Despite the choruses of disapproval that met their recent branding work for London's Olympic Games, Wolff Olins stands by its work and philosophy: good brand building is beyond logic
Since the 1960s, commercially-minded designers have complained about their lowly status in the business hierarchy. They have complained about not being listened to in the way other professionals are—accountants, lawyers, management consultants. But most of all, designers have complained that business doesn't take design seriously.
In the 1980s, smart design groups realised that the way to muscle into the boardrooms was to downplay design and creativity, and to elevate strategy and research. The result of this shift in emphasis was that the business world started to take design—and designers—more seriously. But there was a snag; the creative work that resulted from this change of tack was often sterile and formulaic. Sameness became the norm and blandness ruled.
But surely it's possible for designers to possess the knowledge-based skills that modern businesses require, and yet still produce work that is engaging and different? If there's anyone who can claim to have consistently done this, it's Wolff Olins. Since the 1970s (they were formed in 1965), the group has been at the centre of most of the key developments in visual communication. Founders Michael Wolff and Wally Olins have earned guru-like status within modern corporate communications. Olins' books on corporate identity and branding have defined the terrain for a generation of business-minded designers. And as the creators of the Bovis hummingbird, the prancing BT piper, the Orange identity, and most recently the London 2012 logo, Wolff Olins has always operated on a big stage—and faced the public scrutiny that inevitably entails.
The group is currently enjoying a fertile period. A run of high-profile work over the past two or three years is causing design's chattering classes to re-evaluate them, although not always in a positive light. And in the case of the London 2012 logo, they have been catapulted into a media firestorm that hasn't burned itself out yet, and the intensity of which hasn't previously been seen in design. More on this later.
This purple patch is encouraging clients to beat a path to the group's London and New York offices. The client list is gold-plated: New York City, Sony Ericsson, (RED), Macmillan Cancer Support, GE, Tate, adidas, Unilever, Southbank Centre and the New Museum, New York's only museum devoted entirely to contemporary art. There's also a smart new website which suggests a fresh, genuinely modern sensibility at work.
So it seemed like a good moment to see if Wolff Olins (part of the Omnicom media conglomerate) has found the secret of being taken seriously by top-flight clients and yet still managing to produce work that is successful, news-worthy and distinctive. On a cold day in January, I went to their spacious offices near King's Cross to find out.
Having written disparagingly about the London 2012 logo, I expected to be treated like a tramp on the tube with poor personal hygiene. Far from it. Chairman Brian Boylan and creative director Patrick Cox were friendly and discussed what I'd written with calm objectivity. They're both good talkers, articulate and perceptive, and when they describe the way they merge sharp business thinking with softer, more intuitive creativity, I found it easy to see why their blue chip clients value them so highly.
I even found myself reassessing that logo. I still think it's a mistake, but my gripe with it has always been aesthetic: the drop shadows and the garish buzz of the nu-rave colours make it into a visual irritant rather than an inspirational graphic statement. And yet, the Web 2.0 philosophy that underpins it—users are encouraged to make their own versions of it—is inspirational, and a blast of freshness into the airless world of stodgy brand thinking.
Both Boylin and Cox stand by the 2012 work. I expected them to be evasive, constrained by gagging orders from the London 2012 committee, but the opposite was true. They discussed it freely and with quiet enthusiasm, which made me realise that Lord Coe and his team committed an Olympic-sized error by not allowing Wolff Olins to defend their work. Their considered response would have deflected some of the media criticism.
Both Boylan and Cox see the London Olympic work as an exemplar of their philosophy of branding. "Our view of branding," notes Boylan, "is that the brand is no longer a single neat and tidy logo that you stick in the same place every time. Our thinking of brand has moved on. The brand is the platform, the brand is flexible, the brand is a place of exchange, and it is not fixed, so there is not one logo. There is recognisable form and recognisable communication and behaviour, but it's not one type of constrained and fixed thing." This strikes me as enlightened and progressive, but it only works if the execution remains in the control of skilled people who fully understand the brand's visual codes. The dismally designed literature (not done by Wolff Olins) that is currently being pushed through letterboxes in East London shows what happens when communication is freed from its moorings; it slips into muddle and cliché. Similarly, Wolff Olins' logo for NYC & Company, the New York tourism body, met with a hostile response when applied clumsily to its iconic taxis by the client recently.
Although Boylan and Cox remain committed to the 2012 work ("I stand by it on the basis of conviction. Sometimes you just know, and in this case, I just know that it's right," says Boylan), the media ramifications of the logo have left them bruised. Boylan and Cox were subjected to a vicious campaign of harassment by the press. Cox, who has young children, found the door-stepping and intimidating phone calls alleging malpractice particularly upsetting. "We didn't mind the criticism from within the design community," he says, "but what we got from the media was pretty unpleasant." Boylan agrees: "The experience has actually made me sympathetic towards celebrities who are subjected to this sort of treatment. And it didn't come from the tabloids. It was the weekend broadsheets."
The 2012 logo is only one of many high-profile branding projects that Wolff Olins has undertaken recently. In the room where we meet, we are surrounded by giant blow-ups of logos and bits of brand architecture. They make an impressive display: a series of smart graphic statements that look like the product of careful thought, but which retain the kick of freewheeling creativity. I was curious to know how Wolff Olins has avoided producing the bland monstrosities that big brand agencies are so adept at?
The group's philosophy has been forged over a long time. In 1992 the company moved from identity to branding. "The move can be defined as a move away from corporate strategy made visible," says Boylan. "In other words, corporate identity was very much about the corporation and the corporate world—a bit one-way, a bit inside-out, and a bit rational. Today we see it much more about the relationship between the corporation and the consumer, and the corporation being positioned in the real world. We see it as much more two-way, and a bit more emotional than rational." As an afterthought, Boylan notes: "Curiously, identity is a more meaningful term to describe what we do today, and branding less so."
He continues: "After the management buy out in 1997, we had a partnership model, with five strong partners with different views. Four of those people left after the acquisition by Omnicom in 2001, and Patrick came on board. Not only are we now a smaller number of people, but also we are much more focused and aligned in our views. We have a singular appreciation of what it is we're trying to achieve—both for our clients and for ourselves. Patrick and I, as two of the leaders of the business, are much more aligned than I was with the previous people." Cox adds the point that "we're very lucky to have people in the organisation who are aligned with that thinking too: Karl Heiselman, the ceo, and the creative directors in both offices [London and New York] and our senior strategists."
The result of this new-found alignment, according to Boylan, is that Wolff Olins speaks with one voice, where it previously spoke with many: "The fundamental thing, though," says Boylan, "is that it's not all done sequentially. It's not about arriving at a strategy, full-stop, and then handing it over to other people and saying to them 'now illustrate this strategy'."
But as Cox and Boylan are quick to point out, to make this philosophy work, you need good people. Both are clearly proud of the intellectual heft of the Wolff Olins team, and as an example they mention Mohsin Hamid, md of the London office, whose novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist was one of six books shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2007. "Although Moshin is ex-McKinsey," says Boylan, "he's primarily a creative person. And that's what is important about him."
Boylan is fond of the word intuition, and uses it often. He is keen to emphasise that intellectual firepower is no good if it results in what he calls branding by numbers. "Our process is about getting a deep understanding of our clients," he says, "which is why we have people who come from a strategic and business background. But then we start exploring, and that's where intuition comes in. All in all, from beginning to end, it's a creative process, as opposed to a step-by-step, logical process. Because if you only followed a logical process you'd inevitably arrive at a dry answer. Some of the answers we arrive at are beyond logical processes."
Looking at current Wolff Olins work, and talking to Boylan and Cox, there's a sense of a company stretching itself—and stretching its clients, too. It's a view that is reinforced by digging around in their new website. Some of the statements have an almost utopian flavour, and there's a sense of being in tune with new advanced business thinking and radical approaches to traditional business practices. Some of it is borderline New Age: Boylan makes a wry comment about being a child of the 1960s.
But how good is the work? Does it measure up to the rhetoric on their site? To use Patrick Cox's favourite word, is the work 'extraordinary'? Inevitably, their best work is in the cultural sector, but perhaps their most important achievement is in the way they've moved branding away from the tyranny of petty rules and suffocating diktats, into something more fluid and expressive.
Wolff Olins' work is as good as it gets when working for big public-facing businesses that need to measure and evaluate everything they do. But, small design groups who rely purely on intuition and their innate aesthetic abilities also do good work. In other words, brilliant pieces of visual communication are done without the intellectual pyrotechnics Wolff Olins can call upon. Yet the big difference, and what makes Wolff Olins' achievement so remarkable, is that they do their work in the full glare of public and corporate scrutiny. They have to sell their ideas to hard-nosed businesses and public bodies drowning in accountability and evaluation criteria. High-end creativity is not easy in this environment, and it's rare to find it.
"What we do can't be bottled," says Boylan. "This means that we will never have 20 offices around the world. Our approach is based on results and something that's appropriate for the circumstances of the client. Intuition is important because all rational will get you is rational. There has to be space for thinking and rethinking and imagination. I've been here 27 years, and I still get excited every day."