Elegiac outpourings in coffee-table books and on TV show that the
60s were a golden age for creative businesses. Everybody felt liberated
and independent. Maybe. But for people like me, working in small,
struggling, financially fragile businesses, it certainly did not feel
like it at the time.
In Wolff-Olins there were about 12 of us working behind a converted
shopfront in Parkway, Camden Town.
We had a fair amount of talent: graphic designers, product designers,
architects and a sprinkling of marketing people -those were early days
for marketing people in design companies.
The company called itself a design consultancy, and we hovered uneasily
between the rather pretentious, narrow, introverted and insecure world
of design and the more vigorous, commercially successful, louche world
There wasn't really a design business back then. There was no trade
publication, despite a few magazines illustrating Italian toilets and
Danish light fittings. There was also the Council of Industrial Design,
which saw its main job as improving public taste - a bit of an uphill
struggle. And there were lots of jobbing designers - some were good,
some were bad, most were indifferent.
In the early days, Wolff-Olins' work centred on a mixed diet of
exhibition stands, packaging, brochures, signing systems and product
design. The term corporate identity had only just been invented and
brands were mostly labels on jamjars and packets of washing powder.
We knew we wanted to complete corporate identity jobs for our
But we had to define what identity was. There were no rules and not many
examples to follow. So we had to work it out for ourselves.
But our problem was also how to get known. In the 60s, the only
companies that really mattered in the communication business were
They did everything. If you had a communication problem, you went to
your agency and it solved it.
Most advertising agencies regarded us with a mixture of incomprehension
and disdain. They assumed either that we were a supplier/sub-contractor
to them, or that we nursed secret ambitions to become a fully fledged ad
To get on in the communications world, we had to do things that ad
agencies didn't, or couldn't, do. We were lucky. We designed prototype
restaurants for Lyons, then a big name in catering, and we developed an
identity programme for the paint company Hadfields, the computer company
English Electric Computers and for BOC, the gases company, which is
still around today. At the time we did this work, nothing much had been
seen like it before.
Wolff-Olins also had a hand in putting the final nails in the coffin of
the British motorcycle industry. We worked with Norton Villiers to
redesign their final throw, the Norton Commando. The bike was too big to
get inside our little converted shop in Camden Town, so when it rained
we covered it up with a tarpaulin. I used to wonder whether the Japanese
were designing their bikes that way.
All this work - and more for companies such as Bovis, Bowyers, P&O and
others - was startling and high-profile. It was clearly commercial and
was evidently in the world of communication, but it was nothing to do
with advertising. So it, and we, began to be noticed.
By the mid-70s, life in the design world had changed completely. People
such as James Pilditch, Terence Conran, Rodney Fitch and Michael Peters
had big-business ambitions. A new world of retail design, interiors and
corporate design was created. Design companies grew, both in size and in
Ad agencies and design companies began to collaborate; clients began to
get a bit more choosy. Trade magazines such as Design Week and Blueprint
appeared. Design commentators such as Peter York, Deyan Sudjic and the
subsequently ubiquitous Stephen Bayley emerged and, by the early 80s,
design was a more or less mainstream activity. The job that reinforced
Wolff-Olins' reputation in the 80s was 3i, the first major financial
services company to use design in a big way.
Then, suddenly, around about the late 80s, everything became a "brand":
political parties, universities, football clubs and airlines. And the
brand began to take over the corporation. Previously, companies such as
Unilever had created and developed brands. Now new companies such as
Virgin and Body Shop were brands themselves. Branding moved from
products to services, simply because the service sector exploded.
Mobile phone companies, utilities and financial service groups all
demanded brands. At the same time, conventional advertising broke into
shards, and new and powerful forms of promotion and communications
developed, from direct mail to multimedia. So ad agencies became less
important and other communications companies - not just design
consultants but PR companies, direct mail houses, multimedia shops and
others - grabbed a piece of the action.
Design consultants rapidly transformed themselves into brand
Sometimes the transformation was cosmetic; in a few instances it was
real. And that's when they really became significant players, sometimes
collaborating with McKinsey & Company, Bain & Company and other major
consultants as well as ad agencies and other communications
Most of the top brand consultants grew. They expanded into Europe, some
grew internationally and some went public. In the last recession of the
early 90s quite a few went bust. Since then, many brand consultants have
been acquired by major communication groups. Now they have become global
mainstream service businesses.
Have we lost something? Yes, our innocence. Have we gained anything?
Commercial nous, sophistication and a place in the sun. Not a bad swap,
- Wally Olins left Wolff-Olins earlier this year.