Mention Michael Wolff and you are guaranteed to raise a smile. He is one of those rare larger than life characters whose ability to come at a project from left field has earned him respect in design and provoked deep affection in those who know him.
He was the creative mind behind the seminal Bovis ‘hummingbird’ identity launched over 25 years ago, which helped to put corporate identity on to a new footing. The forerunner of ‘branding’, the Wolff Olins treatment gave the construction giant a very different slant to those of its competitors, which at the time favoured much more macho civil engineering imagery.
It was also Wolff’s goldfish identity for his group The Consortium, then transplanted to Addison in 1988 when he was a director there, that went on to beat Wolff Olins into submission in court in the 1990s, following the launch of its lookalike logo for British Gas’s Goldfish credit card.
Wolff’s ideas are intuitive, almost spiritual, and they strike the right chord. It is no wonder, therefore, that he glories in the title head of imagination at The Fourth Room, the consultancy he co-founded in 1998, pretentious though that title may sound.
Few people would equate this intuitive approach with research. The bÃªte noire of many a branding consultancy, research is often perceived as the baddie and calling in the consumers, usually by the client, to vet a design prior to its launch is often seen as the kiss of death to more ground-breaking ideas. Yet Wolff is among the staunchest supporters of research, used not to ‘judge’ a design, but to inform its creators from the outset and throughout the process.
Wolff’s Fourth Room co-founder and celebrated research buff Wendy Gordon is a past mistress of that ‘black art’, with an approach that is almost scientific. Yet she and Wolff can cite examples where they have come up with the same idea, he through intuitive observation, she through data-driven research.
It is a fairly rare combination, granted, with the likes of global product group Ideo (one-time 25 per cent shareholder in The Fourth Room) and some of the ‘think tank’ elements within WPP Group and other big conglomerates leading the way at the top end of the business. But it is one worth finding out more about.
Design Council director of design and innovation Clive Grinyer and others are pushing a research-based stance to fuel design innovation, so you might reconsider your views. It’s not so much about ‘putting it out to research’ as bringing research into the creative process from the outset. Potentially, it puts design on a firmer footing and in the long run that surely pays off.