An Interview with Michael Wolff

Judges Interviews

Michael Wolff

We spoke to Michael Wolff, co-founder of Wolff Olins, one of the world’s most iconic design companies. Now, as Michael Wolff and Company, he works with clients around the world as a designer and creative advisor.

He’s a visiting professor at Central St Martins (The University of the Arts, London) and at The Cape Peninsula University of Technology (Cape Town, South Africa). He’s a senior fellow at the Royal College of Art, a member of the UK’s Faculty of Royal Designers for Industry, and is the ‘Inclusive Design Champion’ for the UK Government.

What is the single most interesting brief you’ve worked on during your career?

Transforming the quality of relationships and service that a Russian bank brings to its people and, through them, to its customers.

The interesting thing about briefs is that they’re usually a convention, something that the people who issue them think they have to do. They seem to offer a practical way to control and guide the context and the content of a relationship between client and designer.

I regard them as people’s best shot at saying what they want. Personally, I sometimes find that when I get what I think I wanted, I feel disappointed. Maybe I couldn’t express what I wanted with enough honesty or clarity, or even the results I expected when I got it. Sometimes the feelings of desire and wanting overwhelm good sense.

I’ve found that when you surprise people and give them something beyond what they expected, you find you’ve brought them what they really wanted from you but hadn’t been able to express in a brief.

What they may have wanted is to be glorious and successful, to be loved, to have the admiration of the world (they’d wanted the results of what you do more than they wanted what you do.)

Maybe if they’d reflected on it thoroughly before they briefed you, they might have found that they wanted to liberate you as a creative person, to do the things they couldn’t do themselves, because they don’t have your skills, and the brief was just a way of defending or insuring themselves from the unpredictable results of creativity.

The Russian bank I worked with wanted their people to better understand and reduce the risks involved with lending money to people they hardly knew. They already had a brilliant UK company, Quickheart working for them on a series of interactive algorithms, posing easy to answer but discerning questions, which helped to establish whether the person applying for a loan represented a reasonable risk or not.

‘How do we understand and control risk quickly without deterring our customers?’, was their start point, and then when they’d developed their system to do this, they asked the brand questions: Do we look right, sound right, behave right and feel right, and are we attracting customers who’re likely to be less risky?

This then became a conversation around branding – and they met me. I started by seeing if a relationship was going to be possible. We got along extremely well and quickly arrived at a place of mutual trust and respect, there was never a written brief – it was more an invitation to understand what was working well for them, and what wasn’t, and after several open and honest conversations and no selling or persuasion, we became ‘working comrades’.

An implicit brief grew out of the synergy, and that’s how intentions or imagined outcomes started to become something we shared. We were then in harmony with what we’d do together, each of us playing our different part.

I always try and co-create verbal briefs quickly because if there’s insufficient empathy and like-mindedness it’s unlikely much will be achieved from collaboration, and it’s best to step away. If clients don’t feel you’re helping them with their ‘handwriting’ rather than imposing yours then you’ll be disempowering them. There has to be mutual respect, empathy and agreement about the different complementary roles that people in the team play.

The Russian Bank was among my most interesting projects, and without a doubt the most demanding because the culture I was working in was so different.

Who has been your biggest influence?

That’s a great question. In some ways it was Bill Bernbach, the man who founded Doyle Dane Bernbach, the agency that revolutionised advertising in the US. Why him? Because he brought art directors and writers together and decided not to have account people running the destinations of DDB’s projects. At DDB, they encouraged creativity by putting themselves in other’s shoes, and letting brilliant and unbridled creativity flourish.

What they did in the 1960’s and 70’s for VW and others was a great inspiration to me. Sometimes they hit it so directly on the head, it couldn’t have been done any better. Today, with all the vanity, commerciality and insufficient thought and originality, that’s very rare.

Nails hit on heads in writing and art influence me more than anything. For example the work of Henri Matisse or Saul Steinberg or great books like “Love in the time of Cholera” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez or “Alice in Wonderland”; seminal music like “She’s leaving home” by The Beatles; extraordinary films and photography by, for example, Scorsese and Elliot Erwitt; or simply looking at colour in India and Mexico, and seeing it used in day-to-day ways I’d never seen before.

Jolts in my experience and my senses have always been a big influence on me. For instance, I remember seeing a film about a fishmonger in New York who had the best display of fish I’ve ever seen. I looked at the passion, skill and joy they put into it, and I’ve never forgotten it. The natural self-expression of a trade, as you often see in market stalls inspires me, because it’s done with such conviction, without ‘professional design’, and it works.

I realise what a useful absurdity ‘Pantone’ is, when you can get inspired by tomatoes in France or Greece and their range and intensity of colour; or by the millions of shades of green in Regents Park.

Any designer needs to have an active appreciation of what could be better, curiosity about why it’s how it is today, and the imagination to envisage how it could be. One of my favourite examples is wheels on suitcases. The wheel had been in existence for a few thousand years before someone thought of putting it on a suitcase.

What is the greatest piece of advice you’ve ever been given? What advice would you give a creative student today?

It would be: “Say what you mean and mean what you say.” Yes, I think that’s it – honesty works best – and never be scared of not knowing what to do, its probably your best ally because ‘not knowing’ is where pure creativity comes from.

What is the future of design?

Limitless – it’s wherever your imagination takes you. Anyone who looks can see the huge amount of things that don’t work well enough in our world. Seeing things differently, whatever they are, having the ability to see them, and the passion to imagine how to make them better, and then the skills to make this happen, is the future of design.

What is it about this initiative that has inspired you to get involved?

I think the word “consciousness” attracted me because we don’t quite know what it is. It’s clearly to do with the conversation we’ve been having; when people come first and where, with open minds and creativity, we engage with the small things that make the biggest difference.

It could even be one word.

How does your creative conscience express itself in your work?

It’s always expressed itself in the quality of relationships I have with my clients and colleagues. Sometimes any relationship could be better, sometimes you have to settle for how things actually are. You have to balance being reasonable with being unreasonable.

Among many wise things George Bernard Shaw said was: “Nothing is achieved by a reasonable man.”

There are two other inspiring quotations from George Bernard Shaw, especially relevant for designers. Shaw would have been a great Creative Director: “Nothing is worth doing unless the consequences may be serious.” “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”

So you have to pick your battles carefully and pick the opportunities with which you choose to engage. You decide and don’t just flow with the circumstances in which you find yourself. A good designer has to design the kind of designer they want to be.

Author: Chrissy Levett, Creative Director