Michael Wolff: How I designed the Labour rose

The designer recalls how a serendipitous event led to him designing the Labour Party’s rose and transforming its visual identity in the 1980s.

Courtesy of Michael Wolff

Peter Mandelson had walked past my home in Islington frequently before I recognised him and we started our first conversation. I was immediately impressed by his intelligence and quick wit. Within moments, I realised his heritage. He was Herbert Morrison’s grandson and so had traditional Labour values in his DNA.

The Labour Party was in a trough. It was the early 1980s and Neil Kinnock had just become a new leader of the Labour Party with the determination to transform it.

Labour’s “much-needed transformation”

We fell into a conversation about why Labour still used the word ‘Party’ in its brand logo. Peter, together with Neil’s principal strategist Philip Gould, were supporting Neil to bring about the much-needed transformation for the Labour Party. I’d long been depressed by the stuff political parties put through my letterbox — shocking writing and even worse design and typography.

“If this was electioneering on a national scale”, I said to Peter, “then it was a colossal waste of time and effort.”

“What would you do?” was Peter’s response. “Well,” I said, “before we tackle the horrible use of language and the even worse layout of all the desperate leaflets produced by local party offices, I think Labour need to drop the word ‘party’ and get rid of the depressing and crass use of red and yellow.”

Design inspiration

Soon after this conversation, Peter introduced me to Neil and Philip. All three men struck me as more open minded and clear about what was needed than most of my corporate clients. They wanted to move people’s hearts and minds.

I’d already had Maya Angelou’s inspirational words embedded in my mind. What she’d said had re-affirmed what I believed: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” This had always driven my work.

Neil had been inspired by how the European Socialists movement had used a red rose and this immediately struck us both as the solution. But who should I commission to create the rose and what about the word ‘Labour’?

Creating the new logo

I commissioned two friends: the Royal Academician and brilliant painter Philip Sutton, and the magical illustrator who’d worked with us in Wolff Olins, Peter Denmark. Both produced wonderful red roses and Pete’s, which was the simplest, was selected. It was a beautiful painting.

We produced a strong logotype in a typeface called Plantin and just the single and simple word ‘Labour’. We also had in mind a typographic system that would bring about a coherent look and feel to the slogans, policies and claims that Labour intended to use for their campaign.

A “squandered” opportunity

Neil was delighted by the rose. He once called me ‘the rose man’. Peter and Philip were happy too, and then, because of the calibre of most political parties’ promotional machinery and the fragmented way in which budgets are spent by constituency offices around the country, we could only do our best to use the new symbol. It was left to an embattled and constrained publicity department within the party.

Without a professionally run design programme and an experienced designer controlling the quality of writing, design and printing, a coordinated, consistent and effective programme would never be achieved. It wasn’t.

Although Labour had some advantages from their rose, like any other political party they squandered and dissipated what the rose could have done for them. Now they’ve redesigned it and it’s lost its simple and appealing charm.

“No party in the UK has ever used design effectively”

It’s always been clear to me, from all the party conferences, that no party in the UK has ever used design effectively. Probably the ugly and visually illiterate efforts of UKIP was the best example of the sad depth of design ignorance, but today, there’s no political party that makes effective use of design.

As usual, it’s the failure of designers to take any of our parties by the scruff of the neck and lead them to clean up their act.

At Wolff Olins, I tried with Labour and failed, Rodney Fitch tried with the Liberal Democrats, and failed, and I believe Michael Peters tried with the Conservatives and failed.

Like too many of the UK’s businesses, all our political parties still fail to understand the value of design — both for themselves and in general throughout our government and our society.

That Ben Terrett was able to create and produce our brilliant government website was a remarkable, almost miraculous achievement. More his achievement than the government’s.

It’s still sad that unlike Germany and Denmark, a variety of names and a profusion of absurd, disparate and indifferent logos and symbols still represent our government departments. They all remain ineffective, dispiriting and lamentable and they still proclaim to the world that our government establishments have still failed to grasp the value of design.

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  • mike dempsey November 20, 2019 at 11:20 am

    Michael Wolff’s analysis of the use of graphic design in the complex world of politics is spot on.

    In the 2016 Hillary Clinton election campaign, the design strategy was created by Michael Bierut at Pentagram, New York. It was clean, simple and direct. But Clinton lost to Trump with his bombastic, unsophisticated graphic approach. In the end, it is down to the power of the individuals concerned and their acceptance by the voting public. All the graphics in the world can’t change that.

    One of the few areas of an effective creative strategy was achieved in advertising. The 1970s Saatchi & Saatchi Conservative poster campaign ‘Labour isn’t Working’ was so effective it helped to demolish old Labour.

    The political elite sees graphic design as nothing more than a world of airy-fairy people, beavering away with coloured pencils on layout pads. And those individuals are expected to donate their time for nothing, even that doesn’t stop a plethora of comments and criticism from all and sundry. In life, everyone thinks they can comment on design. Ask them to do it themselves and they are at a loss. Such is the designer’s lot.

    However, advertising is a different matter, the 48 sheet poster sites, the full-page ads in the nationals and the tv commercial spots cost big money and large award-winning firms like Saatchi & Saatchi had enormous influence and clout back in the day. In those cigar smoke-filled meeting rooms Prime Ministers and cabinet ministers listen to intently.

    I too celebrate Ben Terrett’s achievement with GOV.UK, it was a masterstroke to get that up and running. But on a point of accuracy re Michael Wolff’s comments, Ben Terrett did manage to rid government departments of all the chaotic individual logos being used in favour of a consistent sans serif arrangement, accompanied by fine rule and Royal crest silhouette. However, all that hard work could be swept away with another regime and we’ll all be back to square one.

  • Graham Purnell March 2, 2022 at 7:36 pm

    At the time, many people in Scotland were stunned at the insensitivity. Why would a UK party choose such an iconic English emblem? The answer, it would appear, is that Labour, in fact all UK parties, couldn’t give a stuff about any of the other UK nations, except to make up the numbers. This article does nothing to dispel that notion, yet English people scratch their heads and wonder why Labour lost its way in Scotland.

    The party in Scotland has, in March 2022, changed their emblem to a thistle, in panic more than hope. It’s almost 40 years too late.

  • WHS May 4, 2023 at 9:42 pm

    Why have you deliberately painted up in yellow the lines which, when rendered in white, show that at the heart of the Labour Party rose was an outline of Lenin? Supposedly it was based on a rose from Peter Mandelson’s Herefordshire garden but, there all along, it was hiding in plain sight.

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