The four rooms of creativity

At a masterclass with Michael Wolff held during Design Indaba last week, the branding and communications design guru shared “The Story of Four Rooms” – an allegory about the creative process of producing commercial work.

Michael Wolff is a designer and creative director with more than 50 years’ industry experience. He is co-founder of Wolff Olins, one of the world’s most renowned agencies. He is also a great lecturer and hugely skilled writer (you only have to follow him on Twitter or check out his delightful website to see that).

In his masterclass he spoke a lot about noticing your surroundings and empathy – or, his word, appreciation – being at the core of good design. And this applies to everything from communication design (branding, advertising, corporate identity) to service design (what are the processes involved in brand interaction). The ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes is pivotal.

In Wolff’s story there is a house with four rooms – two upstairs and two down – and to truly create great, original work one must ultimately move through all four of them. And so we begin:

1. The Room of Great Work

“The first room upstairs is the room that I occupied as an aspiring designer, where I thought if my work looked like great work that was as good as I could get.”

But Wolff found that he couldn’t create in the Room of Great Work, he could only copy.


  1. The Room of Reason

Then Wolff met Wally Olins and crossed the corridor to the Room of Reason.

This was his induction into notions like, “There is logic in design”; “It can make strategic sense to be like this”; “This is what the competitors look like”; “You shouldn’t look like that”.

He found again that he couldn’t create in the Room of Reason – “because it steered you into mediocrity. It steered you into satisfying too many people.”

And, as George Bernard Shaw said, ‘Nothing is accomplished by a reasonable man.’

“So I have always had a streak of unreasonableness in my work, and it’s served me well. If work is utterly reasonable it is probably going to be boring.

When it comes to the first two rooms, “It is folly not to know them,” says Wolff. “It’s folly not to know the work of great designers on whose shoulders we all stand.”

“But I can’t create in those two rooms.”


  1. The Room of Precedent

In this room you say: “I did this before and it worked. So now I am going to do it again, only slightly different.”

This is why all petrol stations look the same. Why all banks look the same. Why all airlines, more or less, look the same, explains Wolff.

“This works. It’s much easier to sell a client something that’s reasonable than to sell a client something that’s unreasonable. Most design companies of stature and size are very able to occupy the room of precedent. It’s a very popular room.”


  1. The Room of Not Knowing

When you get to the final room, “You’ve been into the other three rooms but you trust your personal creativity to produce something that wasn’t there before,” says Wolff.

“Creativity really means ‘to create’, and to create means it wasn’t there before. And we can all do it. We were all born being able to do it.”

“And so, in telling this fable,” he ends,“I’m encouraging you to trust that in you, which is informed by great work, informed by reason, informed by precedent, but not the source of your creativity. The source of your creativity is going to come far more easily from your noticing and from your appreciation and ability to step into other people’s shoes.”

Ultimately, says Wolff, “appreciation and noticing is the fuel for imagination,” and “in order to put yourself in other people’s shoes, you have to take your own off.”

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