Sitting on the edge of yes and no

Sometimes instinct dictates when a design works but it can also take years to persuade the client. Ultimately, says Michael Wolff, it's out of your hands.

Michael Wolff describes brinkmanship as "sitting on the edge of yes and no". In this talk, given as part of NB Studio's new Creative Courage series, Wolff shares anecdotes about campaigns from his long career to illustrate this moment of being on the fence when presenting a proposed design to a client – and the creative and mysterious forces that tip to one side.

When Wolff pitched a handpainted hummingbird as the logo for Bovis Home – a construction company based in Kent, England – its chairman, Sir Keith Joseph, responded with a “blend of contempt and incomprehension”. He had been expecting a bull or some other metaphor for male physical strengh, the designer recalls.

When he was asked to explain himself, Wolff had no better explanation than he "just really liked it". At that moment, as the campaign was on the brink of being rejected, Bovis CEO Frank Sanderson walked in and said he thought the bird was beautiful.

Sometimes you depend on the client having the instinct to say ‘Yes! It’s perfect’.

There was nothing like the Bovis hummingbird in the building trade, and it came to symbolise a company that did things with a delicate precision, rather than simply bull-like strength.

Brinkmanship doesn’t always swing in a matter of seconds though. “You are right on the edge of losing something until you’ve won it,” says Wolff, referring to the five years it took to persuade Shell to remove its name from its logo.

Wolff doesn’t only talk of his success; there were moments of brinkmanship where he lost – his design for a shipping boat and his idea for an aviation company. He talks of the lost opportunity of WHSmith's stationary branding, for which he proposed naming each shade of coloured pencil to trigger children’s imaginations. For the yellow pencils alone they had names such as lemon, cornfields, maize and canaries, but instead of playing with these associations the retail chain opted to put only the shop’s name on each pencil.

Brinkmanship can also involve taking no action at all, as in the case of Lyle’s Golden Syrup, which commissioned Wolff to redesign its tin. Loving what they already had, he persuaded Lyle's that its tin didn't need a makeover by asking if he could display one of the unbent metal sheets on his wall like an artwork.

Sometimes brinkmanship involves saying to a client who comes in wanting something new, ‘Don’t change it!’

Wolff delivers some back-to-basics advice gleaned during his 60-year career building Wolff Olins, one of the world’s most iconic design companies, and later Michael Wolff & Company.

The language used in design must communicate clearly, he says. “Language is a very important part of what anyone in here who designs things does. If the language doesn’t communicate then there’s nothing you can do with typography or design to make meaning deliver itself. So our job is delivering meaning.”

Good photography, he adds, is a brilliant tool. When left alone with a good image, you don’t need to be told what it means or shows.

Moments of brinkmanship, he concludes, can be won with gentle humour, which is an important part of empathy in a design.

Resistance to humour is pervasive in serious business. Let’s have a bit of humour, a bit of something that makes people feel. In the design industry it is about feeling, not about thought.

In that liminal moment of brinkmanship, there are sometimes no tactics one can master but some immeasurable amount of intuition and luck. Decisive – and often unconventional – action is often what does it. As US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles said in the 1950s: “If you try to run away from it, if you are scared to go to the brink, you are lost.”

Wolff spoke at Design Indaba Conference in 2011, watch his speaker talk on keeping ideas disposable here