Sitting in the reception at Newell and Sorrell, I enjoy the hubbub. Designers are quaffing coffee, enjoying fresh croissants and reading The Guardian. These people have got it right. Forget management, I’m a born again designer! Today I’m going to meet Michael Wolff and I can’t wait.
Wolff is easy to talk to and so full of ideas that run far beyond design, into personal psychology and the management of people and companies, that I am instantly engrossed.
Born into a Russian Ã©migrÃ© family in England, his education at one of our stiffer public schools was in stark contrast to his home environment, which was coloured by his parents’ emotionally charged marital disharmony. He ended up brilliantly cheating in his final exams at a London crammer, only to drop out of the Architectural Association and go instead to Hammersmith College to study dress and interior design.
A very short spell in the army was followed by a succession of jobs: “I think I was fired about 12 times,” he recalls. “However, I was undeterred since I already knew that I was very good at what I did. I knew you did not have to do it the way everyone else did. It was interesting to challenge conventions, you could strip away assumptions, many of which were systems for not having to think creatively.
“Jack Foxall, who ran the design arm of the ad agency Crawfords, eventually hired me. He liked the way I worked and sold my ideas even when I was a bit eccentric. That was the turning point and I did amazing things with him. He made me believe that I could push the edges and made me realise that that was what I was always going to be about. I don’t know what would have happened if I hadn’t met him.”
In 1965, he went into partnership with Wally Olins: “I had never met anyone who had so many qualities that I lacked,” says Wolff about Olins: “and I think that was mutual.” From 1965 to the mid-Seventies Wolff Olins really roared. “It was an amazing time, we did astonishing things. But I was always driven by the frustration that we weren’t doing it as well as Fletcher, Forbes and Gill, and, of course, Derek Birdsall. There seemed to be more discipline and finesse to their work.” This dissatisfaction with his own work appears to be a constant and driving force.
At Wolff Olins he produced “a lot of work that was well done, well liked, award-winning. But at the end of the day no good”, because of the lack of an all-encapsulating “single idea” which pervades everything that represents a company and reveals its true spirit.
“We attached the Bovis identity to the Bovis company, but it was an identity stuck on a business that didn’t particularly change, and that was more or less true about every project we did,” he says. The exception was Hadfield’s Paints. “That was good because it really captured the spirit of the company. But no one ever got close to Avis and its ‘we try harder’ culture, backed up by all those brilliant Bernbach ads. We could never persuade people to go that far.”
Wolff is adamant that successful identities are based around a revealing process rather than the building of an elaborate disguise for a business. “You must understand the company and its vision. The holistic self-expression of a business has to be based on what it actually is – its raison d’Ãªtre.
“Very few companies find that. Virgin seems to have it, as do Pret a Manger and The Body Shop,” he says. In his view it is quite wrong to use design to get things to “look right” without the identity being reflective of the company and its vision. “People see through that: in every interaction a business reveals itself more. I always remind clients that whatever they say, people will get an idea of what they’re really like. A corporate identity is where a company reveals its true self.
“I never understood that until the late Seventies, when I took some courses on communication to learn about myself, my own visions and values. It was unbelievably miserable, drew me up short, and drove everybody else mad. My partners thought I had gone batty.” Eventually, it caused the very painful split with Wolff Olins.
Wolff has now carved out a completely new role for himself. He still sees himself as a designer, but I feel that he stretches the term to breaking point: “I am a catalyst and therapist to enable people and companies to have a better, more fulfilling self-expression than they would otherwise have had. Designers have the power and visual skills to show clients a picture of their outrageously successful business four or five years on, down to the finest detail.”
His vision of the relationship between companies and their clients is rare: “We should guide clients on how to talk to the people who work for them. They too are customers of the business and subject to offers from competitors. At the same time, the company will compete for the attention and goodwill of suppliers and those who physically use their products. When you think of all these audiences as customers, terms like ’employees’, ‘staff’ and ‘punters’ go out of the window.
“Shareholders are customers too, so why send them bullshit annual reports with figures that everyone knows have been massaged? It builds low-level relationships. It is so very rare to go into a company where people are truly exhilarated and empowered,” adds Wolff.
For some time now I have been trying to look at the consultancy of the future, as Wolff did with The Consortium, which he formed after his departure from Wolff Olins: “The idea behind that was to avoid creating an institution that you have to feed. I wanted to build a network of the very best people, put them together to work on a project, do it brilliantly, then let them go when the job was done and bring them back together on other projects in a different mix,” he says. “I did not have the management skills to do it and so it failed. It could work now.”
He then took up a three-year contract with Addison, which showed every sign of being the first true international design business. “It was grown-up and sophisticated with big ideas. I recall being in the San Francisco office, calling up some work from the Singapore office on my computer and being very critical of it. But it had gone to bed by then, so I sent it to the London office, which put it right and sent it back to the Singapore office for the next morning. This was not using the Mac as an implementation device, as so many companies do, it was using technology with vision.”
Since leaving Addison in 1991, Wolff has built a long-lasting and high-level relationship with WH Smith, consulting with the heads of the retailer’s business units. One day a week he works at Newell and Sorrell in a guidance role. He is disappointed that the major design groups of today, apart from Newell and Sorrell of course, have not picked up the baton.
“Pentagram and CDT Design are still an inspiration, but there is a vacuum at the top,” he says. “The big companies are not at the cutting edge of satisfying customers. They have become very self-serving, looking after their own directors and shareholders and never sharpening the blade. It is very sad, but there is a great opportunity for someone to set up a multi-cultural, sharp, very commercial and visionary business, pushing the frontiers of what they bring to their clients.”
When Wolff left Addison, he left behind his beloved goldfish symbol which represented his vision of the necessity of companies and people “to reveal themselves. You can’t hide in a goldfish bowl”. He is currently working on a new expression of his thinking. This time it is a photograph of a grasshopper, which represents “the unreasonable leap”. It is such an appropriate symbol for him, not only because he looks for the big leap, but because he tends to jump from idea to idea with such energy. Most of all, it is clever and simple. Like much that Wolff says, it seems so obvious. It just takes him to express it.
1965 Set up Wolff Olins with Wally Olins
1983 Wolff leaves Wolff Olins, later to set up The Consortium, a short-lived network of ‘the very best people’
1987 Appointed chairman of Allied International Designers, owned by publicly quoted group Addison
1989 Addison Design completes 5m management buyout from Addison Consulting Group. Wolff becomes deputy chairman of Addison Design
1991 Wolff leaves Addison
1992 Wolff becomes external design management consultant to WH Smith
1994 Wolff becomes one of seven “shadow” design directors at the Design Council, under the chairmanship of his old friend John Sorrell of Newell and Sorrell, with whom he works one day a week