The man who gave Michael Johnson his first job, Wally Olins, died yesterday. In this piece Johnson remembers some of Olins’ famous foibles.

I first met Wally nearly thirty years ago, when, as a nervous student, I took a train down to London from the soggy shores of the North-West, clutching a box of slides of my final project.

I’m not sure how my slightly hapless tutor had managed to swing the already world-famous Olins as my external project examiner but there I was, in the ubiquitous eighties design consultancy reception, perspiring furiously.

My precise memories of the next two hours are unclear. Some things remain mercifully fuzzy, such as the mad search for a slide projector and usable carousel, and what, precisely, Wally said. Sadly, the overall gist of the meeting is still painfully clear. The premise of the entire project (a re-design of British Rail) had been torn asunder, my analysis destroyed, the design work ridiculed. I feel that had I brought it down on paper, he might have ripped it up. That bad. The journey back north was long and painful.

Wally’s ability to stir up an almighty kerfuffle was, of course, legendary. A few years ago I arrived at the Indian conference Design Yatra to speak on the third day, only to discover delegates still kerfuffled by Olins’ opening polemic two days earlier. Essentially, as I understand it, it was classic Wally – ‘you guys don’t know what you’re doing, but I do. So listen carefully…’ I spent my time there mainly in damage limitation mode as a consequence.

Olins was also famously critical of other speakers on the conference circuit. He was a natural on stage, needing no props and just the occasional slide to keep things ticking over, but others who might be seen to mumble or stumble might pick up very audible whispers from Olins, on the front row, delivering a rolling critique of their jittery delivery.

But the formidable front he presented was tempered by a genuinely good-natured side. For me, after graduating with what seemed a fairly useless combination of ‘Marketing and Visual Art’, he not only replied to my slightly desperate letter, but then persuaded the then creative director of Wolff Olins to give me try, even though my first portfolio consisted entirely of dodgy two-colour theatre posters and the much-maligned BR project. He didn’t really have to do that, but muttered something about ‘bridging the gap between strategy and design’ and I was in.

It was then, from within the 80s Wolff Olins machine, that one could really grasp the true significance of what he and his original creative partner, Michael Wolff, had done to the design consultancy landscape of Britain. The combination of what I once described as ‘the razor sharp brain who became synonymous with the academic theory of brand and identity’ and Wolff’s creative vision had changed the game from a craft-based cottage industry to one that was, literally, changing the way we saw the world.

Olins had already widened the scope of what they did from just logos by introducing the concept of ‘The Corporate Personality’ in his book from 1978 (and was a regular publisher and updater of his core theme for the next four decades).

This attempt to broaden ‘corporate identity’ eventually became what we now think of as branding, and at every decade Wolff Olins was there to deliver a seminal piece of thinking and design.

For the 70s, think the Hadfields fox or Bovis and that unlikeliest of hummingbirds. Like or loathe it, Wolff Olins were the bringers of the brushstrokes with their 80s schemes for BT and Prudential. The 90s? Orange and First Direct.

What each of these schemes did was make us re-examine what we thought of ‘identity’ and continually expanded and exploded what was expected.

When I began working in this area, life was still restricted to a broad definition of a company’s ‘reason to be’ and a restricted set of applications. Now, the tentacles of branding stretch from organisational change management, to naming, narrative and every possible application you can imagine and then the ones you can’t. Thirty years ago, advertising was dominant. Now? Brand is king, and advertising just a channel – and much of this you can directly attribute to Olins’ vision and ceaseless drive that saw him working to the grand old age of 83.

Years later, when he and I reconnected after a decade or so in the wilderness, he was charming, helpful, dare I say it, encouraging. He agreed to do a talk during my tenure at D&AD, and I was able to repay that early faith he showed in me by presenting him and Michael with the D&AD President’s Award in 2003. (Bizarrely, in over 40 years, no-one else had beaten me to it).

But design prizes were never Wally’s thing. Only days after starting at Wolff Olins, someone explained to me that ‘clients who love design ring Pentagram. The ones who love success ring Wolff Olins’. He would have liked that quote.

 

By Michael Johnson
(designer and consultant at Wolff Olins, 1985-86)

There’s also a nice piece by Patrick Burgoyne on the CR blog here

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