A Letter from Michael Wolff: About four ‘life sentences’ and a couple of quotations

Dear Reader,

I hope you’re well and enjoying life. This letter is about four ‘life sentences’ and a couple of quotations. I wanted to tell you how sometimes a simple sentence or quotation can be so profound that it will change the course of your life. I think Shakespeare was the master of this and if you haven’t yet discovered the intimate power of Shakespeare, take a look at Al Pacino’s “Looking for Richard”. I can promise you that it will bring Shakespeare into your heart forever.

The sentences I’m going to share with you have helped shape me. That’s why I call them life sentences. I hope they’ll be of interest to you. The first one goes back to my life many years ago. I’ve been surprised by how thinking about a small sentence in the past can bring back such vivid and useful memories.

When I was a child, I spent much of my time living in a variety of schools, sleeping in a variety of dormitories and wearing a variety of school uniforms – some of which were in glorious colours like forest green blazers with brilliant cerise borders. My memories of that time, however, have more unhappiness than happiness in them.

I’m sure I had many happy times too, but compared with my time as an adult and particularly my life today, I remember school as an unhappy struggle for personal existence.

I remember vividly the feeling of trying to close my eyes as I sat at a tiny ink-stained wooden desk, battling against sleep, trying hard to anesthetise all the lessons that I had to endure – we called them periods. And I remember that each one appeared on a timetable with what was for me a forbidding title: English, History, Arithmetic, Algebra, Religious Education, French and worst of all, Sport.

I remember the relief of the shrill bell that marked the end of the interminable boredom of the forty minute period led by people with strange flowing bat-like black gowns and square flat hats with their tassels. That’s what all the teachers wore as they swept out of the tiny rooms in which I’d felt imprisoned.

One master stood out as an inspiration. He had a 1930s supercharged Aston Martin, with six wonderful chromed flexible tubes coming out of its bonnet and wheels with gleaming chromed spokes. The music of its whining engine was a sweet invitation to new and thrilling feelings. He drove over cricket pitches and at high speed around the school grounds. He was my inspiration to the appreciation of thrilling things and the potential excitements of irresponsibility and daring. He was sacked, and so I too longed for that exotic word ‘expelled’ to be bestowed upon me. Many of my school days were wasted listening to droning and dull teachers’ voices with white chalk squeaking on dusty blackboards as I shunned all the subjects they went on about. I lived in my world of schoolboy fantasies – sex, beauty, the potential raptures of romance and the joys of colour and nature had already become the transcendental interests in my life.

As a schoolboy I was an abysmal failure. The contrast between the deprivations of English boarding schools and the excitements of the different homes I stayed in during the school holidays, defined the circumstances of my life. School – a regular and incomprehensible punishment. Home – a private time of unexpected stimulation and reflection – and fresh fruit.

I remember how one particular sentence during one of these holidays changed my life, and recently I thought about how all through my life certain sentences and quotations changed the way I see things. They still do today. In every school report I had, aside from “could try harder” and, on one occasion “Michael is bone idol, he spends most of his time dreaming, either looking out of or into windows”, they invariably said, “He’s too easily influenced”. That was, and still remains true.

I thought about the power of influence and how in particular, certain sentences have changed my life and opened me up to noticing things that I might have remained unaware of without them – and then the illumination they brought me, and its consequences. There are four of these sentences and a couple of quotations in particular that I will share with you in this letter that I’m writing to you now.

Here’s the first. I was ten years old. My parents where living in Beckenham, a suburb in South London. It was during a school holiday and unfortunately my mother had a friend staying with us. Unfortunate because this was a man of whom I was scared. I don’t know what his relationship was with my mother. My father was away and I had the impression that this man wanted to he admired. Anyway he was huge and dark. I was small and fair. He had a loud and deep voice. Mine was insubstantial. He had elegant clothes. I had short trousers and I hated what I looked like. He was a frequent visitor and whenever he was there, I wasn’t. I disappeared. But one morning my mother told me that her friend Gregory, a name I’ve disliked since those days, was going to the post office and that I must go with him to post some letters for her. It felt like a cruel punishment.

We lived on gravel road. Gregory had huge shoes. His big steps made a deep crunching sound on the gravel. I sounded like a bird’s feet on sandpaper beside him. We walked in silence until he uttered a sentence that was like an earthquake for me. “ Why are you so selfish?” he said. I could hardly breathe. We walked on for what felt like an interminable time – probably just a few seconds. I tried to ask him why, but before I could speak he said, “you’re ten years old and you let your mother make your bed”. It was a watershed moment for me and I’ve never forgotten it. It was the first time that I realised that other people noticed details of my behaviour and judged me for it.

Whoever you are, just you, a major global company, a national brand leader or a member of a government, others can see all the many details of your behaviour communicating to the world. Every tiny detail of a company’s behaviour, every word it speaks, all its self expression, its welcome, its toilets, the way its hierarchy behaves, its food, its language and even its mood is seen and judged by everyone. How many leaders or individuals ask themselves ‘how do we feel to others?’ That’s what that sentence has taught me andit’s stayed with since the moment I heard it.

The second sentence that’s had a profound influence on me came from the extraordinary writer Maya Angelou. She said: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”. Because what we feel comes before what we think, it means that people don’t read what you write – they read what they read. People don’t hear what you say they hear what they hear. And if the writing is just about facts with no feeling, people will forget it almost instantaneously.

So, I always try to write to create feeling. I write to be heard. Can you hear what you’re reading now? If you can’t, then I’ve failed. Many people in companies write for approval. That’s why most company text is so stultifying. I often find that writing, and the power of language, are not taken seriously by designers. When I hear the word ‘copy’, my heart sinks. Here are two simple examples from my own experience of how feeling can make you think.

The first involved two copying machines we had in Wolff Olins. One was a Canon, the other a Xerox. Both needed time to warm up. When the Canon was warm, it said ‘Ready’. When the Xerox was warm it said ‘Start’ – a quirk of translation, maybe. But I feltcthat ‘ready’ meant the Canon did everything, and that ‘start’ meant Xerox expected me to do it. These two different words could have been profound expressions of brand attitude. And that attitude could have affected not just product development but the quality of and stance of the whole company towards all the people it dealt with. Quality as described so beautifully by Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – quality as a constant energy.

The second was more personal. Some years ago, a well-known UK company, called WH Smith, was a great brand. In those days it had a leader who was an exceptionally talented and creative retailer called Simon Hornby. I worked with him for many years and he always used to say, “I agree with you”. Unlike most people who put the emphasis on either ‘I’ or ‘agree’, Simon put the emphasis on ‘you’. Try saying it to someone you agree with. You will find that they feel appreciated in a different and clearer way. Simon cared how people felt and that’s why I’ve never forgotten this detail of his sensitivity to others.

The third powerful sentence that has influenced me profoundly is by a man called Norman Vincent Peale. He was an American who worked with the founders of both J C Penny and IBM around the time of the Great Depression. His great concern was with unemployment. His sentence: “The trouble with most of us is that we’d rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.” I found this an inspirational remark. I quoted it in my last letter to you but didn’t tell you how much I value this sentence and how, when my vanity gets hungry, I can always quieten it by remembering it.

The fourth sentence is one that I wrote as a result of my involvement with inclusive design. “You can’t wear two pairs of shoe at the same time – to be in others’ shoes you need to take your own shoes off first.” This has been a useful sentence for me because it helps stop my conditioned reflex of always being a designer and allows me to become the human being whose needs I’m setting out to serve. As literally as I can, I manage to be in their shoes and not in my own.

Sometimes it takes an unrelated incident to understand how easily most people find it to stay their own shoes. A while ago a friend of mine called Stephen Mosbacher dislocated his jaw – extremely painful. I took him to the emergency clinic in the local hospital. Eventually, many hours after we’d arrived the receptionist asked him his name. Because he couldn’t move his jaw, he couldn’t speak, so I told her he’d dislocated his jaw and that his name was Stephen Mosbacher. “I’m not speaking to you”, she said frostily, I’m speaking to him. She’d spoken from her own disapproving bureaucratic shoes, unwilling to put his on.

Sometimes I can’t get out of my own shoes. A couple of years ago I was working with a twenty-four hour inclusive design challenge. I was coaching four teams of designers, each team working with a partner with a particular impairment. One team worked with a young man who was blind and another with an elderly woman who was partially sighted. The project was how to make the city of Dublin easier for all people to navigate.

The third team was working with a man in a wheelchair. He had cerebral palsy. This prevented him from controlling his movements and because of this he couldn’t speak or even control the movements of the muscles in his face. He had a devise fitted to the back of his neck, which miraculously enabled him to create text on a screen in front of him. I’m ashamed to admit that I was uncomfortable being around him. I was well and truly stuck in my own shoes. I left coaching his team for as long as I could. But eventually I caught up with them walking beside a low wall protecting kids from falling onto the river. I was right behind the wheel chair and saw these words appearing on his screen: “I can’t see over this fucking wall”. In that instant, he used his natural language and the barrier between us that I’d built as a self-conscious designer, broke down immediately. Now I was in his shoes, with him, and our relationship began.

One small human word from this man and I remembered that whatever I’m designing, or deciding, that many people see less well than I do, hear less well, move less well, think less well, feel less and are less well than I, and that if I can’t be in their shoes first, I won’t  be able to serve them as well as I want to. If I can make anything I design, or bring anything about inclusively, then the world, including me, will be happier.

The fifth is a quotation and more than one sentence. It’s six sentences and, quite recently, they’ve changed the world for the ‘designer zealot’ that I am. I don’t know who wrote it: Fill your bowl to the brim and it will spill. Keep sharpening your knife and it will blunt. Chase after money and security and your heart will never unclench. Care about people’s approval and you will always be their prisoner. Do your work and step back. This is the only path to serenity.

I found this quotation reassuring because I’ve always known that lying on a pebble beach and marvelling at the beauty and glide of a seagull, does more for me and for my spirit, than any design magazine. To me creativity means creating something that wasn’t there before and so I need to go into an empty space to create. A seagull can guide me to this emptiness.

Finally, thank you for reading my letters – if you are. I enjoy writing to you. Please get in touch if you feel like it and remember this final quotation or series of life sentences. These are wonderful instructions for life from Mark Twain.

“Life is short, break the rules. Forgive quickly, kiss slowly. Love truly. Laugh uncontrollably and never regret anything that makes you smile.”

Happy days


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. He is a regular columnist for Kyoorius Magazine. 

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