an online conversation
about design management

RIP a design guru

The world is full of good, really good, designers but in my mind there a few real geniuses that break moulds and forge new ground. Wally Olins (along with Paul Rand, Milton Glaser and Bob Gill) is one of the designers that I admire most.

A lot.

He died in April 2014 aged 83.

There’s a lot to love about Olins. Probably the aspect closest to my heart is that he was as relevant to the design industry today as he was when he started and that’s a big call in what’s perceived ‘a young person’s business’.

I also love his description of himself: ‘an atheist London Jew’. What’s not to love about that elevator spiel?

At 83 he was still one of designs’ most articulate and effective salespeople.

I also love his skill at maintaining relevance. He started his business in 1960.

Mackay Branson design has just celebrated 30 years in business and I thought we’d seen a lot of changes. It’s nothing compared to what Olins would have seen in his 54 years in the design business.

Interestingly he didn’t train as a ‘designer’. Olins was an Oxford History graduate recruited to be a ‘suit’ in a London ad agency.

That job took him to India for 5 years. When he returned to London he worked at a couple more agencies before meeting Michael Wolff at a design practice in 1965. They joined to make Wolff Olins – a creative and a thinker who could sell – the perfect partnership to take on the big guns in the adland.

It’s still a great recipe for a design partnership.

Wolff Olin’s built a reputation doing the type of ‘corporate identity’ programs that had been happening in the US for a couple of decades. There, corporations were using graphic design programs to unify everything from the look of their offices, through to stationery and uniforms. It started with a logo and was documented in a set of guidelines that became the corporation’s bible.

Branding before branding.

As an aside, no differently to what happens now, Wolff Olins were often frustrated when the publicity surrounding the rollout of a new image often centred round the aesthetic qualities of the mark rather than the thinking behind it. But I digress.

Wolff Olins sounds like a robust partnership. Olins is quoted as saying that Wolff was the most brilliant creative brain I ever met, and the most maddening human being’.

Wolff left the business in 1983.

In 2001 Olins sold Wolff Olins. He was already a prolific writer but rather than retire (born in 1930, he was then in his 70s) he started a global branding studio with a Wolff Olins alumnus, Jacob Benbunan. Saffron was a brand consultancy ‘as strong in its strategic thinking as it was in its creativity’. Olins was the hands-on Chairman and used his profile to be a branding evangelist: persuading, writing and speaking at conferences around the world.

I never had the opportunity to meet or even hear Wally Olins speak but those that did talk about a ferocious energy where words and ideas tumbled from his mouth. His sustainability seems to sprout from a relentless curiosity that never dimmed. He loved talking, he loved people and was said to be absolutely charming.

There is much written by and about Wally Olins. My research leans heavily on The Guardian obituary but that was just one site of many in a long list of Google references. If you don’t know a lot about the man, or his work, it’s time well spent to do a bit of research or to purchase a few of his books.

Especially if branding is your area of expertise.



Wolff Olins