The FYI on DIY

The FYI on DIY

In this thought of the week Michael Johnson, creative director of design company Johnson Banks talks about the transition over the years from a silo system of design to the modern day DIY designer. And as he explains, the creative outlets are vast. Originally published on

This is an adaptation of the keynote speech given a fortnight ago at the St Brides Design conference by johnson banks creative director, Michael Johnson.

Once, design was all about silos. You left college, you decided which suited you best, then off you went. If you went into identity, it was tough to switch to annual reports. And vice versa. If you did a lot of TV, you just did more and more TV. Or you could take the cash and go into advertising, or give up and go into direct mail.

That was it. It was simple.

The phrase ‘do it yourself’ meant only one thing – striking out on your own. Cutting free. Cutting out that level of ‘annoying creative director’ (and possibly those deeply bugging account directors too) and going it alone. So generations of designers in the UK every few years departed from Pentagram

…or Wolff Olins

…(as summed up in this neat diagram*), and did exactly that, and this pattern was echoed around the world. This didn’t escape the thorny issue of pesky clients wanting one thing, and you wanting to do something entirely different. But at least, in one sense, you were doing it for yourself.

And that was the way it was. For decades. Then in the nineties, something changed. A whole swathe of companies merrily ignored the silo system and refused to specialise. At first this was a little discombobulating, but actually, watching a company likeAirside merrily switch from logos, to illustration, to animation, to t-shirts or websites was, and is, quite inspiring. It really was possible to swap and chop and change. The silos could be skipped, it seemed.

It now seems that almost anything is possible. Given their new-found freedom, some designers have chosen to concentrate on themselves first, and worry about clients later (with clients assuming the role of ‘occasional corporate sponsors’). Want to do a book? Well, do a book. Fletcher Forbes Gill wrote a small tome on the things that inspired them and found a publisher – fifty years later the company they became, Pentagram, continue to publish but often on their own terms, printing first and signing publishing contracts later.

Stefan Sagmeister’s holidays are almost as important as his real work now – in a way the design industry vacations vicariously through him every five years and many wonder in turn why they can’t take a year out to do whatever they want and hang the consequences. Other designers like Nicolas Feltron and Chris Doyle have turned themselves into the entire story, whether as annual reports or identity guidelines.

The idea of ‘DIY’ isn’t new though. It’s tempting to think that this new-found freedom is a 21st century phenomenon, but for decades designers have had good ideas and pitched them to like-minded people. Harry Beck’s underground map was just an attempt to clean up a messy topographic jumble. The solution that was never commissioned, initially rejected, then only run in a paltry 500 copies. It took two years for the map to receive a decent print run.

Now we’re accustomed to good ideas coming to market much more quickly. Need to print a handful of full-colour books cost-effectively? You’ll need to look at the Bob Books website. Fancy running a few copies of your own little newspaper? Email Newspaper Club.

Looking for ways to combine your two favourite things? TakeNiklaus Troxler as your guide. His love of graphic design and jazz led to him setting up his own music festival in his home village of Willisau (population of just over 7,000 people) now in its 36th year. And guess what – he gets to do the poster.

Got something to say? Well, blog about it. Design Observer andDesignBoom are, in effect the new digital design magazines, whilst established actual magazines like Eye magazine are starting to find their digital feet.

Of course, online there’s a lot of this...

...but maybe that’s to be expected.

If you’re fed up with printers, you can try doing it yourself, either screenprinted or risographed at companies like Print Club London and Ditto press.

And maybe graphic design can really translate into product. Thirty years ago it didn’t seem possible – designers like Massimo Vignelli, happily switching from maps and wayfinding to product and furniture design, seemed like a one-off.

But watching M&Co’s legacy continue as products (not graphic design) makes you wonder why graphic designers’ skills can’t translate into ‘things’ more often. Years ago we didn’t consider it, but now we balance identity projects with designing letters, airmail, trousers, tea-cups, fans, you name it. There is no rule that says we must stay in that identity silo, after all.

Do your own type

The advent of cost-effective typography has changed the rules of this game as well. Once a company’s own typeface might cost hundreds of thousands, so something like the VAG typeface (created for Volkswagen Audi Group) would have been a major investment. Now it’s much, much less. Clients look at the ‘tone of voice’ gained by a bespoke font, and they can see the value, and the opportunity to brand with words as well as pictures.

Designers like Henrik Kubel and Jonathan Barnbrook create bespoke designs virtually for every project, partly ‘because they can’, but mainly because it lends each project its own, unique air that becomes much harder to copy.

We’ve been experimenting in down-time with the combination of languages to create bilingual typography. The work stemmed out of a paid project for the Embassy in Japan, but has now become a research project all of its own.

We haven’t really been ‘paid’ for it yet (unless you count the column inches) but that’s not the point – it’s already led to an equivalent project in China. It’s just something that’s interesting, and we’ll do it for ourselves, for now. Of course, when and if a major type foundry wants to talk about making it official, we’ll take the call.

Taking control of the content

The biggest change of the last decade or so is that designers seem less dependent on an insightful client brief, and are stepping into a ‘content vacuum’ with perfectly sound ideas of their own. The Partners neatly combined The National Gallery’s content (world-class images) with a great sponsor (Hewlett Packard) to create this multi-award winning piece.

Johnson banks weren’t briefed to create story-telling barrel sculptures, it just seemed the best way to explain the way the whisky is made.

Trying to control the content doesn’t always work, of course. Tate Britain didn’t react too well to these ideas to ‘bring art to life’ by recreating scenes in the back garden with torches, twins, a baby bath and a submerged `Barbie. Maybe we should re-pitch it now? (Maybe it would just drown again).

Now clients can DIY too

The much-discussed ‘democratisation of design’ already places new stresses on the traditional design process – you might spend years on a new identity only to find final design decisions being made within the design mangler called Word and its ugly sister, Powerpoint.

Projects regularly start with the animated logo in mind - perhaps soon we’ll be starting with the slideshow as the ‘killer app’ with everything following from there (heaven help us all).

Of course crowdsourcing sites, in theory, place complete control right back in the hands of the client, with desperate designers the world over uploading designs for potential prizes as pitiful as $250 and a gleeful client reviewing hundreds of entries.

And we’ve all shuddered at the winners on the Crowdspring site, but someone somewhere designed them, and someone chose them. Or, if you’re searching for a new logo, try Logomyway, where you can choose logos pre-designed, ready to go, from a host of sectors, in myriad styles. Nice.

As it happens, we’re on the lookout for a new logo for johnson banks, so we tried some out. Here are some that we’re particularly pleased with.

But what does it all mean? If, by doing it for ourselves, can we skip around the age-old push-me-pull-you of the designer-client relationship? Perhaps, if you’ve made it perfectly clear that ‘this is what we do’, then enough clients will come knocking and asking for ‘some of that’.

And if you look at the way the design business breaks down, at least 7 out of 10 can be quite happily achieved by doing it yourself, rather than waiting to be asked. But I can’t help feeling that it will be a little longer yet before designers and art directors start designing ads and logos first, then looking for clients later. (But, then again, you never know…)

Thanks to the St Brides Conference for inviting us to talk. We’ll link to other presentations over the two-day period when they come on-line.

*Thanks to Domenic Lippa for his diagram

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