This is the first in a series of occasional guest blogs by my good friend and the design supremo Michael Wolff (above), the man who put the ‘B’ in branding.
He has been in the business for well over half a century and during that time has amassed a hell of a lot of wisdom, much of which he will impart in these delightful letters over the course of the series. These were originally written for an Indian design magazine called Kyoorius but are equally at home here on these pages.
So here is the first.
It’s mid May - I’m in Shanghai - and Shanghai is now in me. Yesterday I went to their art museum and connected with the breathtaking skill and artistry that Chinese people still produce and were producing four thousand years ago. I marveled at the abilities of human beings and their extraordinary expressiveness - just as I did in Mumbai when I was there a few months ago.
In Shanghai’s museum I was in the presence of priceless treasures.To say these things are inspiring seems trite, but I don’t know how else to tell you how moved, excited and astonished I was and how impressive it was to see queues of thousands of Chinese people, waiting to see and enjoy these things too.
People can produce such beauty that, although it never equals the beauty of nature, it can still stop me in my tracks and evoke emotions beyond my control. The inventiveness and artistry of human beings and their capacity for comprehension and communication is wonderful. It always has been. That science and art are now seen as one makes life itself a cause for perpetual curiosity and celebration - a celebration that, for me, contains a terrifying mystery.
At the same time, as I enjoy the work of such creative designers as Thomas Heatherwick and his design for the British Pavilion (above) at the Shanghai Expo, and many other nation’s more banal seeming expressions of human achievement, I can’t help thinking of the mysterious and threatening plight of the bees.
Bees with whom we share this planet are dying all around the world. They pollinate our plants and without their collaboration, our very existence could be at risk. When I think of the bees, I start thinking of the extent to which we seem so stuck in believing in the values of our nations, our cultures, our religions and even our sexes without realising how they imprison us in habits of thinking and being. Many of these assumptions and points of view are bringing all of us, and our planet, into situations which now threaten the future of our existence. It’s our inability to see ourselves as a species, among other species, that I think of as a terrifying mystery.
Why don’t we see ourselves as human beings, all together on a fragile planet, before we enjoy all the other aspects of what we think of as us? Why don’t we see what we all share and have in common more clearly than we see all the things that we allow to separate us? Why, as Buckminster Fuller expressed it so poignantly, do we still live in a ‘you or me’ world and fear the idea of a ‘you and me?’ What is it we feel instinctively that we will lose if we let go of enough of our individuality to embrace the rest of humanity and all the other species on earth in our consciousness? Is it because we don’t have or share a common vision of what the planet should expect from a successful species?
Is it because we’re distracted by our own apparent self- interest and blinded by the idea of a common interest in success or even survival?
Some people are single-minded others relish a huge breadth of influences and distractions to fuel their creativity. We could easily complement each other to get the most fruitful results to leave for future generations. Yet we seem to still be trapped with all our insights in the subdivisions of our identities that prevent us from achieving what Desmond Tutu calls “one community” – the human species. Trapped into competing with others instead of competing with our own past performance.
I know that I myself am a basket full of contradictory thoughts and desires. My school report used to say “too easily distracted.” For example, right now, as I write this, while I’m thinking that more of us starve to death today than did in the 1970’s I’m also thinking that I love my Apple iPad. The oceans are choking with the results of our plastic progress and pollution and I still love the beauty of a Camper Nicholson yacht.
I can watch the moods of the sea for hours and the dancing flight of seagulls for days. How can they be so clean? At the same time, I’m horrified that thousands of magnificent albatrosses’ lives have been compromised by dangerous sea-born bits of our plastic debris.
For me, the flight of an albatross, the beauty of a Chinese stroke of calligraphy, the grace of an Indian woman’s walk in a sari, the power of a volcanic eruption and the stillness of a beautiful Koi in the purest of Japanese ponds, each express the glorious beauty of our planet. These wonders and the gift of noticing what doesn’t work about us, has led me to becoming a designer.
A ‘becoming’ which is still progressing, and which I hope will never end.
I need to finish this letter and I’m distracted by a torrent of irrelevant thoughts. I would be lost without distraction. For me it’s both a source of inspiration and, for better and for worse, integral to how I choose to enjoy my life.
Next week I’ll be in Oslo persuading designers that in thinking about how difficult ordinary things in life can be for people who see less well, hear less well, move less well and deal with all sorts of impairments, they will be able to design more effectively for all of us.
Inclusive design – that’s design that embraces the needs of all sorts of people including the ‘differently-abled’ and the old or even the dying – is better design, than design just aimed at financial profit for a minority. At the same time, I will breath the clean air of Norway and see again the mirror like quality of the fjords reflecting the mountains that contain them, reminding me of the astonishing beauty of water.
So how do I, and any other designer, reconcile the appreciation of beauty and delight with our
dysfunctional ways of living and being that seem to be inherent in humanity? How can we be useful instead of being the willing or inadvertent collaborators with what clearly doesn’t work or serve the world?
That question, I think, is one that each of us has to answer for themselves. From time to time I think I know the answer for me, but often I lose it. Writing this letter to you in a new magazine that hopefully other designers will read, is an opportunity for me to ask you the question and to tell you that living in this question continues to be both my biggest frustration and the inspiration that drives what I do.
You can see Michael Wolff's Oslo talk on inclusive design here