"A lot of the processes I've set up are intended to counteract the bad experiences I've had; they're there to reassure clients." David Johnston on what he's learnt since setting up Accept & Proceed.
Digital formats are taking on the types of forms that they should always have had, believes David Johnston of Accept & Proceed. He explains: "Why shouldn't a website be floating in 3D space, for instance? It feels like something new could be happening with the kind of things you can achieve with digital formats."
Accept & Proceed is ready to embrace that future, as befits a fairly young company headed by a designer with extensive experience. The former Red Design employee is forging ahead with his branding, identity, editorial and graphic design work - and doesn't intend to confine himself to the medium of print.
Johnston says he was the archetypal example of a child who was always artistically inclined, but in his case the passion seemed to run deeper than simply an affinity for crayons. He was lucky enough to have a graphic design module as part of his school's course, which he gravitated to immediately. "I definitely had a bit of a flair for it, so it just seemed logical to go on from there and follow a career in it," he says. "I would have been 11 or 12, not even just art or design in general, but I had a pretty clear vision of it being graphic design in particular."
On leaving school he went to the Hereford College of Art and Design and spent two years there, which he still recalls with obvious love. "The people there were all very passionate and we had a good course tutorâ€¦ The early 90s were a good time for design in general."
His subsequent move to Central Saint Martins came as something of a shock - going, as he says, from a small and extremely enthusiastic group of people to much larger courses, as well as moving to London on a student's income.
Yet despite the lack of cash, he made the decision not to immediately set up on his own after leaving CSM. "I think I realised that I really had to learn the craft well if I wanted to work, turning these ideas into something that could actually help companies," he explains. "I'm always surprised by people who can come straight out of college and set up on their own. I think it's a massive risk and maybe detrimental to your process and your career if you rush into it too quickly. There's a lot to be said for actually learning the industry."
Thus a stint at fashion brand management company Overland followed, before he was offered a job at Interbrand's offices in Amsterdam. He leapt at the chance to experience a more focused approach to branding, as well as a move to another city.
Brand new beginnings
"It was a bit of change going from fashion to branding but it was a conscious decision to try and understand how the different approaches work," he says. "Interbrand's approach is probably more scientific when it comes to branding; a lot of questioning goes on, for instance, because there's a lot of big bucks involved. That can sometimes kill the excitement of the work, and the intuition that should come along with the whole thing."
Staying in the Netherlands, he then moved to Nike's headquarters in Hilversum and spent three years having 'a great experience', before eventually moving back to the UK and a job at Red Design in Brighton. It wasn't until May 2006 that he finally felt ready to set up his own company, Accept & Proceed.
"I just felt that the time was right, even though Red is a great company," he says. "Also, I wanted to do different stuff and more personal projects. Red Design is historically quite a music-industry-based company and it was great for me to experience that, having done fashion and branding, but I didn't want to be just working in that one area."
A&P certainly gives him the chance to explore, embracing the music, fashion and advertising industries as well as more off-the-cuff editorial projects. Branding and identity are also important, such as the work A&P created for the Loop digital festival and co-production house Circus Media Centre.
Mixing it up
Johnston's approach to editorial content - such as a recent cover for The Sunday Times Magazine - and larger branding jobs necessarily differs. "It has to be different, because editorial work pays a fraction of what the other work pays and it has to be a labour of love to a degree," he says. "Editorial is very much not a financial thing; it's either for the exposure or because it's an interesting project.
"I can charge the more corporate clients I work for, such as Nike, a very healthy day rate and it's a different approach. You can afford yourself the process of defining the brief up front, which is always valuable in any project. I do that whenever the budget will allow, going through first and second stage and delivery."
Having a mixture of both types of client, as well as a variety of working processes, helps keep the passion alive for him. If he feels the company is taking on too much corporate and branding work, he's able to seek out alternative business - and, as he points out, that's important for prospective new employees, too: "If you're doing mainly corporate work, the very cool hotshot designers may not find you the most attractive company." While A&P currently consists of two people, he feels five is probably the optimum number, but seems in no hurry to recruit just yet.
Not every client he works with 'gets' the importance of branding and identity. "Sometimes there's a kind of educational process, to get them to understand why we go through certain processes and why it's crucial to do that. It helps them define who they are."
In some cases quite literally, as newer companies in particular sometimes have yet to determine just who they are and what they do. "So if you're going to do that, you really have to make sure you're doing it properly - otherwise you're just randomly associating things that aren't correct. I mean, we're not a one-stop-shop sort of thing like Prontoprintâ€¦ we only work with people who get it, the whole process, and are willing to go along with that."
Has he had any awkward clients? Ever the soul of discretion, Johnston prefers to describe them as overly enthusiastic - especially when a company is in its infancy. He reiterates the importance of a thorough briefing process. "That's the whole point of going through it to begin with - it's to have some kind of reference point for the work you do afterwards. A lot of the processes I've set up are intended to counteract the bad experiences I've had; they're there to reassure clients.
"I think for anyone to feel really great about what you're doing for them, they have to be involved to a degree. Part of any process we do is to create a story. I think it was Paul Rand who said 'Great brands tell great stories.'"
Along with Rand, Johnston's influences are diverse, and he's clearly a designer who both knows his history and keeps an eye on current trends. Among his favourites, he lists North - "very cool for very cool clients"; SEA - "striking and modern"; and Universal Everything - "he's able to do stuff that's out of the ordinary." Julian Morey is another huge inspiration.
Such influences are obvious in A&P's clean and clear branding, with plenty of classical white space and simple ideas. "All of our reference points in design these days are really contemporary Swiss graphic design from the 1950s and 60s, people like Müller-Brockmann," he believes. "They're the kind of nerdy designers who are doing really simple layouts and that has become the new digital I suppose."
Johnston continues: "The 'original' digital was really about the process that created it and the things you could achieve. Having said that, I think design is actually becoming more gloopy again. It's becoming a bit surreal in areas, the sort of approach that people like Universal Everything take."
As an example, he mentions the recent logo design for the 2012 Olympic Games in London, which caused such a furore. "Wolff Olins - I can't quite make my mind up about them," he muses. "It's not a beautiful piece of design to my mind, but you can't buy the kind of publicity that it's generated. That is a very confident move, to actually create something that's going to jar and stick like a thorn in the side and create interest. That's very clever, to purposely design badly. I'm tempted to say they're probably geniuses, but you can never tell!
Would he ever do something like that himself? "I like to think so, if I felt it was right for the client. I don't know if I'd sell it to them as 'We're going to do some bad design' though."
So far, so good for David Johnston. 2008 will see Accept & Proceed continuing to branch out: Johnston is hoping to win a recent pitch for Candy & Candy, a luxury development company, designing content for their in-house interactive screens. "They're 3D, and by that I mean properly 3D, so objects appear as if they're floating in space," he enthuses. "We've taken an additional approach whereby the display mirrors the user, so it maps their actions to a degree. It's a really exciting project. It feels like you can really wipe the slate clean and do something new again."
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