In conversation: Michael Wolff

By Jeremy Myerson

2021 Lifetime Achievement Medal Michael Wolff reflects on his career with Jeremy Myerson

Just weeks from his 88th birthday, Michael Wolff laughs at the idea that his career as graphic designer, corporate branding pioneer and all-round creative sage has followed any kind of plan. “My life has never felt deliberate,” he says. “I seem to have opened every day like unwrapping a present.” He also points out that he has been sacked 12 times. One of those occasions was when he parted company from Wolff Olins, the corporate identity firm he co-founded in 1964 and which first made his name.

Wolff originally trained at Hammersmith School of Art before trying his hand at various roles around town, including Crawford’s ad agency and the BBC, while conspicuously failing to launch his own design company. At 30, he finally got one off the ground – a partnership with designer James Main – before the urbane Wally Olins joined them. They went on to completely rewrite the rules of corporate branding.

Wolff Olins lit up the London communication scene in the 1960s and 1970s. Its mix of strategy and creativity reached boardrooms that other design groups could not reach. On the success of their partnership, Wolff explains: “We saw qualities in each other that the other lacked – intelligence on Wally’s part, wildness on mine.” Who could forget Wolff Olins’ delicate hummingbird logo for construction giant Bovis? The chairman of Bovis, Sir Keith Joseph, was incredulous – he wanted a bull or some other symbol of male physical strength. But, a hummingbird? Fortunately, Wolff’s smooth powers of persuasion convinced him of its beauty, winning the day.

"I seem to have opened every day like unwrapping a present." - Michael Wolff

Wolff Olins did trailblazing work for Audi, VW, Shell, 3i, P&O Ferries and other corporate giants in that period, but by 1983 Michael Wolff was out of the door. He describes it as “the breakup of a marriage; the other directors were consolidating the product at exactly the time I was in a chaotic period of self-discovery.”

That journey of self-discovery has not stopped since. Across a dizzying span of different cultures, contexts and collaborators, the big commissions continued. He worked on the Labour Party’s red rose revamp and the greening of BP. His identity projects ranged from Mothercare to the Ministry of Sound. He was – and still is – always willing to take risks, to provoke. In the words of one of his many admirers: “A Houdini designer who got his clients and himself out of every scrape.” He has since become a mentor and role model for younger designers, and an activist for inclusive design and improving the NHS.

Wolff has described his upbringing as having a more profound effect on his thinking than the Bauhaus. Born in 1933 to Russian parents, who relocated to England from St. Petersburg, he spent his childhood in various “terrible, tribalist” boarding schools and vividly recalls his first aesthetic awakening. “I was four. My mother was peeling an orange – the colour, the texture, the segments, the astounding taste. Orange is my favourite colour – I gave it to Camden Council.” Years later, he would work extensively in post-Soviet Russia, admitting that “oddly, I felt very at home there.”

Throughout Wolff’s life, the common denominator has been an insatiable curiosity about people that translates into creative design of the highest order. He has always chosen humour as a route to communicate, creating some of his most memorable work with The New Yorker cartoonist Charles Barsotti. Today, he continues to address serious subjects with sharp wit and eloquence via a series of smartly satirical booklets, always dancing to his own tune. Passionate and principled, he remains as relevant in the 2020s as he was in the 1960s. Who better to pick up the Lifetime Achievement Medal for design?