Michael Wolff: Man of Vision. Man of Purpose.

In the company of Michael Wolff, it is hard to believe you are in the presence of someone about to turn 80.

When he speaks about the future, he does so with the zeal of a man at the beginning of a journey, not nearing the end of one. He still has way too much he wishes to achieve for a person of his age.

And yet, Michael Wolff is 80 in that he has already achieved too much for any one man and in any one lifetime.

Founding Wolff Olins in the 1970’s – one of the world’s most respected and avant-garde design firms – Michael was responsible for producing iconic British brand identities and collateral for clients like Audi, Volkswagen, P&O and British Telecoms. 

Later, while working under the banner of Michael Wolff & Company, he shaped and guided brands such as Citibank, 3i and the Ministry of Sound.

Michael has mingled with gods like Alan Fletcher, Neville Brody and Peter Saville, has acted as Chairman of the D&AD, and has the distinction of being appointed Design Indaba's first ever visiting professor. He has even designed record covers for The Beatles with Paul McCartney.

And yet the man I met recently seemed unaware of his glorious past. Open, friendly, soft-spoken, inquisitive, engaging – this was someone just getting on with what they do. With fierce intensity, make no mistake, as with any man who has much to do. 

I am not certain that the Cape Peninsula University of Technology design students we lectured and mentored together for a week fully understood the immensity of this man’s achievements or his gravitas as a design visionary. 

Most paid scant attention to his words, as students do, some spoke over him, others slept in their seats. But that didn’t phase Michael Wolff. He continued engaging with them, and with me, with the detailed insight of a man who understands. Of a man who gives.

“As long as they remember something. And they will all remember something. Something different,” he said.

And they must have.

I have run and overseen many projects with students at the university. And, save for a few bright sparks, I have usually been disappointed with the quality of thinking and depth of imagination displayed in the final products of the student work.

But not this time. Within days of being briefed, students were presenting outstanding concepts to us. Concepts with weight and depth. That challenged their own boundaries and limitations. Brave scary ideas.

This is the genius of the man, Michael Wolff: not only someone capable of producing great things, but also able to inspire the same in others. A man who holds up greatness, yet still keeps it in reach.

And here I sit at my desk while the magic dust settles, inspired to be more and do more than I had considered being and doing a week ago. Hoping that while rubbing shoulders with this great man, enough of him has rubbed off.

Thank you, Mr Wolff, and good luck. We’ll miss you.

The Brand Union is a global branding agency specialising in strategy, design, experience, brand guardianship and environmental design. Recently, The Brand Union Cape Town was afforded the opportunity to rub shoulders with Michael Wolff and to learn and be inspired by him.

Watch the Talk with Michael Wolff

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