“During my early career I was sacked from 12 jobs in a row”, says Michael Wolff in his new biography, Leap before you look: the Zen of branding, published by NB Studio and edited by writer Tom Lynham.
Despite this serial-sacking at the start, Wolff’s 60-year career recounted in the book – which is being launched with a Kickstarter – is defined more by its memorable achievements, having created branding for clients such as P&O, Apple Records, Audi, Volkswagen, Labour, right down to more recent projects such as ANNA from his ongoing collaboration with NB Studio.
“Told by Michael Wolff”, the book’s narrative has been shaped by a series of interviews recorded at NB studio, “over the course of four or five months”, by writer Tom Lynham, explains NB Studio co-founder and creative director Alan Dye.
Through the course of the book Wolff’s voice takes you through projects both realised and unrealised, offering succinct yet reflective stories encompassing the origin, challenges and solution of each one.
Between each batch of projects is a bright yellow double-page spread, where essays penned by Wolff explore chapters of his life, career and thinking. Readers are given the story of Wolff’s parents emigrating to the UK via ship to flee Soviet persecution in 1933; another passage recounts formative experiences such as the recognition of wartime insignia as branding, or a memory of VE day celebrations marked by the full-sensory experience of colour, texture and “overwhelming smell” as his mother peels an orange.
Elsewhere Wolff admits to his missteps, such as not taking seriously his time studying architecture at Architectural Association and recognises the helping hands and inspirations that have played a part on the way to him establishing Wolff Olins, then Addison and Michael Wolff & Company.
The book shows how “a streak of humour lurks through all Michael’s work; 60 years of alternative thinking”, says Dye. Led by emotion and instinct, familiar industry tropes are ignored in favour of something witty and more memorable – whether the photograph of an Apple by Gene Marne for Apple records or the logo and accompanying magazine for 3i (Finance for Industry).
Even when wit isn’t appropriate, Wolff writes, he believes that with the help of a designer “any company or organisation should look naturally, profoundly and convincingly at itself and have integrity in everything it does.”
His innate ability to read character and define it for a business is seen in Camden Council’s logo “that shakes hands with all the people who live in [the borough]”; the counter-intuitive hummingbird to represent the “light touch” leadership of construction company Bovis; or the “wily fox” to express family-run paint company Hadfields’ cunning survival against far larger competitors.
From his early sensory recollections to his appreciation of other designers – from Frank Pick, Achille Castiglione to Issey Miyake – Wolff’s belief in the power and importance of design is clear. At Wolff Olins, this even carried across to the culture and in-house kitchen, where: “We were evangelical about how we physically and mentally functioned, and the sensual pleasure food gave us”, he writes, “We baked our own bread. We had our own chefs.”
In writing this book today, Wolff is still advocating for what can be gained by designers willing to take a leap and convince their clients to jump with them, but he doesn’t pretend won’t lead to numerous blows – that early track record of employment, or his eventual splitting with Wally Olins – for example.
Currently raising funds to get the book published, Dye explains that it has been a pleasure to work on a book detailing Wolff’s legacy and “empathetic” approach, which he says is something “wonderful and human – and what branding companies forget these days”.
Rather than a “heavy, wordy” tome, Leap before you look intends to be a “different type of branding book” to the usual, perhaps best described as “picture book with the stories added”, Dye says. It will have a square format, a “dollop of sunshine cover” with an illustration by Wolff’s friend and collaborator, the New Yorker cartoonist Charlie Barsotti on the front, and on the back, the words: “He’s going to tell you anyway”.
“I think it brings back humanity, empathy and kindness – I think that’s what Michael is about.” Dye says. “He’s an incredibly generous person, with his time and with his thoughts and his ideas.”
Leap before you look: the Zen of Branding by Michael Wolff is being launched via a Kickstarter.