Michael Wolff slams city branding, annual reports… and Wolff Olins

Branding a city is like attempting to ‘eat a dinosaur’, said Michael Wolff at last night’s D&AD President’s Lecture in Liverpool.

‘Whether the word “London” is written in Helvetica or the logo has Dick Whittington in it will not have much bearing on how people actually think of, and experience, the city,’ he said, referring to plans to create an identity for London.

‘Branding is an illusion of an easy win for cities, without actually making them any better to live in,’ said Wolff.

Swathed in a guru-orange scarf and fresh back from a trip to India, a Crocs-wearing Wolff urged the audience of students and professional designers to address ‘real’ issues instead of ‘window dressing’. He proposed service design in the NHS and care for the elderly as worthy subjects for today’s designers to tackle.

‘More than the recession, the interesting thing about our times is the business crisis, because we are having to ask “what is business for and are we dealing properly with the big issues in our culture?”,’ said Wolff.

Although he opened the lecture with a caveat not to take him at his word, Wolff later opined that ‘annual reports are such bullshit, really’. Office architecture also came in for criticism for being ‘ludicrously aggressive’.

He also slammed his former branding consultancy Wolff Olins, saying ‘the group’s boldness has turned to arrogance, which has not a trace of humility in it’.

The lecture capped the Liverpool Design Symposium, which took place yesterday at Liverpool John Moores University’s Art & Design Academy.

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  • Wayne Stuart November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    I was at this lecture and found Michael to be engaging, fascinating and very forthright in his opinion of the industry as a whole. Would have loved his opinion on the 2012 brand for London, but we only had 15 mins for questions and that would have been a lecture in itself I guess.

  • Francesca Greco November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    The design industry needs more spokespersons like Michael Wolff to champion the idea that design is not just about creating beautiful things that are visually appealing and photogenic. Achieving meaningful depth behind any idea can also be designed; but this means working much harder.

  • martin November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    he’s basically saying branding is pointless, I see what he means about trying to brand a city but you can make a difference with branding (not just a logo) even if it’s a sub conscious difference, maybe he means more of the re branding of things we see these days which is just a slight tweek of the logo, a colour can say a lot, as can a type face, i’m dissapointed to hear this from him.

  • Jean November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    I wasn’t at the lecture… but linking the notice, the comments, and the (sarcastic) review of Starck’s show (which I haven’t seen either), I keep wondering why the profession seems to find inspiring the cynicism of those who have just been outrageously feeding the system they suddenly blame, and get well paid for that.
    These people pretend to give you lessons about values, whereas the only lesson they could possibly give you is how to become wealthy.

  • jane wentworth November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    I wasn’t at Michael Wolff’s talk in Liverpool, but I’m sure it was a breath of fresh air – and he’s right that brand should be about creating a better experience. However I’m surprised that he defines brand in such superficial terms – ‘Whether the word “London” is written in Helvetica or the logo has Dick Whittington in it’. He must know that what really matters is the story behind the logo. What makes the city special? What can people expect? What needs to happen to ensure they aren’t disappointed? Get that right and follow it through – then you can worry about the logo if you have to.

  • Gareth Rowson November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    I don’t think he is saying branding is pointless, rather, a tone of voice needs to be followed through with action as a revamped logo on its own won’t change the publics perception.
    I did see Starck’s show, and yes, every episode was prefaced with imagery of his accomplishments, such as him brandishing one of his gun themed novelty lamp shades, only to spend the rest of the show preaching design must be integral to longevity, durability and the greater good of the world.
    The fact is these guys know their stuff, and their enlightened views, all be them a little late in life, are what will give the new kids a step ahead in design. Hopefully becoming wealthy with the right values from the start.
    Better late than never I guess.

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