It was the problem-solving aspect of design, rather than his love of art, that drew Michael Witten to his profession. He wanted to be a graphic designer, but a work placement put paid to that. ‘I was so unbelievably bored after three days of watching people make amendments to lawnmower packaging that I decided it wasn’t for me,’ he remembers. He concedes that those people were probably artworkers rather than designers, but he didn’t look back.
The offer of taking a 12-month work placement as part of the interior design degree at Middlesex University was a key reason Witten chose the course. ‘It was absolutely integral to my understanding of the design profession,’ he says. ‘That year gave me a new perspective on the industry – I was answering to a paying client rather than myself. The combination of my three years at university and the year’s work placement gave me a good all-round understanding of the job before I was released into the “real world”.’
Witten is now a designer at multidisciplinary consultancy The One Off. Clients have included a global banking giant, trans-Atlantic retailers and independent entrepreneurs, ‘who all need very different things’, says Witten. ‘While there is consistency in the design process, the nature of the work changes.’ He particularly enjoys the commercial and client relationship side of design. ‘Design should be a collaboration to really understand the problem and then work together to find the right solution,’ he says.
His first project at The One Off was as part of a team developing the new store concept for the homeware chain Home Sense. ‘It was a great experience, working with an experienced retailer that knew its product, but was willing to be challenged about the way things were done,’ says Witten. While the concept evolved during the process, the finished stores resemble some of the early drafts, he says. The feature wall linked to the staircase, say, was a strong brand element fusing product display and messaging.
For the Barclays flagship in London’s Piccadilly Circus, Witten was involved in creating an animated shopfront that captures images of passers-by at night and projects them on to a screen behind the glass.
The One Off often gets involved beyond the design of a store, making recommendations about the way a brand talks to its customers. Witten believes there’s a lot of value in customers’ experiences and that clients are becoming more aware of the need to develop new ways to connect with the target market.
But he also enjoys the more creative briefs and has worked on several projects for clients who want to be inspired. ‘That’s always great, because you know you have the freedom upfront to be creative without your ideas being immediately challenged, though it’s important that ideas are based in realities,’ he says.
Witten’s commercial awareness and clear-headed approach shine through. He describes it as ‘working both methodically and creatively’. ‘The key is to understand what is required and work out how this can be achieved,’ he explains. ‘A client isn’t going to buy into an idea just because it looks nice, they have to see what the benefits are to their business and how it can help them.’
2007 BA Interior Design Middlesex University
2007 to present Designer The One Off Interiors
‘Michael Witten is a very thoughtful designer. His work is characterised by a rigorous application of principled design and driven by a strong sense of the contextual situation.
Sometimes playful, sometimes deeply serious, it is informed by his ability to devise and develop the narratives that will enfold the visitor and the user,and represent them with clarity and a sense of delight.’
John Coles Senior lecturer and interior architecture programme leader Middlesex University