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Meet Michael Wolff

We Spoke with the Legendary British Designer

Posted by Gestalten—09/2017

For decades, Michael Wolff has been one of the design industry’s most respected thought leaders. He works quickly, carefully, and with a thoughtful approach that centers the human experience. Most recently, the founder of renowned agency Wolff Olins prepared an insightful text on the past, present, and future of logotypes for our new book Los Logos 8. We spoke with Wolff ahead of the book’s release to get an exclusive scoop on the goings-on from the industry’s forefront. Read on below or browse the book for a full overview of logos.

When it comes to logos past and present, is there or has there ever been a perfect logo?

I think the Christian cross comes close to perfection for three reasons: It’s endured for over two thousand years. It symbolizes the very essence of the Christian faith. Anyone can create their own version of it which makes it a universal symbol. It communicates with billions, unlike many symbols or logos that relatively very few people will ever see. Another logo that approaches perfection is the Red Cross symbol, because the name and the symbol are one, and because the whole world knows what it means. Sometimes a potent symbol can be something other than a logotype—I think the United Nation’s blue helmets do more for the U.N. than its symbol. Powerful modern symbols, like Nike, Apple, Twitter and Facebook, which also communicate with billions, haven’t yet stood the test of time.

You’ve seen many logos in your life: what are the biggest mistakes designers fall for when drafting a logo?

The assumption of interest and the failure of connection with the reality they’re designed to communicate. These are two of the biggest and most common errors with which designers can become implicated.

Effective logo’s and symbols are greater than the sum of all the parts of the company or institution they’re intended to represent—they’re an expression of the whole. That’s why both Mercedes’ star and the VW monogram succeed, while Shell’s seashell fails to be anything but a bus stop. If you make the effort to think about it, it can raise all our concerns about the behavior of big oil, particularly with Shell. Their shell marked them out and helped to defeat them on social media and in the successful demonstrations against their drilling in the Arctic. They withdrew. Shell’s logo is both a convenient bus-stop icon and the symbol of a company that like other oil companies is capable of irresponsible and antisocial behavior.  Another logo/symbol that approaches perfection is the Red Cross, because the name and the symbol are one, and because the whole world knows what it means. Sometimes a potent symbol can be something other than a logotype. I think the United Nation’s blue helmets do more for the U.N. than its symbol 

To color or not to color: what do you think about breaking out of monochrome and considering coloring when building a brand’s identity from the ground up?

No holds barred. If you know what you’re doing, then anything’s possible. Colors are among life’s most wonderful miracles.

What trends are dying out and which trends have passed their prime?

Superficiality, like the look (and taste) of fresh fruit can be attractive, but doesn’t last. Logos like the Christian cross and the Red Cross’ logo endure—ones with depth of meaning. Others depend on the staying power of the organizations they represent.

If you were to design a logo for 2017, what would it be?

I’d hesitate, wonder who or what it was for and if it was worthwhile. If pushed, I’d design several and somehow find a way of expressing the biggest issues of the day: mass migration, the threat of nuclear war, the current and potential catastrophes of climate change and my belief that with the vision of men like Elon Musk and Richard Branson, we will soon be colonizing Mars and thinking less of our planet and more of the universe as home.

Portrait © Charlie Best