• Transform magazine
  • February 04, 2023


Five minutes with Paul Worthington


Transform magazine caught up with Paul Worthington ahead of his talk at Brand New Conference, a two-day event on corporate and brand identity held this year in Austin, Texas. With vast experience in the field of brand design, he set up Invencion, his own strategic brand innovation consultancy, in 2011, following a decade-long spell at Wolff Olins. No stranger to telling it like it is, Paul discusses his career highlights, what good branding actually is, and what the advent of AI will mean for the world of brand design.


What is your favourite work you’ve produced in your career?

I'll give you two things that are quite radically opposed from each other. First one isn't a piece of work, it's actually a pitch. In 2011, we [at Wolff Olins] pitched and won a really significant global unification job for Microsoft, which was probably at that time the single biggest, most significant branding challenge out there, because at the time they were the world's largest company. The reason that's significant is that post-2008 we really got hammered by the financial crisis. By winning that job, it allowed me to leave. By winning that job, it created the financial stability the company needed. It was when I felt I could step back and leave the company and leave it in an incredibly healthy place. I left a lot of people who were friends and I felt like I'd left them in a really strong place.

The second thing is going to be completely different, which is actually the newsletter that I write, which I've written for about two years now. The reason that I'm incredibly proud of it is that I get a lot of emails from people who tell me that it's incredibly useful for them in their careers and in their work, and that they appreciate the insights and the links to the information that I provide. I think once you get to a certain age, helping the next generation come through is super important. There's so much bullshit and snake oil in our business that helping to cut through that for people and help them see what is the actual stuff that matters is really important. And, as a sole practitioner, I don't have a team that I can do that with directly. To be able to do that in a way remotely to a thousand people, that's really important to me.


Throughout your career you’ve worked on projects for massive global corporations as well as small start-ups. Do you prefer creating work which consolidates a brand within a category, or do you prefer creating work for category disruptors?

I don't care. I like doing work for really good people. I used to judge myself when I was young against the big jobs, the big clients, because I come from the middle of nowhere. To be able to say, "I did this work for GE", "I did this work for Citibank", or "I did this work for Microsoft", these big, complicated, difficult clients, that was the measure I used to judge myself against. But, as you get older, you think none of that actually matters. And the disruptors are fine, too. I really enjoy working with disruptive brands; it's a different part of the brain that you use. But the thing I always come back to is that I really enjoy working with good clients. I really enjoy working with good people. I really enjoy working with people for whom you're actually having a meaningful impact and you're and you're doing stuff. If you're big, if you're small, if you're an established brand, or if you're a disruptor, or if you're global or you're national, I actually don't care about any of those things. I care about whether this work is useful to them. Is it helping them be successful? Do they appreciate it? And do they appreciate me as a result of that? And are they good people?


How do you differentiate good design from bad design?

I think the reality is we're in a place where good design is the new bad design. There is no bad design anymore. So, what happened in the last ten years is employment in the design field has literally exploded and the number of corporations employing designers has gone from a fraction of a percent to all of them. We've arrived at the point where good design, like a well-designed experience, is table stakes. You have to have it, or else you are literally non-competitive. As a result, there is no bad design. It literally doesn't exist at a craft level. But, because it's table stakes, it's raised the bar across the board. It means that good design is bad design, meaning we need more than just good design. We need something else in order to be effective, to stand out, to be differentiated, because there was a time, quite literally, where simply applying the good, solid craft of design to a business depending on the category could actually make it stand out and differentiate it because it was a category where there wasn't any. That doesn't exist anymore. I don't know that there's a category anywhere, B2B or B2C, where that's the case. That I think is the new reality that we have to deal with.


Are designers in the modern era at risk of forgetting which is which?

I think there is a risk that design becomes very self-referential, that there are egomaniacal craft snobs out there, that there are self-appointed arbiters of taste who are trying to dictate terms. And, as a result, we forget the basics, which is good design does not equal good branding. In fact, I'd welcome bad design that stood out and differentiated because that would actually be good branding. We've got to stop equating the two; good design and good branding are not the same, they are different things. We are at a moment in time right now where there's a lot of people, very serious designers, who are claiming to be branding designers, who view themselves as arbiters of taste. They are literally setting their clients' money on fire because this stuff doesn't work if it's all the fucking same. It's not rocket science, it's actually very simple. But we are forgetting, I think, because we've become so self-referential.

Also, design has been captured by engineering. So much of design today actually embraces the engineering mindset. And when you embrace the engineering mindset, you embrace the language of engineering. We hear this all the time: it's efficient, it's scalable, it's usable, it's useful, it's practical, it's functional. These are not the words or language of branding. The words in language and branding are emotional and different and sexy and weird and whimsical and cool. It's just a different language. When you use the language of engineering, you think like engineers. And when you think like engineers, you produce work that an engineer would produce. I think that's one of the things we've got to get back to, which is why we've got to lose the language of engineering, because when we use that language, it actually creates worse work.


What do you think the relationship between design and AI will come to resemble? And what might the consequences be for many of the people working in the field of design?

I do think that if you look at what technology does, it does three things. And this is historically, right from the wheel to the Gutenberg press to the aeroplane, you name it. It takes things that are expensive, it makes them cheap. It takes things that are hard, it makes them easy. And it takes things that were slow, and it makes them fast. When you do that, you eliminate all those constraints and then you build new stuff on top. So, yes, you lose jobs.

The typing pool is a very good example. There used to be armies of people who worked in corporate offices and they typed documents that were the same. They typed it over and over and over again because companies needed multiple copies of the same document, and that was the only way to do it. And then the Xerox machine comes along. The Xerox machine makes that thing that was slow and expensive and hard on your brain to do this all day and made it easy. All of those people lost their jobs. No more typing pools. But it also, when you add in computers and when you add in other elements, created a whole new set of jobs. And if you were to ask anybody today if they would want to go back and work in a typing pool, they would look at you like you're crazy. I think we have to look at it through this lens. Yes, people will lose jobs. I don't know who will lose their job. I don't know how many people will lose their job. It will happen.

But that's not the interesting thing. The interesting thing is, what is the awesomeness that we then build on top and what are all the new jobs that get created that take us to a different place? You know, the Gutenberg press transformed the written word, which in turn transformed the distribution of ideas into society and was directly connected to the rise of democracy. Without the Gutenberg press, there would be no democracy. I have no idea what that new stuff is going to be when it comes to AI, relative to design, and I'd be crazy to tell you I did. But what I can say is if you are in that place where you're doing something that's slow, hard and expensive, and it gets changed to something that's fast, easy and cheap, you get two choices: you let that wave crash right over your head or you get your surfboard out. Take your pick. That's not me saying it. It's just that is what we've seen all through history when it comes to technology. This new stuff is going to be no different.