Wolff Olins: Expectations Confounded

2012…New York…Wolff Olins have never been far from controversy over the past 12 months. ADRIAN SHAUGHNESSY was one of the 2012 logo’s most prominent critics, so we sent him along to find out just what has been going on at the design consultancy…


2012…New York…Wolff Olins have never been far from controversy over the past 12 months. ADRIAN SHAUGHNESSY was one of the 2012 logo’s most prominent critics, so we sent him along to find out just what has been going on at the design consultancy…

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 (below), 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.

Wolff Olins’ identity for the charity organisation (RED)

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, news­worthy 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.

New York identity for the city’s tourism and marketing body. The logo attracted widespread criticism when it was clumsily applied (not by WO) to the city’s taxis (below)

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.”

Billboard displaying Wolff Olins’ work for cancer charity Macmillan

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’.”

For London’s Southbank Centre, Wolff Olins created an identity system utilising a set of geometric devices to be combined in different patterns, a strategy somewhat similar to that employed by the Walker Art Center

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.



For Manhattan’s New Museum of Contemporary Art Wolff Olins created a mark in which the title of the institution frames a space which can be used for supporting information, promotional messages etc

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.”

Adrian Shaughnessy runs ShaughnessyWorks, a consultancy devoted to design and editorial direction. He is writing a book called A Users Manual: an A–Z of Graphic Design.

The above article appears in the February issue of Creative Review, out now. Also featured in the issue are web designer Yugo Nakamura, commercials director Chris Palmer and Cartlidge Levene’s new signage project for Selfridges

  • I really enjoyed this article.

    While I felt a similar tinge of discomfort upon seeing the revised NYC logo applied to the taxi initially, I’ve since learnt to love it. I now recognise this type of knee-jerk response and subsequent reversal of opinion as the sign of excellent design that will stand the test of time!

  • Rich

    really enjoyed this too. nice to have longer reads.

    still think the 2010 logo is bum, but my replusion to it diminishes with the slegehammer effect of seeing it everywhere. bit like the new(ish) guardian logo. living with it everyday, it becomes tolerable wallpaper that fails to delight, but your eyes passes over without too much displeasure.

    think the southbank and macmillian work is really strong.

  • This is an insightful article because it gives Wolf Ollins the credit they deserve for doing some great work strategically, and in terms of selling modern ideas about branding to big organisation. However it also highlights that in many cases the quality of the thinking is not reflected in the quality of the execution.

    In my opinion the 2012 branding is a piece of great thinking poorly executed, and the South Bank Centre identity programme is like a poor man’s Walker Art Center. It would be great to see Wolf Ollins take their work to the next level and consitently execute their thinking to a high standard. Happily, their work for the New Museum is a sign that they’re definitely going in the right direction.

  • “Don’t try to be original, just try to be good.” Paul Rand.

    Perhaps not to be taken too literally, but it is vital to produce quality work first and foremost, even when attempting to push branding forward.

  • 374

    When a huge branding consultancy is aesthetically more challenging than the young upstarts that proliferate the web we should not only applaud their efforts, we should ask ‘why is this so?’.

  • Rich

    i think the reason is that 70, maybe even 80% of branding practice is the selling of the concept (as opposed to the creative work), bigger companies have more established ways of selling concepts, have more experience in nurturing a client through the difficult process of change, and simply have the confidence and eloquence to do all of the above, as adrians peice above illustrates quite well.

    smaller, younger firms in my experience dont have those attributes, and more over, their need to turn a profit are of a higher imperitive at the end of the day. a big client = big bucks = the opportunity to make more big bucks, and they can be swayed by the whims of the client in a desire to secure that cheque, above their creative impulses which get start admirably but tend to get blunted as the process rolls on and on.

    also, i wonder now, if talented younger creatives feel happier (and lets face it, better rewarded) as part of a larger company towards the start of their career. small ‘trendy’ studios rarely hire junior staff, so unless you are very very lucky (and/or talented) its hard to get postitions in these places. big agencies then hoover up these kids, who are in the prime of their creative output, exploding with ideas and enthusiasm. and these kids tend to be the engines of big agencies.

    i think its an interesting issue, and one maybe worth exploring in CR.

  • 374

    @Rich – you point to some interesting reasons that begin to answer some of my concerns – but if we briefly turn to the world of music, the emergence of such genres as dubstep, grime, cornish acid (too name just a few) did not require anything other than a community concerned to produce a sound/art that reverberated with their experience. They are not in awe of the big labels, and actively seek to create counter spaces, where the art is allowed to speak it’s own value (beyond PR managed hysteria). I may be looking in the wrong places, but I have yet to find the visual equivalent…
    …maybe Vier5?
    …maybe grandpeople?

  • Tim

    ‘the 2012 branding is a piece of great thinking poorly executed’

    …and for that reason alone there is no excuse, given the almost unique way the ‘logo’ will become part of Londoners everyday lives for the next 4 years.

    Why has’nt the Wolff Olins, Wacom rebrand been mentioned, or was that just one ‘poor execution’ to far?

  • anonymous

    Love the 2012 logo, absolutely excellent

  • James

    ‘the 2012 branding is a piece of great thinking poorly executed’

    …and for that reason alone there is no excuse, given the almost unique way the ‘logo’ will become part of Londoners everyday lives for the next 4 years.

    Why has’nt the Wolff Olins, Wacom rebrand been mentioned, or was that just one ‘poor execution’ to far?

    Posted by Tim on 30/01/08, 2:37 pm


    Couldn’t agree more with the sentiment of this response.

    The London Olympics logo for me gets no better with time and the Wacom one, rather than “pushing the boundries” simply looks like a 10 minute doodle sold as something conceptual.

    I’m sure they do put a great deal of effort into the research and development of new branding for their impressive client list but I don’t feel the final results do anything to justify what will no doubt be the result of months of work and tens of thousands of pounds (and the rest) of clients money.

    You can always tell a good logo because it’s simply good. You don’t need a press campaign behind it to tell you why it’s good. It’s obvious. On that front, the London and Wacom ones certainly fail.

    I guess it’s a gripe when you see this sort of work tarted up because it’s a big agency who have done it and have the resources to sell their work to clients in a way smaller agencies perhaps wouldn’t.

  • Alexandre

    I would like to say that the fist time i saw the 2012logo
    it appeared appropriate and natural of something from London. (male, 24years old , Portugal)

    we reject naturaly what is not conventional :)

  • It STILL is a lame, talentless excuse for an identity.

  • Ian Sankey

    The 2012 logo is proof of how important design and branding is in the modern world… and how bad things are when you get it wrong!

  • sharon

    Michael Wolff was a flawed magpie genius – who was stupid enough to let the venal cuckoo Olins into his nest – who begat the evil Boylan – who begat the evil Hamilton who between them pedaled the SOSO Wolff mantra ad infinitum of contrary nonsense with the inevitable 50% success rate that appears brave and different.

    Degenerate EGO monsters will soon be expunged from existence by the simple expedient of 3 score years and 10.



  • J. MacDonald

    There really is absolutely no excuse for bad art. The 2012 logo is among the very worst, gutless garbage.

    Of course a logo has to have a predominate and successful branding intuition, but designers are by trade mediums for visual aesthetic in the business world. You have to have your feet firmly planted in both camps. Wolff Olins have one foot so far into the side of pandering to businesses and “the pitch process” of inflating the client that they’re only vaguely dabbling in art with the other foot, barely even getting the tips of their toes dirty. They invest so much time hyping/explaining/justifying their work that the integrity and execution are vague after thoughts.

    A 4th grader could obviously, inarguably have made this. Could a 4th grader have spent 8 months pandering and bullshiting to the client, rambling off about the Swiss International, inflating the egos of everyone involved – really sold this doodle? No. As the article stated very well, Wolff Olins have “the secret of being taken seriously by top-flight clients and yet still managing to produce work that is successful, news­worthy and distinctive.” This makes makes them a successful design firm. It doesn’t make them good designers. Just a lucrative and firm. If you have to fly to London to speak with the top two figures in a design firm to even begin to appreciate their work, it’s crap. This logo wasn’t made for the people of London who have to see it every day for 4 years, as they OBVIOUSLY aren’t sold on it. It was made exclusively for the Olympic executives and their septic judgment.

    I was glad to see the article address designers’ long-standing unease towards their low station in the business world. I’d go so far to say that in the art world they are often lepers for the very same reasons. But I strongly believe it looked at it from the very wrong direction – this firm has made a living off of spiting in the face of the Paul Rand ideology that gave design any and all substance and position in the business world. Designers like the WO camp make it SUBSTANTIALLY harder to refer to design as a legitimate craft, because this logo is a shameful waste of time, money and space.

    For many people it’s embarrassing to have the same job title as these guys. It’s like having to explain to people “No, I’m quite a well respected garbage man” or “I was one of the good Nazis”. It’s damaging.

  • it may be good from a professional point of view but i still dont like it, or at a very list 2010 logo is not worth as much as they payed for it…

  • Not long until we see this logo in action at the Olympics!!

  • mrgrumpy

    it’s not surprising people make a connection between the logo for 2012 and ZION, it was intended .. omnicomgroup is the holding group for a whole list of zionist companies/ organisation, the zionist connection is well known except to people who are so dumbed down they can only just find their way out of bed..


  • London artist Michael St.Mark is claiming his Jan’ 2006 work INFINITUDE II ( search google ) is the design basis behind the 2012 logo. In many fundamental aspects, including formal jagged shapes in shallow relief, border shadows or highlights and its intended color change function, it doesn’t take long for the impartial viewer to decide.
    The nepotistic? question therefore is, will Creative Review allow this post to remain?