Michael Wolff at 26: “I’ve been sacked twelve times. I’m very used to it.”
One of the things Wally Olins told me about Michael Wolff was how much fun they had befuddling clients about their roles on a project. In meetings, the clients would get confused about who was doing what: “I thought he was the designer [the client would say, pointing toward Michael] and you were the copywriter. What’s going on here?” Now having met Michael Wolff myself (at this 26 talk) I can see exactly what Wally was talking about. And I have to say: would that all graphic designers were as facile with, adoring of and attentive to words as Michael Wolff.
Most writing is written to be written and it shows, he says; writing should be written to be read – or even better, heard. And he proves his point by pulling from his pocket and reading aloud a letter he’d received earlier in the day from an agency of some sort. The missive announces ‘important developments’. “Important to whom? Not to me! I don’t give a f….,” trailing off politely. Good writing, he says, should have (among other traits) humour, humility, colour and clarity. “Why, just because it’s corporate writing, does it have to be so barren, witless, stultifying and ‘nobody home’?” he pleads. “And why do we [planting himself on our side] adapt ourselves to this so easily?” We shouldn’t. We know. We’re ashamed. We look down at the floor. Shuffle feet.
Then he walks us through his famous four-room creative theory. Room 1: admiration. “I used to do work that looked like the work of people I admired”. Room 2: reasonability. “There was a time when I hadn’t yet realised, as Shaw pointed out, that nothing great is done by reasonable men. Great work often falls down because it appears unreasonable.” Room 3: precedent. “You’ve done something before. It worked. So why not sort of do it again? But it doesn’t get you anywhere.” And then… the magical Fourth Room: “the room of not knowing… here is where you create something that wasn’t here before.” Here ignorance is bliss. Here naivety is intelligent. And when the prospective client says ‘but you’ve never worked in our industry!’ or ‘but you’ve never done this kind of project!” you say: which is precisely why you should hire me… because at least with me you stand a chance of getting something groundbreaking, something worthwhile.
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