Michael Wolff: keeping companies one step ahead of the pack

He's been one of the most influential and controversial brand designers in the engineering and technology sector. Michael Wolff tells E&T how he's managed to keep all his branding irons in the fire…

He created new identities for both Audi and Volkswagen. He came up with 3i's name, and played a pivotal role in the original stages of the greening of BP. He's come up with designs for Sky, BT, Citigroup, the tailfin for BA, Orange, as well as the first high-speed train in Spain. In short, Michael Wolff is an icon in the world of industrial identity, branding and design.

Wolff studied architecture and was co-founder and creative director of Wolff Olins, the design consultancy launched in the 1960s and responsible for creating some of the most iconic identities of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. With his then partner Wally Olins, Wolff became known as the godfather of brand identity, trumpeted as 'the greatest creative double act', and together they won many industry awards.

Wolff described their secret as "actually being able to take off your shoes and step into theirs - the client's". Lord Puttnam once said of the design duo: "They've always had a kind of core social ethos." In 1983 Wolff left the company to develop his own design consultancy, leaving Olins at the helm. Olins stayed until the mid-1990s before himself moving on. The company may no longer have either of its original founders, but Wolff insists that Wolff Olins has sustained its often-controversial style. Still highly successful, the company does not always meet with universal acclaim, as with the case of the now infamous 2012 London Olympics logo.

Branding, says Wolff, is not simply about the look and logo of a product. Branding is increasingly about the company behind the product. He's enthusiastic about opportunities for creative design in engineering and technology and quotes the example of James Dyson's design and innovation in domestic products. He's also a big admirer of Lexus as engineering technology putting customer needs first.

Although happy to be running his own independent creative consultancy, in 1987 Wolff became chairman of Addison in the UK and worldwide creative director and in 1992 he became non-executive director of creative consultants Newell and Sorrell in a strategic consultancy role, and twice served as a member of the Royal Mail's Stamp Advisory Committee which advises on the selection and development of designs for all postage stamps.

E&T: Why is design and branding important?

Michael Wolff: When you see a really successful company like Apple, you can appreciate that it really cares about beautifully designed and branded products. Orange started well, but today it's just another mobile network. Google is a good example where the logo is the embodiment of the business. Or take a company like Waitrose whose branding and design stand out among retailers. It has a certain beauty, which reflects skill and service. Tesco sort of understands this, but so many retailers don't. By contrast, if you drive into some service stations skill seems absent. You have to do everything yourself. Ikea is one of the best examples where the type of logo is as significant as the business of the company.

E&T: How can design and image work for engineering and technology?

MW: It's a huge opportunity. In hard times people are more discerning and choose value. James Dyson is one of the great engineering designers who transformed the vacuum cleaner and other home appliances. He looks at the world and asks 'what doesn't work?'. Take cars. Lexus is a beautiful piece of engineering. It has been designed to respond to how people feel, to make customers happier and relaxed. The engineering technology is beautiful. Or take high-speed trains in Spain, which we designed. A lot of Italian design is great, but a lot of it is also pretty dreadful.

E&T: What does 'creative' mean to you?

MW: It means producing something that wasn't there before. For instance, Edison's lamp bulb or Bill Bernbach's (the advertising guru) name for Volkswagen's Beetles - and the advertising he did to make them famous and successful. The other Beatles too, and all their extraordinary music.

E&T: Few designs have caused as much controversy as the Olympic logo. It was criticised for the cost of the design and the selection procedures. It triggered early day motions from MPs, and an online petition with thousands of signatures. What is it trying to achieve?

MW: The point about the Olympic design is that it's not sycophantic about sport. It's a contemporary expression of graphic design; it's abrasive, assertive and colourful. I think it's doing a good job. It was designed by my old firm, Wolff Olins and endorsed by Lord Sebastian Coe, Tessa Jowell (then culture secretary) and Lord Moynihan, chairman of the British Olympic Association. It's so new and because it's new it's startling. People produce something entirely new that is very unexpected and the reaction is shock, horror. Chris Townsend, the London Committee's commercial director said: "When I first saw it I absolutely loved it and recognised immediately that over the five years we're going to establish a really powerful brand. It has a real wow factor and we are all exceptionally proud of it." Every time the Olympic Committee launches its emblem there is this type of reaction.

I notice in design circles it's being said that under Mayor Boris Johnson London would do well to heed others' efforts there as the capital approached the Olympics without a design tsar on the team.

E&T: You've criticised the trend towards what you defined as 'vacuous' design, which you've described as design by process and demographics at the expense of creativity. Can you elaborate?

MW: Dreadful derivative work is like curdled mayonnaise. You know it's going to taste awful, but you keep adding to it because you haven't got the heart to throw it away. Designers should have the courage to push themselves to be creative and develop the confidence to trust them to be authentic and seek the judgment of their peers. I crave awful moments - times when I show clients new work and they don't know what to say - because I know I am doing something that hasn't been done before.

E&T: You also criticised Birmingham and the city council for lack of creativity at the heart of its policies and the risk of trailing behind rival cities. The area was 'pregnant', you said, with creative talent, which had to be tapped into if it was to succeed on the world stage. What led to your recommendation that the council should take greater responsibility for the city's image? How would you improve it? Why did you dismiss the work being done by Marketing Birmingham and criticise the city's logo, questioning what it stands for?

MW: The council needs a full-time director to help boost the city's reputation for culture and art. Birmingham City Council needs a creative director like Peter Saville in Manchester who has done a great job making Manchester's culture and art shine out. Manchester and London are leaving Birmingham behind in this. I am sorry but Marketing Birmingham - what is it? It just doesn't have a big enough profile or, probably, budget. The council should be taking greater responsibility for the city's image. Creativity and design has to be at the heart of everything it does. By improving the image of the city things like healthcare and education will get better as a consequence.

E&T: Why did your partnership with Wally Olins break up? You two practically invented brand identity and brought design to many boardrooms.

MW: When we created Wolff Olins in 1964, Wally Olins had an astonishing cupboardful of qualities that I lacked. He was serious about discipline, about history, about what he knew. I am frivolous about what I know about history, but passionate about the future. Wally was a historicist. What led to the split was that our first chapter was about forging new territory and I wanted to stay doing that. I became an advocate for creativity wherever I went. My exploration instinct is tireless. I think it gives me an energy, though other people find it tiring. We became incompatible.

I left in 1983 to develop my own consultancy. Wally left in 1997. I am pleased the people who run the firm today have sustained its style and success. It's still a very robust and independent consultancy. Wolff Olins became the first UK design business to win a major export award for it's outstanding contribution to an overseas client when it won the inaugural UK Trade and Investment International Export Award for South America's largest phone brand - Vivo. I enjoyed the process of becoming a business, but I was lonely working on my own, so I went to Newell and Sorrell to be useful to them in a non-specific way.

E&T: How do you work on your own and still undertake some major projects?

MW: All my best work depends on a lot of people. Instead of having a team, as I did in my old firm, I now work like a film producer. There are many good small design consultancies and independents around. I pick the right crew: cameraman, designers, printers and so on. That's the approach I take.

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