Michael Johnson on Wanderlust & Typo Berlin

Michael Johnson on Wanderlust & Typo Berlin

As part of our coverage of this years Typo conference in Berlin we had the chance to ask Michael Johnson of johnson banks a couple of questions. He’s worked on many projects for the British Government, art centres in Philadelphia and Paris, a space observatory in Japan and bilingual typeface in China. In London, johnson banks designed the identity for the Science Museum and their first airline, Virgin Atlantic. Recently johnson banks worked with Mozilla on their widely discussed open source rebranding project.

As far as I can tell this is your 3rd visit to Typo? Are you excited about going back to Berlin again?

Well I had always wanted to experience Typo but didn’t actually start visiting until quite recently. It was pretty much all I had expected, and more. The sheer scale, the parallel talks, the calibre of speakers and general level of interest in and discussion of design… it was and still is pretty impressive. Unprecedented, world-class and arguably world-leading.

Are you bringing your guitar with you? I’ve sadly only been able to watch the video of your talk on Guitars & Graphics.

Ha – well I might bring one but I definitely will NOT be playing it on stage. I did that talk a total of four times and it was one of the hardest things to prepare for, ever. It was more like a performance than the traditional design speech – and co-ordinating complicated guitar parts, whilst playing a slideshow, and delivering a speech was phenomenally tough to do.

This years Typo theme is Wanderlust. How does travel influence your work?

I’m not completely sure how to interpret the theme just yet. It is true that, in my early days as a designer, the two or three years I spent out of England definitely formed me into a more rounded and worldly citizen. I returned to a late eighties/early nineties London design scene that was quite insular and much in need of a shake-up – so perfect timing really. Nowadays the travel either tends to be for work (such as California for Mozilla) or as speaker (such as last year’s Design Yatyra in India).

I think, actually, that the ‘wanderlust’ that I’m more drawn to is more abstract and is regards to my profession. My desire is to open up the branding process as a kind of open-source approach which I’ve recently done with Branding: In Five and a Half Steps. And we’ve been sharing how we work with the Mozilla project, carried out almost entirely in the open. I guess I’m always pushing at new ways to approach what I do and these are two good examples.

What’s your favourite place that you have visited and where’s still on your bucket list?

Well for decades I would (and probably still might) say Japan – I feel both really at home and continually stimulated there, especially Tokyo. I’ll admit though that after a slow start, India is slowly getting under my skin. Bucket list? Iceland, the Nordics, all that. Too much Scandi-noir, perhaps…

You are opening the ‘Brand Talks’ stage at Typo this year. I find it a fascinating idea to see client and creative on stage together. How do you think the format will work out?

I think it’s a very good idea and have been keen, for some time now, for the design and creative audience to get a much better understanding of ‘the other side’. I don’t know quite how it has happened, perhaps it’s rooted in design education, but there’s this odd tendency for designers to see clients as the people who ultimately destroy their creations – which is a pretty confrontational/deluded way of thinking. Understanding what clients are trying to do, getting them on board with your ideas, involving, collaborating – these are all crucial to the success of pretty much any major branding project we do.

If one of your clients would be up for it, who would you choose to go on stage with you to talk about a project?

Well, for the first time ever, I have recently done this. Myself and my Mozilla client, Tim Murray, presented work in progress at last year’s Brand New Conference in Nashville. It went pretty well and people seemed engaged. It would be good to do it more.



Thanks for chatting to us Michael. Tickets are still available for Typo Berlin, we’ll see you there.

Glenn Garriock