Kyoorius Designyatra 09: Wolff steals the show

Michael Wolff stole the show at this year’s Kyoorius Designyatra, the biggest design conference in India

I can now confirm that chairing a four-day design conference is exhausting. It’s not just the business of introducing every­one and fielding questions so much as the constant stresses of presentations not working, speakers going missing, over and under-running and all the other ‘please pick up your dinner vouchers from the front desk’ type announcements that must be made in order to keep things running at least relatively smoothly.

I was a speaker at last year’s Kyoorius Designyatra, India’s biggest design conference. This time, I co-hosted an enlarged programme with Divya Thakur of Design Temple in Mumbai. As co-host, it’s not my place to comment on whether or not the event, held in Mumbai in the first week of September, was a success for delegates, but at least I can give you the benefit of having attended each and every session.

As last year, illustrator and designer Kriti Monga kept a journal throughout the conference in which she recorded each session. Kriti’s drawings feature here and also in the October issue of CR. For more of here work, go here

For me, both highlights concerned Michael Wolff, co-founder of Wolff Olins and a central figure in British design for 40 years. Of his second appearance on stage, more later, but his first was a deceptively simple affair. Wolff, who had confessed more than once to me beforehand to being terribly nervous, simply sat and talked for an hour. He showed no work, no images of any kind. Instead he outlined the qualities that designers need: that they must exercise their curiosity and their imaginations as if they were muscles; that they must always ask ‘why’, particularly of their clients. ‘Why does your company exist?’ ‘What are you here for?’ It may not sound much on paper: I guess you had to be there. But, afterwards, he got a huge ovation from a room full of 1,200 beaming delegates and his session was the talk of the conference.

Wolff was a tough act to follow but there were other memorable contribu­tions. The Yatra’s organisers had a tie-up with Dutch DFA, the organisation that promotes the Netherlands’ creative industries, which meant that 14 Dutch design studios were in attendance this year. As well as presenting their work, they were also engaged in workshops and ‘matchmaking’ sessions with a view to possible future collaborations between Dutch and Indian design
and architecture studios. In the main room, we saw great work from the likes of Koeweiden Postma, De Design­politie, Lava and Concrete. Any themes? A love of grids, of course, and plenty of flexible, mutable identity systems that are a far cry from the fixed logos of old, plus bold splashes of colour and plenty of humour even if some of the presenters themselves were a little short on showmanship.

As well as Wolff, the Brits were there in number. Rodney Fitch contrasted design’s potential to make a better world with the dangers of over-consumption and poor quality that are its flip side. Ben Terrett gave us ‘Nine things I believed last year that I don’t believe now’ in a highly entertaining session that underlined just how disruptive the past 12 months have been.

We also had a double dose of Ross Lovegrove, the sole representative of the international celebrity industrial designer scene. He succeeded in giving me a heart attack by speaking for precisely twice as long as he should have on the third day but the audience were thrilled by his beautiful creations.

Lovegrove talked of the “paradox” of his work. He hates the idea of bottled water, he said, yet one of his most famous designs is the Ty Nant water bottle. So, you may wonder, why did he agree to design it? Lovegrove also presented the onehundred­&ten, an ultralightweight suitcase, the intimation being that if we can save weight, planes will need to use less fuel. The suitcase costs $3,525. This is my frustration, not with Lovegrove per se, whose work I admire hugely, but with all the ‘star’ product designers: that, water bottles aside, their undoubted genius so often benefits solely the very rich. Perhaps it’s more the fault of shortsighted clients or limited budgets: Lovegrove expressed a desire to apply the one laptop per child model to sanitation. Government figures say that only 34 per cent of Indians have access to a toilet (I guess it depends how you define the word), so it is a very worthwhile and apt aspiration. Let’s hope he gets the chance to realise it. I, for one, would  be far more interested in seeing a Lovegrove low-cost toilet than another watch for Issey Miyake or light for Artemide, for all the advances in form and techno­logy they may bring. And, yes, of course we need beauty and techno­logical advancement too, but not just for millionaires.

Talking of millionaires, the conference was also honoured by the presence of Sir Martin Sorrell who, in a blizzard of facts and figures, outlined the importance of design to WPP’s business. He then took questions, some of them quite feisty, but although he spoke at length after each one, I don’t think he really answered many of them.

I mentioned one other Wolff-related highlight of the Yatra’s four days and that was his reunion with former business partner Wally Olins. The two of them appeared on stage together at the end of day three to speak for the first time about their relationship which, with Olins chivvying Wolff along to get ready, was curiously like that of parent and child. Asked (by me as compere) what drove him mad about Wolff, Olins’ list was long and detailed, the gist
of which was that Wolff was totally disorganised and undisciplined. Olins related various examples, from the time that Wolff wouldn’t get out of his hotel bed to meet a client as he was feeling unwell (“Michael, get down here now. I’m not your bloody mother!”) to the time that, after weeks of work and the client having signed a major identity project off, Wolff decided he didn’t like it after all and refused to let the client buy it (“I was apoplectic,” Olins remembered).

Image courtesy Jacques Koeweiden


The pair disagreed on much. Wolff doubted that Wolff Olins had really changed anything in corporate life while Olins was more positive: Olins was still proud of the company that neither has anything to do with any­more, while Wolff worried over its ‘arrogance’. Both, however, were strongly critical about the branding industry today, its use of jargon and cynicism. There was much more, excerpts of which we hope to have available on here on the site soon.

Erik Spiekermann brought the conference to a close with one of this trademark bursts of outspoken opinion, good sense and fierce intelligence and suddenly it was all over. As with all conferences there were highs and lows. For me, the Dutch influence was, at times, a little overdone. We only had two Indian main speakers – the designer Anthony Lopez and Priya Paul, owner of the Park Hotels group – while type designer Satya Rajpurohit had only a brief chance to talk about a really exciting development – the first Indian type foundry. But the organiser, Rajesh Kejriwal, has built a fantastic, much-needed, not-for-profit event over the five years that the Designyatra has been running.

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