.

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