A Letter from Michael Wolff: A Disjointed Mind

Dear Reader,

This will be a disjointed letter because my mind’s disjointed by travelling and by being in too many different time zones in too short a time.

Travelling’s always a discombobulating experience for me because the noticing part of my brain works more actively when I’m in less familiar cities than London, where I live. I notice thousands more distinctive details when I’m in new place. For instance, rainwater pipes in St Petersburg are far bigger than they are in London and almost anywhere else I’ve been. They seem twice as big. I notice how much bigger and more intense the traffic lights are in Moscow, where I’ve been for the last few days.

The rainwater pipes are huge in St Petersburg because of the dangerous amount of melting snow and the traffic lights are huge in Russia to make sure people see them in the vision blurring snow and rain. Their colour is so intense because they’ve not been weakened by energy efficient lamp bulbs, as they have in London, and also because their compelling and unusual size demands attention. They sparkle throughout Moscow as the smaller brilliant red, yellow and green jewel-like lights did in London when I first wondered at their brightness and beauty in my childhood. I still find those simple bright colours, made from light, wonderful.

I’m always tantalised by the difference in the intensity of colour between light and pigment and think of both of them as two of the wonders of the world.

I’m writing this letter to you with a sense of urgency on an Aeroflot plane flying from Moscow back home because it’s overdue. As I write I’m reflecting on how strange it is that, although I don’t know you personally, I write to you as my friends, and even if my letters may be more important to me than they are to you, I still enjoy writing and sharing thoughts with you more than you realise.

I stopped writing for the couple of days that it took me to acclimatise to London and then I had to return to the airport early the next morning for a trans Atlantic flight over a sparkling ocean and a gleaming white snowy Greenland to the USA. Now, after a day in New York and a dinner in a restaurant that I’ll never forget – Ilily (236 Fifth Avenue), I’m in Kansas City with some of my best friends and some tranquil time to continue and complete writing this letter to you. I wonder where you are now and how things are looking and feeling to you if you’re reading this letter from me.

In one of my first letters to you I wrote about the value of distractions, of being open to disjointed impressions and how essential these are to creativity. Many of us can get into the habit of believing that solving creative problems means bringing your minds to bear on them with discipline, thoughtful concentration and single-mindedness – a kind of myopic focus. I’ve never found this to be true. For me discipline, thoughtful concentration and myopic focus usually shut down my creativity and drives it straight into reasonableness and logic. I remember an attorney, drawn by the great New Yorker cartoonist Al Ross, with his finger stabbing the air, saying to the judge and the courtroom  “Logic, the last refuge of a scoundrel.”

With many thanks to my old friend Al Ross and to the The New Yorker

Hmmmm, logic certainly has its place and so do intense concentration, undistracted focus and attention to detail, but only after your creativity has produced its magic. That magic, in my experience, requires limitless distractions and disjointedness to provoke your appreciation, your curiosity and your imagination, in whichever sequence they occur to you. I was called scatter-brained at school. Teachers then believed being scatter-brained was a bad thing, anti-curricula and anti-discipline, and I still thank my lucky stars that I’m still resolutely scatter-brained today. Being scatter-brained has served me well and so I recommend it to all creative people.

For most of my professional life my openness and welcome to distractions, to the point of my colleagues not only not knowing where my mind was but sometimes where I was myself, would irritate, frustrate and even madden some of them. Many, though not all of them, considered that reliability and what they thought of as responsibility towered in importance above creative breakthroughs. To them, steady and predictable performance was the essence of professionalism and sound business.

They believed that I was creating uncontrollable disruption and organisational anarchy. They clearly saw me as a dangerously bad example to others. Although many of them respected the work born from this behaviour and that reached for the sky, the lure of logic, good sense, reason and the value of what they believed they already knew – experience, kept them safely off the tight rope that those of us, driven by vision and by the potential of creativity to draw down the future, have to walk.

When I see through their point of view of course I can see what some of my former colleagues saw in me and how disruptive and disturbing it was for them, but for me the results that I’ve seen in design businesses, similarly driven by business discipline and process, seem to me to be inhibited and even belittling of creativity, often to the point where it hardly exists. So today, although I collaborate with many designers and design firms of many sorts and sizes, I rarely collaborate with those for which money and process rule.

I think these growth-obsessed businesses only purport to be creatively driven. Many have migrated into mere repeat order service businesses with Macintosh generated pseudo creativity replacing originality and genuine creative breakthroughs. Genuine creativity is now more characteristic of the best in the movie business around the world. Those of us who remember the magic of creative tight rope walking in design now wait for the business and process influences to lose their dulling grip on what’s called the branding business and let freewheeling and exhilarating creativity flourish again.

Process needs to stand in disgrace in the corner for a few years while creative risk-taking can take the lead again. People like Elliot Noyes, Raymond Loewy, Bill Bernbach, Mary Wells, Paul Rand Alan Fletcher, Mike Dempsey and Massimo and Leila Vignelli, to name a few of many, never bowed to process. They all respected the power and magic of creativity and ensured that it led in their various enterprises and so in what they brought to their clients.

“Nothing is achieved by a reasonable man”, said George Bernard Shaw, and even in science, one of the most creative quests of humanity, many still explain their wondrous discoveries not as accidents of brilliance and inspiration, which they often are, but in the uninspiring and dreary texts of reason. It was beautiful to hear Sir Martin Rees, a past president of the Royal Society in the UK say recently “We will never understand everything. What breath-taking arrogance to believe we will, and what stupidity to believe in certainty and logic as the route to enlightenment.

I hope you can feel me jumping from subject to subject, that’s how I live and work. One moment I meet an extraordinary person who can sweep me off my feet and change how I think and feel, the next the taste of a cheese I never knew existed, next a brilliant and rarely screened French film from the past or a fresh new one like Amour (illuminating dementia), next the wit of an illustration by Peter Blake or a cartoon by that genius of humour, the New Yorker’s Charley Barsotti, that touches the essence of human nature, next a timeless painting by Matisse, next the look in a person’s eye, next a poem by Charles Bukowski or a fruit or a flower that I never knew existed, next an extraordinarily beautiful  and scary and insect moving imperceptivity on my bathroom wall and finally, for now, an astonishing smile or a life changing quote by Lao Tse.

Sometime it can simply be noticing a trivial and irritating moment of incompetence at an airport, or a moment of extraordinary kindness, or the courage of a human being living with extreme pain or disability, or someone dying peacefully, or the wonderful birth of a new grandson. I seem to encounter thousands of daily glimpses of beauty or horror or simply the calm of nothing much.

All of these moments flex muscles of appreciation and curiosity and without those muscles and the imagination they prompt, we all risk finding how true this quote of Shakespeare’s is:  “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time, and all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Living imaginatively, generously and creatively is the only way to transcend this vivid and appalling observation. For me, letting in these daily moments of inspiration is as important as breathing.

One such moment of mine was being inspired by the phrase “intense astronomy”. I heard it and saw what it was on television last week. NASA had spent two billion dollars on converting a Boeing 747 into a flying observatory, flying at 40,000 feet and using an entirely new concept of what a telescope is to see further into our universe than was even thinkable before.

And now another distraction, or two, just to encourage you used to let your mind fly. Consider the Boeing 747. These iconic aircraft are now rebuilt from the rivets in their outer skin of their immense and graceful bodies to the smallest detail in their cabins like a toilet seat. This happens from time to time to give these beautiful creatures a new lease of life. One day it will happen for us too.

Watching that process being completed by British Airways engineers in Cardiff is an inspiration. It’s intense work with many skilled engineers involved. It takes six weeks, and when it’s complete, there’s much pride and a modest celebration as a BA flight crew come to collect it.

While I’m thinking of the 747 I’m often embarrassed by the frantic attempts to paint trivial brand graphics onto these wonderful examples of engineering sculpture.  The 747 is a work of art as well as a landmark in aviation, industrial design and engineering. Only Pan Am treated this aircraft with respect. Since then the quality of graphics applied to the 747 and many other beautiful planes has, in my view, been crass, stunningly disrespectful and insensitive. They usually consist of banal graphics and mindless superficial clichés. The designers responsible, with the possible exception of those that designed the simple Quantas, Air France and Lufthansa liveries, should be sent to stand in disgrace in the corner too. And in particular those responsible for replacing Ivan Chermayeff’s iconic AA tail fin symbol on America Airlines unique ‘silver birds’ with the banal nonsense painted on their tailfins now.

More distractions: Last week I watched a nature programme on television. It was so extraordinarily beautiful that I could hardly breathe. It featured the miraculous shapes and wondrous agility of Japanese cranes and how they can outwit the eagles who want to eat them for dinner. Their dance of black and white brings Escher to mind, but with far more grace and life. Then a beautiful and lithe female tiger with her cubs flirting with a patient vulture for the fresh meat of an antelope and all the colours and balletics involved in that incongruous dance. Then squadrons of green budgerigars out-flying other vultures that try to catch them for a snack and many other magnificent moments of nature.

A few days ago I was awed and inspired by the breath-taking beauty of butterflies and how they live their amazing lives, their colours still dance like a Kaleidoscope in my brain. I see these vivid moments as essential distractions without which I would have no imagination with which to create.

For instance, the flights of seagulls and swifts, the seagulls almost effortless and the swifts faster and more deft than the most sophisticate fighter aircraft, the sure movements of a domestic cat or simply watching and appreciating the movements of thousands of city people, seeing how they dress and wondering what they’re doing and how their lives are, or the excitement of creating instant, momentary and temporary friendships day by day, make me the designer that I am constantly becoming.

I hope with this letter to encourage you to re-connect with your childlike awe and your overwhelming early-noticing and wonder at life, to peel away the adult layers of logic, misplaced responsibility and bogus professionalism and let your innate creativity take you by the hand and lead you like a guide dog onto the tightrope on which you can create your magic and bring your clients more than they’ve asked you for. Remember a brief is only someone’s best shot. No one really only wants what they think they want, they want what they couldn’t imagine and that’s why they’re asking you.

So don’t just stroll along in a familiar way with a series of plausible alternatives choices to show your clients to diminish risk, lead, as Bill Bernbach did, with a single recommendation of what you believe is right for them and fly at risk with them into the glory of authentic self-expression or say goodbye.

I know this letter is jumpy. I’m jumpy too. My appreciation, curiosity and imagination jump like a grasshopper, without knowing where they will arrive and what will be next. Will it be a new relationship, a new taste, a new colour, a new experience, a new vision and a genuine creation?

I’ll finish this letter with a quote from a man I’d never heard of. Samuel Ullman, an American businessman and poet, 1840–1924.

It’s about all of us.

“ Youth is not a time of life, it is a state of mind. It is not a matter of red cheeks, red lips and supple knees. It is a temper of the will; a quality of the imagination; a vigor of the emotions; it is a freshness of the deep springs of life. Youth means a temperamental predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over a life of ease. This often exists in a man of fifty, more than in a boy of twenty. Nobody grows old by merely living a number of years; people grow old by deserting their ideals. Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul. Worry, doubt, self-distrust, fear and despair, these are the long, long years that bow the head and turn the growing spirit back to dust. Whether seventy or sixteen, there is in every being’s heart a love of wonder; the sweet amazement at the stars and star like things and thoughts; the undaunted challenge of events, the unfailing childlike appetite for what comes next, and the joy in the game of life. You are as young as your faith, as old as your doubt; as young as your self-confidence, as old as your fear; as young as your hope, as old as your despair. In the central place of your heart there is a wireless station. So long as it receives messages of beauty, hope, cheer, grandeur, courage, and power from the earth, from men and from the Infinite, so long are you young. When the wires are all down and the central places of your heart are covered with the snows of pessimism and the ice of cynicism, then are you grown old, indeed!”

“I hope I never lose my sense of wonder.”
Many thanks for this to one of my best and dearest friends Charles Barsotti, and to The New Yorker

With my best wishes for your success, your sense of wonder, your creativity, your usefulness to our world and your joy.



Recognised as one of the world’s most experienced practitioners in establishing corporate identities, Michael’s body of work has spanned more than 30 years. He enjoys encountering situations where he doesn’t know what to do or think. That’s when he needs, and so far, can count on, his creativity. Most of all, he enjoys old friends and new ideas.

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