Why our job is to change the rules


At Wolff Olins we help our clients design radically better businesses, and this means we do radical work. We’ve defined ‘radical’ to mean four things: fundamental, simple, different and human. So far, so good.

But, as we explored these ideas in our first radical day, in April 2018, I realized that this list muddles up different kinds of things. Emilie in San Francisco made an important point: ‘radical’ can refer to approach, outcome or impact. Andy in London observed that the work we voted for as ‘most radical’ had one thing in common: a disrespect for convention. And the New York strategists said: let’s put a stake in the ground and define radical more precisely. So here goes.

When we do radical work, our approach is fundamental.

Our outcome is simple, human and different.

And our impact is to change the conventions – in a big way.

So when we’re setting out on a new project, we need to think in a fundamental way. What’s the problem here, and what’s the underlying cause of that problem? What’s the opportunity that the client faces – and more widely that the world faces? How can we kick-start change, not by superficial improvements, but right down at the roots? And how can we be realists about this, and not merely naïve? As one of our London clients said: be brave, but listen first.

When we’re looking at the work itself – our outcomes – we need to ask how deeply it will change how people think, feel and act. Is it simple enough to be understandable, and easy for people to share? Is it human enough to be lovable, truthful? And is it different enough to be noticed, to stand out, to defy the obvious? Will it do more than just appeal to people, but also enlist people to do things? And maybe to do radical things?

And then when we watch the impact of our work – often many years later, and the result of many factors, way beyond our contribution – has it challenged the conventions, broken them, changed them, or even established new conventions? Has it made a big difference – maybe led the world – for consumers, for employees and for the culture we live in? This is what radicals have always done, from anti-slavery campaigners to #metoo: noticed that something apparently normal is actually wrong, challenged it, and created a new and better normal.

And that’s our job. We won’t always achieve it: probably only one project in ten will fully get there. But the best way to maximize our chances is to set out in the right way: through an approach that’s fundamental.

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