Designed by accident

Trying to explain the design process to potential clients (who are usually not designers) often has to be boiled down to a series of fairly tedious looking steps. I avoided writing down our design process for years, perhaps naively clinging on to some sort of ‘˜black box’ theory of innovation – ie client’s problem (and money) in one side, client solution out the other side and a whole load of creative hubble-bubble in between.

More recently though, I’ve had to cave in to requests and have finally written a few ‘˜process’ slides that get stuck at the end of the presentation and are often hastily rushed through. Occasionally I’ll get a bit of feedback such as so and so showed a lot more process than you and suchlike and I’ll admit that through my forced smile my eyes are secretly lifted to the heavens because I know that the poor saps have been walked through interminable powerpoint slides in meticulous detail.

Of course some are impressed by this, and that’s fair enough – if someone’s idea of a good presentation is 457 process slides then good luck to them. Whoever said ‘˜countries choose the presidents they deserve’ is a phrase that will transfer happily into the design process too (as in clients choose the designers they deserve).

Admitting that I find process slides a chore is one thing but recently I’ve also realised that a whole series of our projects have almost been designed by accident.

At that critical stage where only a finite series of days remain until the big presentation anything goes in the johnson banks studio, so critiques and commentary and indeed design by accident can happen at any point.

I’ll give you some examples. On the train back from the briefing meeting in the late nineties, I was certain that Parc de La Villette, who were searching for a way to glue all their communications work together, could benefit from a way that they could own the edge of a poster leaving the rest for the event. I’d thought that if the edge could apply to any side that would be useful. Some of those classic Vignelli ‘˜black bar’ schemes were playing through my mind.

But back in the studio every time I tried to make it work it looked a bit too Vignelli, a bit too static, a bit too perfect.


So (in a bit of desperation) I gave my up-tight English layouts to the then (European) placement who promptly turned everything five degrees off-centre. All of a sudden she had placed the whole scheme into dynamic tension. A result, and almost by accident.




When we were asked to design an identity for the inward investment agency, Think London, we were struggling a little to find a way to avoid all those ‘˜London’ clichΓ©s and in a slightly desperate move the skyline that we’d built (then rejected) got flipped upside down.


As I sat there building a new skyline on the top, one of the designers passed and said ‘˜hey that’s neat, it looks like a reflection’. I looked back and she was right – I’m not sure if I was doing it consciously or not, but she’d made a really good point.




More recently we laboured over a lovely commission to design Beatles stamps, and I’d asked one of the placements to help me realise one idea that had survived the sketchbook test, which was to photograph piles of albums on different, and suitably sixties, backgrounds. So linoleum for the early albums, then wooden boards, then shag-pile carpets by the end of the sixties. The placement duly set off photographing the albums we’d collected, we visited our local thrift shop to collect dodgy lamps and ashtrays as suitable styling touches, it was all set for some homespun digital photography and entry level photo-shopping.


Then as the albums were being cut out on-screen, it dawned on me that the shag-pile was actually a terrible idea and the solution (to just use the albums) was literally staring us in the face.


In fact the more I think about this, the more accidents there have been. Our fruit and veg stamps were once a lot more like fridge poetry until they turned into a discussion about a great japanese photography book on vegetable faces, then the idea then got simplified into the final solution.


Writing this (and realising how many happy accidents there have been) makes me think that the mistakes, albeit unintentional, must just be part of the way we work. ‘˜Mucking about’ with an idea seems to be more productive than I previously thought. Must go and amend that powerpoint now – stage 17.03 perhaps – ‘˜allowance for messing about and/or design accidents’.

I can’t wait to see those client faces when I show them that.

Michael Johnson