CLOSE-UP: BOOK REVIEW/PROBLEM SOLVED - Johnson's new tome bridges designers and adfolk divide

Tim Mellors likes Michael Johnson for his bravery in tackling industry bugbears.

In his introduction to Problem Solved, a primer in design and communication, Michael Johnson points to Bob Gill's cover for the 1965 American Art Directors Annual as a metaphor for the smiling anger between clients and agencies.

It's a familiar image plucked from the unconscious enmity designers and art directors have for their clients. The two men shaking hands and smiling at each other while concealing weapons behind their backs was also used in Martin Walsh's ICFC ad in the 70s and in Storm Thorgesen's haunting image of two besuited handshakers on a Pink Floyd cover in the 80s.

But it could also be seen as a symbol of the relationship between designers and advertising people. An image of mutual distrust that Johnson could well become familiar with as the next president of D&AD.

In my time as president, I was always conscious of D&AD's uneasy arranged marriage between designers and ad folk. But with a little more open-mindedness on behalf of the flat earthers in advertising, it's a divide that could be bridged elegantly by Johnson's book. Because clearly Johnson is just as entranced by and knowledgeable about advertising as he is expert and enthusiastic about design.

This is a magnificent book, not flawless of course, but an eclectic selection of examples from both worlds and sometimes ones that are perfect examples of design and advertising working in mutual harmony, such as Tango for instance. It's a book that would be of interest both to the seasoned practitioner and the lay reader.

The thesis of the book is that creative people of whatever persuasion or flavour are basically in the business of creating solutions to client problems. Sometimes that problem might be to persuade young visitors to spend the night in the flea-bitten but hip Hans Brinker Hotel in Amsterdam.

Kessels Kramer's solution was cheap lino block-style ads that promise: "Now Free Key with Your Room" or, even more enticingly: "Now Even More Dog Shit in the Entrance."

At the other extreme is the stylish transmutation of BP's multimillion-dollar corporate makeover from the original Fletcher Forbes Gill shield of the 60s to the "green" signage created by Landor in 2000.

These two examples come from the chapter headed: "The Evolve Or Revolve Problem."

Each chapter works in this way; as Johnson says: "All this book concerns itself with is grouping together 18 recognisable generic problems and then showing you, the reader, how various communicators have dealt with them."

The book has a nice rhythm. Sometimes Johnson's easy storytelling style packs a chapter with anecdotal insight and personal observation. In other chapters, such as the one on The Economist campaign, Johnson allows "this deceptively simple idea" to speak for itself by simply reproducing 30 posters in a block and in so doing showing me for the first time just how powerful and consistent this campaign has been for the past 12 years.

Similarly unwordy and minimalist is the chapter headed: "How to gain the maximum effect with the minimum means." In it we are treated to the astonishing images of Shigeo Fukada, who along with Bob Gill and Milton Glazer (both incidentally presidents lecturers for D&AD) are my giants of graphic design.

At the other extreme are think pieces on "The Charity Work Problem", "The Ethical Problem", "The Information Rejection Problem" and the "Nothing Shocks Me Problem".

Space doesn't allow me to unpack some of the brave, deeply researched and intimately targeted thinking Johnson brings to these controversial but all too irrelevant topics. But let me just whet your appetite with two quick observations. Firstly, Johnson is the first person I've ever seen publicly focus on one of my favourite bugbears, namely how "charity" clients (and often very big "charity" clients) squeeze years of free work out of creatives by offering bogus "creative freedom" and pushing the fictitious ethical payback button.

And secondly, the massive and immoral wastage of paid-for messages (banks and car manufactures being prime culprits) when, as Johnson correctly notes: "It is claimed that we are all subjected to thousands of marketing messages a day. Can you remember even a hundred of the ones you saw today?

Probably not: Why not? Because you've trained yourself to filter out all bar the absolutely essential. Pity the communicator charged with getting information over in a way the public will absorb, not ignore."

Johnson has really said a mouthful. I only wish Phaidon had published the book at physically twice the size, say about as big as George Lois' classic The Art of Advertising. That way the rich choice of illustration material could all be read without the occasional squint.

Johnson must have had a very busy year, first contributing to the Rewind D&AD 40 years retrospective book and now bringing us his own top tome in Problem Solved. No-one should be short of either presents or fascinating reading material this Christmas.


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