Margot is a lusophile + hispanophile + bibliophile.
Michael is the co-founder of Luna 9 — a visual communication agency based in Bristol who have partnered with the World Health Organization, NHS England and The University of Cambridge to help them communicate in simpler, more creative ways. Turning paragraphs into illustrations, data into infographics, and information into knowledge, Luna 9 exists to help make sense of the world around us.
Margot: Hi, Michael, thank you so much for taking the time to chat today. To start us off, could you introduce yourself and tell me a bit about yourself?
Michael: Sure. I'm Michael Green. I'm the CEO and co-founder of Luna 9, a design and communications agency in Bristol. I'm 36 years old, I'm an illustrator and animator, although my main role now is growing the business and helping our clients communicate in simpler, more engaging ways. I was very lucky with the Bright animation we just did; I was able to exercise some of my illustration and storyboarding skills, which I keep on the back burner nowadays because we have a talented team who are generally better than me at the Luna 9 kind of stuff.
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Margot: What inspired you to create Luna 9? Did you have a background in illustration or in video creation? What experience have you built that led to creating this company?
Michael: So, I've had a funny old road to get to where I am. I decided, when I was about five years old, that I was going to be an animator. I was absolutely certain about what I wanted to do. And I got all the way to doing an animation degree in stop motion animation with the goal that I would work at Aardman Animations on "Wallace & Gromit". And sure enough, I did my animation degree, got some work experience on "Wallace & Gromit". I then ended up working at Aardman for four, five years on "Shaun the Sheep", "Morph", and "Wallace & Gromit", which was very exciting. I was a model maker.
I kind of jumped around, and I think this is part of the problem. I started off making cups of coffee and sweeping the floor, and I gradually made my way up to being a miniature prop maker and an animator. Then I was a computer animator for a while, and then, eventually, I found my niche in storyboarding. That was what set me on the path of visual storytelling. When you're a storyboard artist, you're taking words on a page and finding a visual way to communicate them, and that's something I really enjoyed and engaged with.
After a while, I decided to leave Aardman and get what I thought was a more grown-up job. I worked as an illustrator at a design agency in Bristol, and my role there was to help organizations to communicate complex, big things in a single page or in an animation. There, I was starting to get used to the idea of taking complex stuff that one person knows a lot about and having to distill it down and put it across in a way that's quite engaging. And at that time, I met Owen who is my Luna 9 co-founder. He's a very talented designer and we just hit it off.
For a couple of years, when we were working at this design agency, we'd have a lot of lunchtime walks. We would say, "Oh, wouldn't it be great if we could start a company where we set the world to rights?" It became a more and more concrete plan, to the point where we decided that this idea of being the bridge between those in the know and those that need to know using design, or messaging expertise, was something that deserved a design agency of its own.
Often, you see generalist design agencies that do a bit of everything. We decided this mission was so important that you could really have a successful business; more than that, you could make quite an impact if you created a company that purely focused on that. It would do the research, look into what works and what doesn't work, test things, really focus on making a success of it. So, we started Luna 9 in 2018. It's been a roller coaster ride, but it's going well so far and we really embrace that niche. We like being specialists. We like saying no to a lot of stuff which enables us to say yes to the stuff that we really think we can add value to.
We like being specialists. We like saying no to a lot of stuff which enables us to say yes to the stuff that we really think we can add value to.
Margot: It's really interesting you talked about Luna 9 being centered around the problem of a lot of complex information not being distilled or condensed into something understandable for people who aren't necessarily experts on the topic. The main way that a lot of people - late-teens, early-20s - consume almost the entirety of their news is through infographics on Instagram and things like that.
I'd love to hear how, since creating Luna 9, how you might have seen that landscape change since things like Instagram infographics have become the main way a lot of people consume or understand what's going on in the world, a lot of younger people, especially.
Michael: I don't know if I've noticed a shift as such, but, to me, it's more of a mindset. A lot of what we're doing at Luna 9 is problem-solving; it's just creative ways to solve communication barriers, and one of the biggest barriers that we deal with is complexity. Sometimes the topics we deal with aren't complex, but the client needs a way of getting the audience to actually engage with them. The visual side of social media, that short-form format, gives an amazing opportunity to connect with people. But it does require a certain mindset: you can't take everything you would in, say, an A4 page and try to squeeze it into a tiny little square for Instagram.
It then becomes a question of editing. How can you take the essence of what you're trying to say and distill it down to a more focused point? We break it down or take this one element of it and explore that. I think once you get into that mindset of seeing communication as an ability to give your audience bits and bobs of information to pick and choose, to provide the detail that they want to explore rather than the bits that you want to tell them. That's where I think these more bite-sized ways of communicating, especially with the younger generation, can be really powerful.
I think what's dangerous is jumping from one extreme to the other and ending up with stuff that either lacks substance—visual just for the sake of being visual but doesn't really say anything—or in which design plays too big a part. You see it a lot on social media with infographics that get shared so widely; they look absolutely beautiful, but if you actually try to decipher what they're telling you, it's clear that the designer is focused more on making something that looks really amazing rather than communicating the thing that needs to be communicated.
For us, as an agency, we're always trying to find that balance between something that looks engaging and exciting, but doesn't compromise the integrity or the intention of the original piece of communication. That balance is where we, hopefully, can enable our clients to connect with people in a way that maybe 10 years ago just was not on the cards. There just wasn't that ability to get eyeballs on that kind of stuff.
Margot: When you're looking at something social media-based, would you ever prioritize information based on how many clicks it might get, or do you try to use a neutral method, when you're looking through what information you're gonna present, and think what is the most important piece of information that should be shared? How do you prioritize?
Michael: I think this is something we come up against quite a lot because we're not a marketing agency. What we see as success isn't necessarily the number of clicks someone gets, but we're also not oblivious to the fact that the people we work with often might care about engagement, measured in clicks or in views. So, we obviously care about it, but our goal is to make the information as accessible and as engaging as possible. Whatever our clients then choose to do with it, whether they include it in the marketing campaign or they decide to share it in some other way, we hope that the end result is that our work makes their message much more marketable and engaging. It's just not the metrics that we agree on at the start of the project that define success, but the two are obviously interlinked.
And a big part of our work is about learning. We try to learn from one project to the next. What works for one project may be completely different to another, but there are definitely things that you can learn from audience engagement that you can take forward and present to potential clients to say, " we did this project and we met this goal." That's why a lot of the work we do is less static and more like living documents.
And a big part of our work is about learning. We try to learn from one project to the next.
Yes, on social media, images are static, and that could be really helpful, but what we do a lot of is editable stuff, where you can look at analytics, you can see how people are using it, and then you can start to change it based on audience behavior. That, for us, is less about clicks or about success being about the assumption that 1,000 people clicked on it so it must be good, and more about our intention at the start of a project and the results. Do the two match up? If not, what can we learn from this piece of communication that will help us get to that point? I think we work very well in tandem with people with a marketing brain, but it's much more focused on that problem-solving element rather than getting clicks for clicks' sake.
Margot: You touched upon how you'll take one project, learn things, then move on and use that in your next project. What is the most rewarding project you've worked on?
Michael: One that immediately springs to mind is we're doing a project with the World Health Organization, which hasn't been launched yet but it's fine to talk about. We are creating an online platform for their global tobacco use and legislation data. They've got tobacco information from, I think, a couple hundred countries around the world, featuring how much tobacco is used, how much it's taxed, how much it's gone up or down, what outcome has been economically in terms of disease.
What we've created is a platform that takes this extremely complicated, thick book of data and turns it into an online guide that people from each country’s health ministry can go on. They can look at how they compare to other countries and what steps they can take to improve. It puts it all into a lovely designed template that you can print. Or, it is something that, if you get two minutes or five minutes with your head of health ministry, or prime minister, gives you a compelling case to say, "Look, if we raise taxes, we could expect to see this reduction in deaths”.
It’s astounding. We are an extremely small cog in that machine, but it does make you realize the importance of communicating these pretty big societal issues; we have the ability to help exceptional people do their exceptional stuff. We very much see our role in this as been facilitating the people that are making change in the world to ensure their work has an impact. If we can get one more person to change their mind about how tobacco is regulated or controlled, or we can convince, you know, one more person to...
Margot: Sign up to Bright?
Michael: Sign up to Bright, then we're helping people like you guys at Bright to do your best work. We consider ourselves very lucky at Luna 9 to be able to join in on these people's missions. Not every project we do is some kind of world-changing thing. Everyone we work with, we work with because we align with their values and because we genuinely care about what they're doing. We find it quite hard to engage with projects where we don't feel that sense of why it matters.
For me as the CEO, I'm trying to balance building and growing the business and making sure that we're successful. We're making sure that we're working harder, and when we go home at the end of a tough week, that we know we're doing it because we really care about what we're doing. We feel that we're making a difference. That's a learning journey, but one that keeps me motivated. There are probably 20 examples of other projects that we feel extremely proud to have been part of, but that's quite a nice example. I can try to think of another if you want.
We consider ourselves very lucky at Luna 9 to be able to join in on these people's missions.
Margot: No, that's absolutely perfect. We feel unbelievably lucky to be working with you. I think it's wonderful that you're that crucial medium by which people can share the message and connect with people. Finally, I would love to hear what's next for Luna 9 and what's next for you.
Michael: In terms of Luna 9, we are growing. We have a new designer starting within this next month, which is very exciting, and we're looking to continue growing next year. For us, it always comes back to that problem-solving element. We're looking at the problems that our clients and potential clients have and working out how can we best help to solve this. Our growth will be based on how we feel we can have more of an impact and how we can create a bit of a legacy for Luna 9. I want our back catalog of projects to be things that we look back on and say, "Oh, that was something that we're proud to have done because it achieved X, Y, and Z."
So, we will continue to grow, and we will do that responsibly. We wanna make sure that we don't become one of these agencies that has rapid growth and then has to either scale back or we start compromising on our values. That matters a lot to us. I think we want to keep learning, and we want to increase the amount of long-term partnerships we've got. Our best work is with people who understand what matters to us and we understand what matters to them. When we deliver over the long term, we've seen with previous projects that those are the projects that have the most impact.
For me, personally, I'm keen to keep finding that balance of making sure that the guys we're lucky to have in our team feel fulfilled and motivated. Especially coming out of the pandemic as we are, I'm looking forward to getting out in the world and having more conversations, meeting more people, and working out how we can help to make everything a bit simpler.
Margot: I can't wait to follow your journey. Thank you so much.
Michael: Thank you.