Let’s not forget the rights of robots


By Suzanne Livingston

Much is being made at the moment of the threat of robots to working life. The most recent respected report is from The Pew Centre covering its research on ‘routine task intensity’. It confirms what we might already suspect to be those occupations under threat from automation.

The narrative around robots and work has been taking shape for some time now. It conventionally splits in two directions.

Those who argue that impending automation is an assault on the working man or woman. It’s another example of the power class employing tools to exploit and displace low paid workers. Only those at the top end of the hierarchy will win. 

The counter argument to this is that the means of production (the means to make the machines) can now be owned by the people themselves, laying challenge to standard hierarchies.

This then leads to the other school of thought - that the dawn of robots at work marks the next wave in a great surge of human creativity – a very necessary re-thinking of our role and potential in the world, where we will have the time and the space to study the great subjects of mankind, explore the biggest questions, solve the biggest problems (and make our own robots).

What is interesting about this evolving story is how much it is so clearly one of control. Robots will either be our master or our slave. They will either replace us or release us to a higher form of existence. In both scenarios however, it’s the robots doing what we consider to be the most basic work of all – we, great humans as we are, will have found, maybe have to have found, something else to do.

This envisioning of the future feels somewhere off the truth or at least what might be a more helpful view  - one where we see robots and ourselves as on the same side, as mutually enforcing and entwined, as driving each other, positively and unavoidably.

One thing is for sure - robots, software agents and automated learning aren’t going away or questioning their own right to an existence. We’ve been willingly fueling their proliferation for some time now. As we continue to upload our whole lives, convert our bodies into data and compulsively finger our phones, we welcome in a new AI reality, one which does not have us at the centre. As we create robots, they recreate us.

In the future they won’t replace us - they’ll push us on, insist that we re-skill and re-educate at all levels of the job market. We want this. My job wasn’t around 50 years ago. It won’t be in 50 years time. Nor should it be.

On the other hand, they won’t release us either from the drudgery of life so we can discover our higher selves. Nor should they. Super humans won’t solve the world’s problems, not on their own. In the future there will be many kinds of intelligence in the world of which we, thankfully, are just one. We’d be well advised to welcome every kind of alternative intelligence and work closely alongside it as enthusiasts, observers, collaborators and volunteers. An obsession with control and one up-manship will blind-side and severely limit us all.

Alibaba - China and beyond

On Friday Chinese internet giant Alibaba went public on the New York Stock Exchange, resulting in the world’s largest ever IPO at $25 billion. Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and media around the world have been buzzing for months with talk of a global power shift to China, the dawn of a new era for tech start ups, and the storybook rise of the company’s founder, Jack Ma.   

But, as a brand, Alibaba is still relatively unknown outside of China. It has a complex set of digital subsidiaries, including direct-to-consumer e-commerce, peer-to-peer marketplace, global wholesale platforms, digital payment service, cloud computing, and many more. It’s been referred to as eBay, PayPal, Amazon, and Amazon Web Services all rolled into one. But it mostly plays the role of a connector, and users mainly interface with one another, retail brands, or wholesalers instead of engaging with the Alibaba brand itself.

At Wolff Olins we’re curious to see if the flurry of excitement over Friday’s IPO will have a lasting effect on the Alibaba brand. In Western media, the company hasn’t been portrayed as a connector or enabler of consumer-driven commerce. Something different has emerged: a monolithic brand that symbolizes the rising prominence of emerging markets such as China. Alibaba comes across as prosperous, powerful, and at times rather mysterious. 

Among other things, this new perception could drastically alter Alibaba’s brand architecture. Instead of TMall, Taobao Marketplace, and 1688.com, it could adopt the “Ali-” prefix for all its brands, as it does for Alipay and Aliyun. Perhaps the start-ups it invests in will one day become “Ali-” too, and in the near future we might ride around in “Ali-Lyfts.” Just like Apple’s “iProducts,” it could build a vast network of services that draw on the equity of the master brand. The ingenuity, momentum, and sheer magnitude behind Alibaba could make it an incredibly powerful brand to be associated with.

First and foremost, however, it will have to make itself relevant to a wider range of people if it plans to grow abroad. Jack Ma already seems keen to dispel the notion that Alibaba is a Chinese Internet giant. He wrote in a pre-IPO note to investors, “In the past decade, we measured ourselves by how much we changed China. In the future, we will be judged by how much progress we bring the world.” Distancing itself from its Chinese roots could help assuage concerns about security and data privacy, which have frustrated the U.S.-China relationship for some time. But Ma will also have to find new and creative ways to cultivate consumer trust in the Alibaba brand if he intends to follow through on his plan to change the world.

There’s likely a bright future for Ma and his company. His astronomical rise from English teacher to China’s richest person (no small feat in the world’s most populous nation) is too remarkable, too inspiring, and all too indicative of the world of possibility in which we live. But Alibaba wants a brand that goes far beyond its founder’s story and country of origin – it’s looking to gain the trust and confidence of consumers worldwide. In this light, it seems that this is just the beginning for what could be one of the world’s greatest global brands.

Mark is a strategist at Wolff Olins, New York and, previously, a Fulbright Research Fellow in Tianjin, China.

The power of a name

By Sam Liebeskind

I just returned from a golf trip through Ireland where I had an interesting ‘brand strategy’ moment. (Apparently even on vacation I can’t help but think about this stuff!) Here’s the story and what I realized about the power of a name:

We were eager to get started. First on our itinerary was Doonbeg – a links-style course just outside the town for which it was named. I remember initially hearing the name, imagining the glowing green grass and rolling contours of the land. This would surely be Irish golf at its essence.

A Google Search of the word ‘Doonbeg’ shows the place just as I had pictured it

When we arrived, we weren’t disappointed; the place was magnificent – exactly as I thought it’d be. But one thing was different. The property had recently been bought by American real estate mogul Donald Trump and rebranded Trump International Golf Links & Hotel: Ireland.

Besides the name, I was told, Trump had yet to make any significant changes to the property. But with this new label in my head, my perception of the place had been instantly transformed. Maybe it’s because I’m a young New Yorker but all of a sudden, I couldn’t help but think of this:


A Google search for Trump shows the outspoken leader


A Google search for ‘Trump International’ shows futuristic skyscrapers in dense urban centers

When I thought the course was called Doonbeg it felt authentic, true to the place and the people who lived and worked nearby. It seemed timeless (even though the Greg Norman-designed course is only about 12 years old!). With this new Trump tag in my head though, the place felt less unique. Like it was now just a cog in a global commercial empire, in a class with Disneyland and Vegas: incredible, but somehow a touch contrived.

It was a weird feeling, especially since I understood the rationale behind the change. From a top-down point of view, the Trump Golf ‘system’ is quite tidy. The portfolio consists of 17 courses named (for the most part) either Trump National Golf Club, [American Location] or Trump International Golf Links, [Global Location].

This ‘power parent’ brand architecture approach ties together the portfolio, signaling continuity and encouraging crossover between the properties; a golfer can jump from Trump to Trump to Trump and never be disappointed. The brand team probably looked at the 400+ courses throughout Ireland and saw the need to differentiate the Doonbeg property; the Trump signature guarantee of luxury and extraordinary service was a shortcut to get on people’s radar.

For me though - and I suspect many other golfers and travelers as well – the individuality of an experience is part of what makes it enticing. I imagine I’d have felt much better about the place if they’d found a middle ground (more like the 2013 rebranding of the Doral Golf Resort & Spa to Trump National Doral). Maybe something like this:

DOONBEG - A Trump Golf Course


DOONBEG - By Trump Golf

This kind of system would signal to golfers, as well as the employees of the various courses tasked with creating the ‘experiences’, that each place is outstanding in its own right, celebrated for what it is.

With the Trump name in my mind, I ended up skipping the Pro (Gift) Shop entirely, thinking I’d rather buy a memento from somewhere ‘real’ like Royal County Down or Portmarnock. That way, I’d always be able to remember this beautiful course as nothing other than Doonbeg.

Is it the font wot won it?

By Chris Moody, Creative Director

So in the closest we will ever come to an X Factor meets Newsnight mash up. Scotland stays.

Whilst the majority of today’s commentary will focus on the socioeconomic bullet that has been dodged, or the oleaginous handshakes of Westminster’s finest, I will stick to what I know. Graphics.

One of my favourite films is Brewster’s Millions. In a Caledonian twist on the Richard Pryor morality tale we have just witnessed a ‘None of the Above’ style political campaign played out for real. With both sides of the referendum debate having to build their stories largely around the power and influence of absence, the way in which the visual and verbal language of each campaign came to life was fascinating to watch.

The NO campaign certainly had the toughest gig. It was literally asking people to vote to achieve nothing, (insert your own coalition government reference here please).

Language-wise they had to land the most negative of TOV’s. The associated messaging largely built around fear and ‘what ifs’. Even Scotland’s distinctive colour palette had been co-opted by the YES vote, leaving them with a Faragey Pantone of UKIP purple or unpalatable palette of banking crisis blue.

So how did they pull it off? Well alongside many other (much more important aforementioned socioeconomic) factors. Perhaps some of the key aesthetics that were generated and repeated ad infinitum by the campaign played a tiny part.

Maybe it was the fact they flipped a plain old NO into ‘Better Together’. A double positive (think ‘stuffed crust’ pizza or ‘deep fried’ Mars bar). Or maybe it was the deployment of military grade propaganda in a Jamaican flag-style rendition of the Union Jack that did the rounds last week (see below for our alternatives). Maybe it was just Bowie.

Maybe it was because they inherently had the one thing the YES campaign didn’t - a replicable icon. A big fat hand-drawn cross. The thing everyone in Scotland was going to recreate the moment they stepped into the booth, irrespective of who they were siding with.

Check out the two placards next to each other (not with a design eye but with a critical eye, there’s no D&AD pencil here) The YES with its designery chunky Helvetica Neue and accompanying rock hard X from the flag. Now look at the NO with a rounded font and its little hand-drawn ‘x’.


YES speaks to a nation like a nation, hard and brisk. NO in contrast is more individual, softer, warmer and a bit goofy like a wobbly little kiss. Could it be a graphic ‘hanging chad’ that nudged a few of the undecided?

From a sweaty Nixon to a light bulb headed Kinnock via John Heartfield, Jamie Reid and the awesome Steve Hardstaff political imagery can swing political debate. We will never know if this time round it played a winning role. But it’s does highlight that design and creativity matters in the important things in life.

Time to sharpen your pencils people, because next year we take down the government.

Placard image via Getty.


A new flag for Britain


If Scotland leaves today, we’ve got some new flag designs ready.

We love the UK flag. Let’s face it, it’s great. The original design was a bold symbol of a progressive United Kingdom. When it was new, it broke traditional flag conventions and reflected Britain’s awesome attitude. But the design has a flaw—the Union Jack is based on all of the flags coming together (although for some reason the poor Welsh were left off)… so what happens if Scotland pack their bagpipes and go? Well you might have seen some new design proposals that have begun popping up around the internet:


These flag designs seem to be flying at half mast. Most of them simply remove the St Andrew’s cross, leaving a red and white flag and a constant reminder of the day Scotland left. So we’ve taken it on ourselves to create a new flag. A celebration of everything that is great about Britain and a flag that is designed for the future.

We approached the challenge in a few ways:

Weather responsive flag
Similar to the physical version that flaps in the wind, our new flag responds to the British weather.


Patchwork flag
The old flag was designed as a two-colour solution because of reproduction constraints. What if we use different colours and materials to create a flag that represents the different people and communities that make up Britain? Plastic, gold and new threads are woven into the design. Some of the colours have been taken from the Royal Standard.


Designer flag
The UK is full of brilliant designers. Let’s collaborate with Peter Saville or Paul Smith to design an iconic flag.


Please note, these have not been designed by Peter or Paul—they are nasty ripoffs.

3D flag
Who needs a flag anyway? The Romans had a golden eagle on a pole and they ran the world for 500 years. What about a 3D flag based on the angles proposed in the original Union Jack? Imagine our victorious athletes holding aloft Britain’s orb.


Internet flag

What about all those little flags that are flown across the internet? We need a flag that has been optimised for a new digital context. Our animated gif flag symbolises Britain as the meeting place for people from anywhere in the digital and physical realm.


Cool flag

And what about a flag that is just cool.

Pink = Northern Ireland
Green= Wales
Red= England


Serious flag
Okay… so we’ve had some fun with this brief. But seriously… the original flag is mega cool and it also appears in the corner of loads of other countries flags (like Australia). And it’s a really great brand – blue, red and white triangles have become a defining graphic language of Britain. So with that in mind we propose this flag.


It’s a simplified version of the original that removes the crosses and keeps the iconic elements - a central focus, angles and colours. It’s easier to draw and it looks great.

As much as we’d love to see one of these little beauties flying out in the world – Scotland, as you cast your vote today just remember what affect your vote could have on that lovely Union Jack.

By Campbell Butler and Fleur Isbell
(with some lovely animations from Richard Coldicott, 3D printing from Franc Falco and anecdotal knowledge from Ben Gibbs)

Phones 4 Who?

By Morgan Holt, Global Principal and Strategy Director

In the end, the demise of Phones4U is a positive signal that phone companies are getting better at living up to their brand. And a signal that the middlemen need a bigger role than a marked-up conveyor belt.

So another middleman is dead. Long live the direct shopper. There’s very little you can’t buy online. Everyday food and clothes, cars, houses. It is a galling side effect of working in a shop that every other customer conversation finishes “oh, don’t worry, I’ll find it online then.”

So when your business is simply selling consumer electronics and a simcard then the ice feels very thin indeed. And companies that add zero value beyond price better have a life jacket. Companies like Phones4U and Dixons Carphone do little more than slow down the buying process and force you to leave your home to buy one of life’s essentials.

So from one perspective, it was inevitable. Phones4U added no more value to the mobile world than Woolworths did to Amazon’s. If everyone can buy online, then anyone can sell online, and Vodafone and O2 and EE are every bit as capable of flogging their stuff as a middleman.

But from another perspective, we are in the middle of a major evolution shift in the ability of mobile phone companies to once again show their value. These once-unstoppable challengers enjoyed fifteen years of fame as the access points to a new world. Today, the mobile phone is arguably the most powerful social force in the world, and Orange and Vodafone and their like made that happen. For us.

And then it stopped. Everyone took them for granted. A decade ago, the focus switched to handsets, and then apps. The network operators found themselves pleading, their confidence waning like unwanted child stars on daytime TV.

So the smart ones have been busily reinventing themselves. Not just around comedy campaigns and price cuts, but real attention to the things that matter. Choosing a brand position that stands up for customers, beyond the simplistic choice of colour and name that once carved up a market.

Over the past few years companies like EE and Vodafone and O2 have become very good at it. They know that networks are fundamental to living and they are busily establishing themselves as the best way of using their network - in convergence, in entertainment, in having everything while you’re on the move.

So much so that the mobile industry shows real green shoots of (he says in a hushed whisper) no longer looking like a commoditised market! We’re not there yet, but network operators are much better now at responding healthily and honestly to customers. Not perfect, but much better. And better at finding meaningful relationships that get better over time. And showing that the handset is important to you, but the way you use it is even more important.

Telcos are building the brand of their networks in a way that goes far beyond knock-down prices.

Which means companies like Phones4U have nothing to offer. Nothing.

If I was sitting in Dixons Carphone I’d be wondering what value I could bring that was as meaningful to the mobile consumer as the network brands will be in 2015. Otherwise, man the lifeboats.


Getting our hands dirty


By Pierre-Antoine Arlot

Something that unites pretty much everyone within Wolff Olins’ world wide diversity is food. Food as a well-being vector, something intrinsically rooted in our culture as a way to keep the energy high and to achieve better balance in our life.

Now eating food is one thing but making it is another kettle of fish. One of the great initiatives of Wolff Olins well-being programme is the Cookery Club. Every once in a while, a few of us gather in the kitchen with our beloved chef, Sam, to follow his directions. Everyone chips in and the money raised is donated to a local association, the Manna, helping people who are marginalised or vulnerable.


This time we learned how to make a delicious traditional Mediterranean fish stew, La Bouillabaisse, followed by a DIY sponge cake contest. Full recipes are available here.

We all got our hands dirty and shared a great moment of convivialité. Something precious, that reminded me that you never achieve great things without getting all in and the process is as, if it is not more, enjoyable than the outcome. Totally worth getting my hands dirty – yum!

Isn’t she lovely?

By Aditi Joshi & Chris Walker

In a sea of cultural icons deemed #flawless that #wokeuplikethis, the Asian Art Museum and SFMOMA pose the question of what ‘gorgeous’ means across time and time zones. The collaboration is the largest to date of SFMOMA’s “on the go” programming, a series of partnerships with Bay Area arts organizations during the museum’s close.

The museum mash-up brings two seemingly disparate art forms together. Yet, our work with both museums nodded to some common hurdles. Both forms have reputations for being challenging for viewers, at times difficult to connect to and inaccessible to the masses. The exhibition manages not only to break down barriers between the art, but also between the institutions and viewers at large.

The conversations sparked by Gorgeous offer learnings for the museum space that’s trying to gain more art lovers and advocates across the world.

1. Demystify the art. Everyone was a beginner at some point.

Gorgeous took a step away from the traditional approach of more academic language and upright attitudes throughout the space. The tone was more casual, conversational.

Labels displayed points of view from two curators from Asian Art, offering background and viewpoints to help make sense of the pieces and their context. Their inside view decoded how ‘gorgeous’ can be dangerous, seductive, and fantastical; the placards were guiding and unpretentious, informative, yet conscientious.  

Writing is one piece of the broader puzzle – but was a clear attempt to make the art meaningful to more of the exhibition’s visitors.

2. Encourage conversation with viewers. Spark deeper connections.

As museums push to become more participatory, some fear the loss of the traditional experience that supports individual, silent contemplation. The exhibition showed how the museum could be participatory and contemplative by posing questions to viewers about the work prompting a deeper internal dialogue.

They also balanced the quieter, more individual moments with spaces for conversation among viewers. In between the four, door-protected galleries, visitors could talk to each other, literally draw their own interpretations of ‘gorgeousness’, or hear views from the streets of San Francisco on the complicated and often varied views of beauty. Participatory exhibitions are not necessarily the circus. Rather, they can help viewers have a deeper connection to the art and the museum.

3. Encourage conversation among institutions. Keep collections and perspectives fresh.

Gorgeous is a tremendous experiment. It takes two seemingly different collections and places them in the same space, seeking to find a rhythm between Jeff Koons and a 15th century sculpted torso of a female deity from Southern India. The effect of bringing both museums into the same space is two fold. Firstly, it prevents the museum from becoming a siloed island of thinkers. Secondly, and more importantly, it forges new connections for viewers and curators alike, challenging traditional interpretations by placing seemingly unrelated work side by side.

The experiment is limited – but important. It shows the benefits of letting down a museum’s walls to invite new ideas and debates about the importance and interpretation of both museums’ collections.

Museums mean different things to different audiences. They are sanctuaries and playgrounds, destinations and tasks, cultural institutions and culture creators.  Gorgeous is brilliant because, through its approach, it starts new - and deepens existing - conversations.   

The Gorgeous exhibit is on at the Asian Art Museum until this Sunday, September 14th. 

Topping out at SFMOMA

By Chris Walker

It’s always cool to see our work out in the world. We worked with SFMOMA in 2013 and, at yesterday’s topping out ceremony, we saw them using the open, participatory and community centered brand we co-created.

We popped over to the event during lunch to celebrate the placement of the highest beam on the museum’s new building expansion. It was quite an event—binoculars, hardhats, photo booths, food trucks, a high school band. All free and open to the public. With ‘where art can take you’ printed on a hard hat, SFMOMA on the go’s line ‘we’ve temporarily moved…everywhere’ has truly come into full swing.  

What really made the event such a success was not the perfect pairing of sunshine and ice cream. Rather, it was the museum’s approach to the event. The museum took a moment that could have been exclusive and elite and made it open and accessible. And, there was a tremendous effort to bring SFMOMA into conversation with the city of San Francisco. SF Jazz played a little concert and the event was held in Jessie Square, right next to the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.    

It’s awesome to see a museum playing an active role with the community. Being interactive and collaborative helps redefine what it means for a museum to be a pillar of cultural authority.


Money Now event

By Katie Farrell

We started off asking ourselves a big question: What is the future of money? But, looking at the future is inherently unpredictable. As researcher and scientist Roy Amara famously said, “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.”

When looking at the future of money the answers become extreme and often unfeasible: Cashless society! Global currency! The extinction of money! But, by looking at what we know today we can begin to understand what could happen in the long-run. So, at Wolff Olins, we’ve decided to look simply at Money Now.

Money is defined as “a medium of exchange, a unit of account, and a store of value”. But inherently imbedded in money are many types of meaning. And very human ones. Money can be intertwined in self-identity, a proxy for trust, and a system of belief.

Today money is going through an expansion of medium and technology. It’s becoming more seamless, more democratic, and maybe more human. As this happens, its meaning continues to evolve and expand, as do people’s relationship with money. From a brand perspective, understanding this relationship is infinitely interesting: is money shaping people or are people shaping money?

On Thursday, 18 September we’ll be discussing Money Now––people’s relationship with and if, in fact it’s becoming more human––with leaders from Zopa, the Brixton Pound, GoCardless, Barclays, Nutmeg, and Interactive Investor amongst others. Luqman Arnold, former chairman of UBS and former CEO of Abbey National will also share his view on opportunities in the space.

Check back here for some of our learnings after the event.