johnson banks writes a letter to the world in new campaign for Cambridge University

Few universities have a history as illustrious as Cambridge. A clever new campaign from johnson banks showcases the achievements of Cambridge alumni in the style of letters addressed to the world.

johnson banks was asked to create a campaign for Cambridge University’s alumni and development fundraising campaign, and has designed a series of posters and banners which celebrate the achievements of former students through some playful copywriting and design.

Each is addressed ‘Dear World’ and signs off, ‘Yours, Cambridge’. Featured alumni range from Wordsworth, Newton and Darwin through to David Attenborough, Laura Bates, founder of everydaysexism.com, and Quentin Stafford-Fraser and Paul Jardetsky, the makers of the first webcam. (Bates is one of few women featured, along with Elizabeth Phillips Hughes, but it’s a diverse line-up, ranging from the 1500s to the 2000s).

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johnson banks also created a three minute film, in which current students, academics and famous alumni from David Starkey to Lily Cole discuss Cambridge’s impact on the world, from the many Olympic medals won by former students to their 92 Nobel prizes. It also aims to showcase more recent examples of breakthroughs which took place at Cambridge, or which the university has been involved in, from gene therapy programmes for Parkinson’s sufferers, to the invention of the Raspberry Pi in 2006.

Writing on johnson banks website, Michael Johnson says the aim was to create a campaign that would highlight the university’s impact on the world while avoiding clichés such as “‘better tomorrows today’ or ‘The University of the future’”.

“The idea puts Cambridge’s impact in the form of a letter to the world…It also helps to position Cambridge as an asset belonging to, and in service of, the world – outward-facing, not inward – setting up a unique ‘conversation’ with the world by inviting in new thoughts and ideas. In short, quite unlike any other University messaging in the sector,” he says.

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“We deliberately chose very simple core elements – one weight of one of their core typefaces, a brightened version of their famous light blue, and a very simple letter-shaped device – then experimented with different ‘letters’, whether visual, verbal, or both, based on ancient or recent discoveries, balanced with current ideas and future aims.”

Posters feature a three-colour palette and a rigid, letter shaped template, and have been placed on railings outside colleges around the city. There are 42 designs in total – including some pairs, such as a set illustrating a discussion between philosophers Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein about the presence of a hippopotamus in a lecture theatre:

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“We were trying to find a way to talk about Cambridge’s enormous list of achievements, their impact on the world and potential impact on its future, without falling back into cliché,” says Johnson. “We gradually started to design and write more and more, mining Cambridge’s ancient discoveries and notable alumni… We then moved on to more recent, 20th century breakthroughs.”

Alongside the posters and banners, johnson banks created a series of projections (and even some fire writing) for a weekend of launch events at the university’s various colleges, as well as animations based on the posters, and a film listing Cambridge Nobel Prize winners, which were screened on a loop (more images of projections here).

With such a long list of notable alumni and an 800-year history, johnson banks certainly wasn’t short on material for this campaign. The agency has struck a delicate balance, however, between showcasing well-known achievements and world famous names from the past that passers-by will immediately recognise, and highlighting the work of lesser-known and contemporary alumni from Bates to Michael Ramage, a researcher working on ways we can repurpose natural materials to make buildings.

The copywriting (by johnson banks and Nick Asbury) is excellent – from witty one liners to an impassioned letter to the world on display at Cambridge train station, which reads: “The people who arrive in this city change Cambridge. The ideas that leave this city change the world” – and the campaign offers a playful and powerful reminder of the many ways in which Cambridge students have had an impact on our everyday lives.

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