A letter from Michael Wolff

This letter from Michael Wolff was originally commissioned by Kyoorius magazine in Mumbai. Michael contemplates the machinations of the design business, collaboration, humility, and the pitfalls of vanity.

 

Dear Reader,

I’m starting with an apology. I promised to write you an autobiographical letter about the things and images that have inspired me and still inspire me in what I do. But writing this has overwhelmed me and I’m still working on it for you. Please be patient with me.

 

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At the same time as writing the letter I promised, I’ve been distracted by a quote. It’s a quote that’s caused me to reflect and think. It relates to our behavior as designers and in particular to the magazines that serve our business.

I think you know by now that I’ve always thrived on distractions.

I don’t always arrive at destinations that I intend to reach. I let distractions take me on extraordinary journeys. I think not knowing where you’ll arrive is the essence of creativity. If you already know you won’t be surprised by the magic of what you can create. I hope you’ll find these reflections useful, and that maybe they’ll become thoughts you’ll want to reflect on too.

 

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Finding this distracting and insightful quote was a surprise. I wish I’d seen it many years ago. It was by a man called Norman Vincent Peale. He was born in the USA during 1898 and died twenty years ago. I’d never heard of him. He was best known for being the champion of ‘the power of positive thinking’. I think he coined the phrase.

He said many inspirational things including this. “The way to happiness: Keep your heart free from hate, your mind from worry. Live simply, expect little, give much. Scatter sunshine, forget self, think of others. Try this for a week and you’ll be surprised.”

But the quote that’s caused me to stop in my tracks was this:

 

“The trouble with most of us

is that we’d rather be ruined by praise

than saved by criticism.”

 

I’ve always valued criticism. I’ve never done flawless work. Criticism is nourishment. It’s the sharpener without which our blades grow blunt.

But I think craving praise, the way it seems to me that we often do, is ruinous. I think many designers are easily seduced into self-adulation. We seem to be too easily herded into mutual admiration, ceremonies and awards that focus entirely on praise.  How many doctors compete for ‘the annual kidney transplant of the year’ awards? Yes, the Nobel Prize gives honour to work of great distinction. But for an ad or a piece of graphic design, come on.

 

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It seems as if awards or being published in a magazine have come to be the most important measure of the quality of a designer’s work – less banal than “was it effective”, “did it sell more stuff” or “how much money did we make out of this client”.

Despite those feelings, “Congratulations” has always been the first thing I want to say to anyone whose work is honoured by winning an award. Of course it’s an achievement to win recognition for the quality of your work from juries or judges made up of people whose work you may admire.

In the past I was always excited to have my work and my name included with respect, and sometimes even envy, in any selection of excellence by my peers. It always felt like having climbed to some sort of summit – my head clearly seen above the sea of normality. 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. They still taunt me today.

 

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I don’t think flawless work exists any more than flawless people. In life – with a little 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 Citroen 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 there.

 

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Occasionally something like the Red Cross appears – more or less flawless. Or a poster by a ‘master’, a timeless piece of architecture, a fantastic ad, a breath-taking 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 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 design industry has expanded. The design industry has slid relatively unnoticed into the clothes of mediocre and conventional business. Wanting recognition and wealth has been the basis for this evolution.

As the design business was born out of the design profession, we believed that being like our clients and being reasonable would somehow validate our efforts and we would glide 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 over an entirely output one and an appetite for curiosity beyond just 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 collaborated with writers because an obsession with the visual aspects of design often ignored the power of language. Almost endless 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’.

 

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We all know that creativity can take minutes, even seconds, and 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. 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 always have to start all over again. A maxim of mine is ‘Always be starting’.

Although awards deserve congratulations, don’t be seduced by them 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 that it ever did. Too often, we’re still more pre-occupied with useful things for ourselves – recognition, growing our companies and gaining material wealth – than useful things for the world we live in.

 

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Hopefully this worn out old paradigm is dying.
Long live a new and more fruitful one.

 

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This letter is also published in Mike Dempsey’s Graphic Journey and you can read more from Michael Wolff here.

 

 

 

 

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