Michael Wolff — designer, co-founder of Wolff Olins agency. We spoke with Michael about the soul of design, his work, and philosophy behind it.
What is design for you?
A difficult question because the language in which the word ‘design’ is used, makes a difference.
In English the word can mean ‘invent’, as in an entirely new product — like a drone. You can still use the word design to describe how a drone looks.
It can mean ‘create’, as in a new service or an event. Then the word design can be used to describe every aspect of the event, from the lighting to the food, to the entertainment and even to the typography or quality of paper used for the invitation.
The word ‘design’ can be used for the design of a new religion, a new drug, a new way of feeding cattle, a new Sat Nav or a new system of voting. ‘Design’ as general word can be used in a very wide range of contexts.
To me, as a designer, it has three distinct meanings and I think of them almost as lenses through which to look at design.
To some extent design is always about solving problems but, more importantly in my experience, it’s about seeing opportunities and persuading people to take them.
The first lens, a wide-angle lens: ‘a grand design’. I’d use design to describe the design concept of a city. For instance: Napoleon’s design of Paris. Not just the vision (a design can also take the form of a vision), but the grand design of the City of Paris itself.
The second lensis design as a ‘process’: all that has to be done to enable a design to exist in reality — to be built, manufactured, printed etc.
The third lensis design as a finished object: the design of a coffee cup, the design of a knife, an iPhone, an app, a uniform, an immigration form, a cake, a package, a book, a new wing mirror on a car, or the car itself. The word ‘design’, like many words, can be used to express a wide range of meanings.
What do you think about soul in design? Or design is not about soul, it’s about what sells?
To me being desired and bought is one of many results of a design and in a way it depends on why the design was first commissioned or requested.
For instance, if I was asked to design a signing system for a hospital, an airport or a city, I would want it to make life easier and more friendly for all sorts of people first, and if I had a budget to work to, because in a place like an airport or a city there can be thousands of signs, then of course I would have to pay attention to the cost.
For me, designing things only so that they make more money is unacceptable, but to some designers that’s OK.
For me, using design to improve things and experiences, and to express a personality or an attitude is usually what design is all about.
Design is a way of expressing meaning and intention. From that perspective, yes, it does have soul. If I was designing a prison, I would expect to challenge what a prison is and to make it better everyone concerned.
What is the difference between design 50, 30 years ago, and nowadays?
In some ways there’s little difference: design is still among the most effective ways of improving life for people, whatever their situations, and to bring more beauty and joy to them in the process.
In other ways there are many differences.
Societies all around the world have changed and so has the behavior and
expectations of people. Our attitudes, needs, situations of every imaginable kind have changed. And yet all people’s need to be well treated, loved and respected is still the same as it has always been. With all this change, design is still intended to serve, satisfy, improve life and delight people.
What’s your favourite project made by you?
There are two, and they’re both very small projects. One was for a model maker and the other for one of London’s local governments.
The reason they’re my favourite projects is that, unlike many of my past projects, I don’t think there were other or better ways of solving these particular problems.
What ingredients do you need to create an awesome design?
You need an open mind, a passionate interest in people other than yourself, the humility and the confidence to wait for a great idea to come, and the courage and good fortune to make it a reality.
What is your message for modern young designers?
#1: Be an obsessive ‘noticer’. Notice what doesn’t work as well and what does.
#2: Learn how to be in the shoes of others and to appreciate what others are feeling.
Two essential abilities — both noticing and appreciating — when you use them together, will nourish your imagination. It will be starved without them.
#3: Understand that all design is some form of ‘service design’, and realise that all design should be inclusive and sustainable, in the widest meaning of the word.
#4: Nurture, respect, count on your own creativity and be willing to learn from frequent mistakes.
#5: The idea you have can block you from having others ideas. Always be willing to throw ideas away. Then you’ll have the space for the new ones that are bound to come. You can always find your original ideas again if you need them.
What helps you to design nowadays? Previous experience or modern technologies and tools?
This is an interesting and challenging question. Yes, I have a great deal of experience, but experience is not always my friend. Experience can tell me I already know what to do and that puts a brake on my creativity.
Pure creativity comes from nothing, even though it will often be influenced by whole variety of information.
Modern tools and technology of all sorts can be magical and helpful. Life without ‘Macs’ is hard to imagine, but these are tools and they’re unlikely to be your equal. Artificial intelligence will continue to develop and be useful to us, but there’s already a great deal of artificial stupidity.
I doubt that artificial emotion will ever challenge our own human capacity for infinite shades of feelings and emotions, nor will it have the depth of empathy and love that human being are capable of.
But that’s today. Who knows what tomorrow will bring.