Advice: Michael Johnson – How to design with transparency

  • Michael Johnson
  • How to design with transparency
  • Michael Johnson, founder of Johnson Banks, shares his experiences around designing with transparency, specifically the global brand refresh for Mozilla, which was carried out openly and (very) publicly.

Transparency starts at home

Designers seem to be hard-wired to protect their work. It starts at college, where, scarred by dysfunctional ‘crits’ [critiques], they curl their arms around their project, only to reveal them in their full glory minutes before the deadline. This is partly self-preservation—it avoids the annoying quip from the class ‘know-it-all’—or it stops their tutor from ‘meddling’. They bring this mindset into the real-world, pulling all-nighters before the deadline because this has become their modus operandi.

Yet, if they arrive at Johnson Banks, they are faced with acres of metal walls; ideas everywhere; magnets by the million; rolling, every-day discussionsand an expectation that their thoughts are shared for dissection and improvement, not hidden until the very last minute. They discover that half an idea might be picked up by someone else, and by the next day, become whole.

Some simply can’t handle this way of working and run away to more traditional climes. But we’ve discovered that this multi-headed, hive-mind approach produces genuine collaboration and more robust ideas. If they can make it through three weeks of internal interrogation, they are already halfway there.

Why am I telling you this? Because designing ‘in the open’ starts in your studio, and with your colleagues. The next step is sharing this with clients.

Designing ‘in the open’ starts in your studio, and with your colleagues. The next step is sharing this with clients.

Now, the time-honoured presentation technique is the obligatory ‘three routes’. One safe, one ‘just right’, and then there is the weird-and-unlikely-to-be-chosen route. But, share the design journey youve been on, and the presentation becomes a workshop. Two-way, not one. It’s a reciprocal exchange of ideas, not a monologue.

At first, I was concerned that lesser ideas might win out. But that hardly ever happens. Explain why route B was abandoned and how it informed route F, and most people agree, whilst better understanding the design thinking that got us there in the process.

So the next logical step is to do this in public. When Mozilla said ‘we’re an open source software company, we’d like to rebrand in the open’, we gulped a little and thought, ‘what’s the worst that could happen?’. As it happens, quite a lot of fairly awful things did happen—but—from the initial strategic options onwards, every single stage WAS shared.

Now, at first, the comments on the project blog were polite and considered. When we got to the design stages, they were less so. And yes, the public scrutiny did have an effect, and some design decisions did change. Some of this was initially painful, especially when routes were revealed to be too close to those elsewhere. But soon we realised that traditionally expensive and time consuming copyright checks were now being carried out in real time, and saving us and our client from any future embarrassment.

We realised that traditionally expensive and time consuming copyright checks were now being carried out in real time, and saving us and our client from any future embarrassment.

Slowly, bit by bit, stage by stage, we got from our initial designs to four, which were shared again, tested, and discussed. And after a final burst, we had found the best way forward—and Mozilla agreed.

Some of the trolling hurt a little, I’ll admit. But—we’d said ‘yes’—we were determined to hang in there. And, perhaps in retrospect, by allowing the many ‘Mozillians’ around the world to have their say along the way, once we got to the final route, the shock of the new was already old. Perhaps the process side-stepped the now rather predictable ‘new logo’ debacle and accompanying hoo-ha.

Is this the right process for all clients? Maybe not. But this is something that can’t happen overnight—you can’t ‘bolt it on’. It starts weeks, perhaps months back from the client presentation; it involves a climb-down from traditionally confrontational studio practices, and a reboot in thinking for all involved.

Should we all be more transparent about what we do? Maybe.

It is worth giving it a try? Definitely.


Image Credits:

All images kindly supplied by Johnson Banks.



Michael Johnson set up Johnson Banks in 1992, after learning his trade in brand consultancy, design and art direction across the globe. His company is known for how they define, then design, brands that make a difference. They work with people who want to do big things: tackle hunger; fight for an open internet; address child poverty; raise billions for innovation and education; bring culture and enlightenment to the world; create products that question the norm; shift paradigms and change lives. 

Their projects are as varied as world famous museums, art centres in Philadelphia and Paris and not-for-profits and impact investors across the world. They rebranded the pioneers of venture philanthropy, Acumen Fund, and have been working with Mozilla in the world’s first truly ‘open’ rebrand. Globally they are working with Action Against Hunger, in Europe they are working with the Gates Foundation and in the UK they are working with the University of Cambridge.

Johnson himself oversees the strategic and creative output of the company but is just as likely to roll up his sleeves and get involved in the work himself. He is a regular speaker at the world’s design and branding conferences, including Typo Berlin, Kyoorius Design Yatra and several Brand New conferences, and has conducted lecture tours across India and China.

He has judged design competitions from San Francisco to Beijing, and was D&AD’s President in 2003.

Johnson has two dozen designs in the V&A’s permanent collection and has won most of the design world’s key prizes, including seven ‘Yellow’ and one ‘Black’ Pencil from D&AD. In 2017 he was awarded its President’s Award, joining a list of previous recipients that include Terence Conran, Ridley Scott and Alan Parker.

In 2014 he set out to write a definitive book on the entire branding process that wasn’t biased to either strategy or design, but treated both as equals. Two and a half years later the project came to fruition in Branding: In Five and Half Steps, published in 2016 by Thames and Hudson, which is now a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic. His first book, Problem Solved, came out as a second edition in 2012 (Phaidon Press) and he has started work on a third.

In his spare time he dreams of being a better husband, dad and guitar player.

Advice: Michael Johnson – How to design with transparency

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