One of the many quotable lines from Michael Johnson’s What Design Can Do talk, back in 2015, was “one poster cannot change the world”. In response to our ‘Michael, what do you think creativity and design can do in times of corona?’ he said: ‘It struck me over the weekend that the comms industry is in kind of denial about what’s actually happening right now’. His thoughts:

‘As the lock-down began, I started making notes about ‘coping in a downturn’. I began jotting down lttle nuggets of my experience, drawing on previous recessions and crashes, how to stay afloat, what to do, what not to do. A judicious dose of self-help with a bit of ‘everything will be fine’ mixed in.

And perhaps keeping a design company afloat for 28 years does make me qualified to comment on what’s going on, right now.

Or perhaps it doesn’t.

The early nineties recession was an opportunity for a young design company to make a mark and stand out. 9/11 hit hard, but economies recovered. The 2008 crash taught me how to read a balance sheet, and how to plan ahead.

And anyone with even half an eye on economic trends can tell you that most crashes come a decade apart.

We were due something.

But this thing? It came from an utterly new direction. A thing that places unique pressure on all of us, and all of our economies.

All of a sudden, designers and communicators are dealing with a new and thorny problem – irrelevance. Almost everything we are all working on fades into insignificance compared to exponential infection curves and a chronic lack of ventilators.

And it’s not just my industry. You can see thousands of companies groping for relevance, every day. All those email letters from companies you’ve never heard of frantically outlining their ‘Covid-19 Customer Strategy’? All those LinkedIn posts offering ‘on-line workshop training seminars’? All those bank ads promising to support you through this and offer ‘business as usual’.

But this is business un-usual.

Whilst the product design and engineering community is frantically prototyping medical solutions and collaborating to bring ventilators online, communicators seem to be at a loss.

A team of creatives separated the McDonald’s arches to make a point about social distancing. Nice meme. Not much use. Some bright spark respaced the Zara logo. Congratulations.

Coca-Cola ran ads encouraging us all to clap for the NHS (whilst still pushing the fizzy drinks that will create the diabetics of the future). These examples show that the big brands are groping for relevance too – whilst hoping you spend the lock-down gorging on their products.

Colleagues in the music and cultural sectors have seen their project pipelines dry up, almost overnight. Johnson Banks has some work, and up-and-coming projects on fostering and biodiversity to share – but somehow even basic bits of PR don’t feel appropriate just now. Prodding prospects for bits of new business feels alien too.

And as governments the world over struggle to cope with the pandemic it’s tempting to sit back and criticise our politicians. Yes, many of them are making a hash of this. Yes, some are putting lives at risk. And yes, the inquiries in six months time must be fearless, and forensic.

Help Out Stay In poster by Alistair Hall and Nick Asbury

Here in the UK, the mixed messages from the government have led to calls for greater clarity. A week ago writer Nick Asbury pushed his own copylines out into the ether and prompted many of us to turn them into creative comms.

Social media posts by Johnson Banks and Nick Asbury

In the USA, an equivalent of a wartime communications office has been mooted. Were there still a Central Office of Information in the UK, this would have been their time – but the government disbanded it a decade ago. Perplexed by global inaction, the World Health Organisation (for the first time ever) has taken the drastic step of issuing a worldwide creative brief to communicate the realities of the pandemic, stem the tide, and flatten that infamous curve.

As the virus only now starts to grip some continents, persuasive, multilingual communication ideas COULD still make a difference – but things seem ad hoc, ramshackle and mis-directed. A bunch of tweets and a few instagram posts do NOT a campaign make. One poster alone cannot change behaviour. This all needs concerted, focussed action.

This is the time for the design and advertising industry to stop trying to make us buy fizzy drinks, whisky, burgers, cars and those fancy new trainers. We really don’t need them right now. We may not need them much in the future either.

Because soon thoughts will start to turn to what comes next – and how the world will look and behave on the other side of this. Surely that can’t just be a resumption of where we were before the pandemic took hold?

In the meantime, maybe the industry can step up and really start to prove it’s worth – and prove that design CAN still offer help, strategies and solutions.

And that it really can make a difference.’


By Michael Johnson, Johnson Banks Design

Thanks to Nick Asbury for notes and pointers. Lead image by Michael Johnson, physically illustrating social distancing.