"Personally, I love a blank sheet of paper."
Mark Bonner ist co-founder and co-creative director of multi-award winning design agency GBH. In September 2014, Mark took over the D&AD presidency from Laura Jordan Bambach. Michael Weinzettl chatted to the new president about his plans for the year ahead in this new capacity – and about the secret of both his own and his agency’s great success.
Hi Mark, you’re the new D&AD president from September. How did your involvement with the D&AD come about?
This job is a real honor in my book. I’ve been inspired by the D&AD Annual and its award-winning work my entire career, and it’s an absolute privilege to work within D&AD, to help them connect with design, and to amplify their relationship in advertising and digital disciplines. I’ve actually been a trustee at D&AD for three years plus a fourth year as D&AD deputy president, so this year will be my fifth working inside D&AD. That’s almost one tenth of its history! So I feel I know the organization inside out, I know its great people, its issues, both its weak and strong points. I’m really hoping this apprenticeship will stand me, and D&AD, in very good stead.
For me as a creative, of course, D&AD has always been THE one to win as far as I’m concerned, partly as it’s so much harder to win a D&AD award that any other but, more importantly, because I’ve always been a strong supporter of what the award scene enables D&AD to achieve via its myriad education initiatives. D&AD New Blood, for example, is what I consider to be an absolutely core part of what we do as it provides a platform and gives a voice to a new generation of creative excellence and, in a nutshell, it’s this “circle of learning” that I think makes D&AD special and unique.
I was lucky enough to win a New Blood award way back in 1992 and have won four Yellow Pencils in the professional awards so far, three in 2011. That was a nice year!
What are some of the things D&AD has achieved over the course of the past few presidencies, and what are the main challenges D&AD is facing at present?
I think we have achieved a lot since I’ve been involved, though not because of me (!) but due to a committed and focused management team and its ably supported “conscience” of trustees. We have introduced The White Pencil, which awards “work that does good by being good.” We have created The D&AD Foundation, which is charged with the task of visibly investing our surpluses into creative education via a host of new initiatives both domestic and international, including an international New Blood program, forthcoming pop-up design schools, and even bursaries for less affluent students now within our remit. I think D&AD is now clearer than it’s ever been about its mission and why it exists: to discover, support, award, and inspire creative excellence. We want to award more Pencils, not by making them any easier to win, but by making creative excellence more likely in the first place. We want to expand our creative community to achieve that. Our “I wish I did that” campaign has the ability to connect creatives of all experience levels within the D&AD community, and we hope to expand its scope digitally, and really enable D&AD to connect the creative disciplines worldwide.
What do you hope to achieve in your one-year presidency of D&AD?
I feel too much is spoken about the differences between the creative disciplines. I think we share many more qualities than ways in which we differ. Modern communication design is converging. In fact, I think it’s already happened. It’s done. It’s irrelevant which part of the creative community we practice in. The only thing that matters is what we can learn from one another. The future creative fears no challenge and works across boundaries. It’s my view that the only creative discipline we really need to care about is “excellence.”
I think D&AD, with 52 years of experience in “collecting excellence,” is ideally placed to own this space. The “white space” between the disciplines is where the really mind-blowing work is being created now. It’s this space I want to highlight in my year. I hope this will help us to attract interest from all corners of the industry, get bigger audiences at our events, and really help D&AD to cut through, and begin to inspire the public, OUTSIDE our niche industries.
Would you say that the D&AD president can influence the direction the organization takes, or perhaps change the focus of some things?
I work in a democracy. It’s a great example of this white space thinking that I’m talking about. The board at D&AD is formed of creative practitioners from all specialisms, but we all share a passion for the power of creativity from both a commercial and a social perspective, and I’m right in the center of that. We work together to influence and shape D&AD’s policies. I’m fortunate that I can speak on our behalf to the media, to magazines like yours, and really choose what to focus our messaging on. In that sense, the president can influence D&AD’s perception too.
I know, of course, that D&AD has for some years become very international in its scope. Which means that in terms of the awards scheme, D&AD gets compared to the Cannes Lions Festival a lot, although they don’t have much in common apart from the awards thing. With the UK having been unusually successful this year, do you think that this might affect UK creatives’ perception of D&AD in any way that might be detrimental to the organization you will be presiding over this year?
We’re very aware of Cannes and the progress it has made in the creative industries. It’s a powerful entity, and is expert in creating kudos. There is much we can learn from their successes, but I think the same can be said vice versa. D&AD is strictly not-for-profit: we re-invest the surpluses from our world famous award scheme back into creating excellence via the D&AD Foundation and its initiatives. I think this is our point of difference, and I think this is a message we need to ensure cuts through. D&AD needs to have an unrivalled kudos, but also we need to proudly demonstrate where that money goes, and the positive good that an amount of carefully controlled vanity can achieve. Vanity for its own sake? I’m not sure that helps anyone but the mirror that reflects it.
How did you yourself start out? And did you know from an early age that you’d be doing something with design?
Every early picture of me in my family shows me with a pencil in my hand (or driving a toy car). Not always a Yellow Pencil, sadly, but I guess I was always heading this way!
Please tell us a bit about the GBH, the branding studio you co-founded, the people behind it, and the type of work you do, as well as the approach you take that might make GBH stand out from other design studios?
GBH is a multidisciplinary creative agency working between design, campaign and digital. We have no fear. We follow our ideas, and we work only with clients that excite us. We’re 15 years old, a team of 20 people, based in London, and we work with Puma, Virgin Galactic, Starck, Royal Mail, North Sails, Mama Shelter, Yotel, Mikli Eyewear, Parrot, Levis, and a host of other brands with a similar attitude to what’s possible. We don’t like complexity, either in the way we work or in the work we make. We are entirely focused on realizing the biggest idea we can have.
We have won numerous awards so far, including 4 Yellow Pencils, 15 nominations, and more than 50 In-Book Awards at D&AD. We’ve done well in many other schemes, too, but I guess I won’t mention those so much! We have been ranked at No. 2 in awards won by Design Week Magazine’s “Creative Survey” twice in the last decade. Only Apple’s Team won more than us!
What are some of GBH’s projects that you’re most proud of?
We rebranded global sports-and-lifestyle brand Puma, and have completed more than 400 projects for that client during a ten-year relationship. Each and every project has felt like a child to us! The ones that stand out for Puma include a virtual CAT that prowled their stores, using projection to leap from shelf to shelf ... the livery for Puma’s Volvo Ocean Race 70ft yachts, The Clever Little Bag with Fuse Project, the launch of their new kit relationship with Arsenal Football Club, which saw us project onto a waterscreen in front of the London Eye ...
The Design of The Verb Hotel in Boston for Samuels Associates. A boutique drive-in which celebrates the area’s music and literary heritage.
The creation of The Virgin Galactic Brand and the livery for Earth’s first Spaceline. A relationship we still work within today. Perhaps the most exciting branding project on Earth right now!
Will you continue working for GBH during your D&AD presidency or would that be quite impossible?
Oh yes. I wouldn’t miss it for the world!
What are some of the most important changes the design industry has seen in the UK over the past 20 years?
I think this period has seen the rise of the smaller, independent design agency, both in the scale of opportunities available, and also in the results they have achieved. I think we’ve seen the rise – and fall – of the advertising agency “One Stop Shop” in favor of greater collaboration with specialisms. I think we’ve seen the growth of huge agency networks with global reach. I also think we’ve seen the emergence of socially responsibly work again, perhaps visibly and with a level of quality not seen since agitprop in the 1960s. Of course we witnessed the emergence – and unleashed power – of digital and social media. All this has happened, but one thing never changes; the vital importance of an original idea.
What were some of the important changes in “designing identities” for companies you have seen since you first started out? Has the task become more all-encompassing?
In branding, I think the traditional approach to identity has been inverted. We no longer begin with the corporate emblem and trickle consistency down the brand pyramid in all that we do. I think the modern brand understands that its audience engage with it via experiences (the broad end of the pyramid, if you like). Today, the brand identity, the brand marque, is often an endorsement of what we feel about a brand, not its source.
Have online design resources had a big influence on design being produced today, and what are some of the good and bad things about that?
I think they’re vital. It’s important for young creatives to have a platform upon which to celebrate their work. Their danger lies in the resource they offer being wrongly used by creatives. It’s not intended to be an ideas crutch to avoid a blank sheet of paper. Personally, I love a blank sheet of paper, as that’s the time in a project where there’s little chance of any other projects influencing your thinking. I think that’s the danger. But it’s the same danger if you have your head in D&AD Annuals! The best way to think of something original is to have a unique experience in that subject. As Bob Gill always said, “If you have to design a book jacket called “Crime in Soho,” what do you do? Watch cop shows on TV? No! Go to Soho and speak to some crooks!”
Who are some of the designers working today whose work you admire most?
There are many. Dentsu Tokyo, Sagmeister, The Glue Society in Australia, Droga5. From history… Bruno Munari, Shigeo Fukuda, Alan Fletcher. I could do this all day…
What piece of advice would you give young designers starting out? Or, to put it differently, what mistakes should a young designer avoid when working on an identity?
Wait as long as possible before succumbing to your ego. Try to polish as many facets of the diamond as you can. The best creatives are those that reflect the light brightest.
How does Mark Bonner feed his inspiration? What inspires you, apart from great work in your field you might come across through D&AD, etc.?
From anything. Everything. I was recently in China and was fascinated by their love of kites, their morals, their integrity. I am inspired by the stories and bravery in motor racing history. Traveling. Taking part in life is inspiring, as long as you don’t forget to look up!
What type of music do you listen to?
Love Music. I’m a big vinyl fan. I have an old Wurlitzer jukebox. I like The Beatles, The Kinks, Cat Stevens, Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Blondie. I was really into hip hop when I was a kid. I listened religiously to LWR, a pirate station that broke Tim Westwood. I used to go to The Electric Ballroom in Camden to meet graffiti artists. I saw The Fat Boys, Run DMC, Afrika Bambaataa … I loved all that stuff. These days, it’s the old stuff, but I love Lily Allen for her writing … I’m pretty eclectic. Bowie, Rolling Stones …
What is one piece of identity design where you thought, “I wish I’d been involved in that!”
I always loved Alan Fletcher’s work for Polaroid, especially his Rorschach poster promoting the instant image quality of the filmstock.
I think the last identity that I really coveted was, perhaps, the London Olympics project, not because of its creative outcome (although I think it’s much underrated), but I was seriously jealous of its scope!
I’d love to do some Google Doodles!