Michael wolff

‘Congratulations’ is the first thing I want to say to anyone whose work is honoured by being in this supplement.

It’s an achievement to win recognition for the quality of your work from juries or judges made up of people whose work you admire. People with whom you may normally compete.

I was always excited to have my work and my name included with respect, and sometimes envy, in any selection of excellence by my peers. It always felt like having climbed to some sort of summit – my head clearly visible among a sea of mediocrity. But, and there’s always a ‘but’ for me, the chosen work always had flaws. Flaws that taunted me and always insisted on being noticed.

I don’t think flawless work exists any more than flawless people. In life, with some humility, there’s always the possibility of addressing flaws and correcting them.

With work, it’s usually too late. By the time you see the flaws, the work’s been produced. Even a car as sublime as the Citroën DS had flaws, and like every other car, or ad, or brand identity or any piece of work from the world of design, flaws are usually present. Occasionally, something like the Red Cross or the Penguin symbols appear – more or less flawless. Or a poster by a ‘master’, a timeless piece of architecture, a fantastic advertisement, a breathtaking product or a perfect piece of writing by a great copywriter. These iconic pieces are rare. Why so, when there are so many brilliant and talented people in our wide world of design?

I think there are two main reasons.

The first is vanity – a deadly state of mind that settles for less by substituting a craving for credit and recognition for simply doing a service. That’s a personal issue. Most people can recognise when they’re drinking from the intoxicating chalice of recognition.

The second reason is more serious and profound. I think it’s a flaw in how the activities of design have slipped into the clothes of mediocre and conventional business. Wanting recognition and wealth was the basis for this evolution.

As the design business was born out of the design profession, itself a device for gaining recognition, we believed that being like our clients and being reasonable would somehow validate our effectiveness and we would slip into business life, like lawyers and management consultants. What happened then was that we were swept up into the world of process, deadlines and project management. Serious time for thought, reflection and criticism was eroded, and design became a day-rate affair.

In the early days of Wolff Olins, we were free to introduce six-week holidays to encourage an ‘input mentality’ beyond reading magazines, to balance what was sometimes an atmosphere of ‘stressed output’. We encouraged someone to take a three-year course in anthropology, on full pay, so that – through this person’s evolution – we, too, would learn more about how people behave in groups. We could afford to attract writers to work for us, because an obsession with the visual aspects of design often ignored the power of language. Criticism was not seen as disloyalty, time-wasting or sabotage, it was integral to honing a good solution.

And it took time, because it often meant ‘throw it out and start again’.

We all know that creativity can take minutes, even seconds – or it can take weeks and months. A moment of insight turned into a creative idea can change the world. Months of mediocre process can produce the emperor’s new clothes – and it often does. The ‘project management’ and pressure to deliver in a conventional, unquestioned time frame, can often blind us to opportunities we need to see.

How can we reclaim the creative, artistic, expressive, original and intuitive initiatives that define us as designers, from the grinding, boring, greedy and uninspiring businesses that are subsuming so many of us? Just as with energy and how we use it, and architecture and how we live in it, and money and how we think of it and use it, we have to start all over again.

Although awards deserve congratulations, don’t be seduced into thinking everything is fine and rosy. It isn’t. The world needs our insights, our imagination, our thinking and our inspiration to a higher purpose for our clients more than it ever did. Too often, we’re still more preoccupied with things useful to us – recognition, growing our companies and gaining material wealth – than things useful to the world we live in. The old paradigm is deadening – long live a new one.

Michael Wolff is the founder of Michael Wolff & Company

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