Know your design history: Michael Wolff lists the biggest influences on his career

This week, Computer Arts magazine is publishing its 300th issue, marking a quarter of a century of print. And some of the leading lights in the profession are coming together to help celebrate. In the issue, which is available to buy on Friday, 6 December, famed creatives such as Milton Glaser, Paula Scher, Noma Bar and more look back on some of the biggest creative milestones that have shaped the industry. 

In the meantime, to get you in the mood for this special issue, iconic designer Michael Wolff, co-founder of Wolff Olins, shares the key moments in design that have influenced him and his career. "These are the ones that sprang immediately to my mind," he explains. "I’m sure many examples of brilliant work are missing in this spontaneous trawl. But for all of them it was their originality, their skill, their wit and to some extent, although clearly not always, their unreasonableness and bravery that have stayed with me."

01. Dave Abbott’s glorious Economist posters. There’s a wonderful book on the Economist campaign, by Alfredo Marcantonio, called Well-written and Red.

02. Fallon's ‘Balls’ commercial for Sony Bravio, made in San Francisco by Fallon. Directed by Nicolai Fuglsig, this featured 250,000 rubber balls (real, not CG) bouncing down a street.

03. The Apple name and symbol, and the ‘VW beetle-like’ design of Apple’s idiosyncratic Macintosh, as well as the amazing campaign that launched it in Newsweek. Apple bought all the available advertising space in a single issue to run their classic 39 page Mac-launching ad, in 1984.

Newspaper ad for Apple

Apple's 1984 ad went across all 39 advertising pages of Newsweek  (Image credit: Newsweek/Apple)

04. The original pace-setting DDB campaign naming, launching and promoting VW’s Beetle in the USA in 1959. It's a campaign that often been emulated, but never surpassed.

Black and white newspaper ad for Volkswagen

DDB's campaign for Volkswagen changed advertising forever (Image credit: Volkswagen/DDB)

05. The wonderful cover for the Sergeant Pepper vinyl by pop artists Peter Blake and Jann Haworth, depicting the Beatles posing in front of a tableau of celebrities and historical figures.

Sgt Pepper cover art

Peter Blake and Jann Haworth cover art for Sergeant Pepper is one of the most iconic in history (Image credit: Beatles)

06. Andy Warhol’s banana, the cover art for the self-titled album by the Velvet Underground & Nico. (See more iconic record cover art in our article, The 20 best album covers of all time.)

Album cover featuring banana on white background

Andy Warhol's album cover is elegant in its simplicity (Image credit: Velvet Underground & Nico)

07. Robert Brownjohn’s peace poster. He designed this for the New York Peace Campaign in 1969.

Peace poster featuring playing card

Robert Brownjohn’s peace poster is proof of the maxim: less is more (Image credit: Robert Brownjohn/MOMA)

08. Graphic designer Derek Birdsall’s 2000 redesign of the English Prayer book, which made great use of Gill Sans.

Book of Common Prayer with plain black cover

Derek Birdsall's much-praised redesign of the Church of England's Common Worship prayer book in 2000 (Image credit: Church of England/Derek Birdsall)

09. Twen magazine (1959-1970) by German designer Willy Fleckhaus, which some call the greatest looking magazine of all time. Its approach to grid-based design was revolutionary for the era.

Layouts from Twen magazine

Layouts from Twen magazine, as featured in Design, Revolt, Rainbow published by Hartman Books  (Image credit: Hartmann Books)

10. Margaret Calvert and Jock Kinneir’s motorway signs in the UK. Created between 1957 and 1967, they have influenced signage design across the world.

Children crossing road sign

Margaret Calvert and Jock Kinneir’s motorway signs became instant icons of graphic design (Image credit:

11. The CND symbol, designed by Harvard science professor Gerald Holton in 1958. It's based on the semaphore signals for letters N and D.

CND symbol

The CND symbol is one of the world's most recognisable symbols (Image credit: Gerald Herbert Holtom)

12. Illustrator Tony Meeuwissen’s magical cards, the result of his three-year passion project in the 1990s, The Key to the Kingdom, which won a D&AD award and is now being revived in book form.

Illustrated playing cards

Tony Meeuwissen became the first illustrator to win a D&AD Gold Award Black Penci for his passion project The Key to the Kingdom (Image credit: Tony Meeuwissen)

13. Biomuseo, Frank Gehry’s astonishing natural history museum in Panama City, which was conceived in 1999 and opened in October 2014.

Biomuseo building external view

Biomuseo was Frank Gehry's first design for Latin America (Image credit: Editorpana)

14. Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation building in Marseilles. It's a modernist residential housing design principle he developed with the collaboration of painter-architect Nadir Afonso from the 1920s-1940s.

Roof terrace of la cité radieuse, Marseille

The design and layout of  la cité radieuse was ground-breaking at the time (Image credit: Fred Romero from Paris, France)

15. Antoni Gaudi’s Barcelona’s Cathedral, the Basílica de la Sagrada Família . It began construction in the 1880s but has never yet been completed.

Exterior shot of Sagrada Família

The Sagrada Família is one of Gaudi's greatest achievements (Image credit: Ludwig Willimann from Pixabay)

16. The restoration of two beautiful railway stations: St Pancras in London and Gare d’Est in Paris.

St Pancras Station from Euston road

St Pancras Station in Euston road, London, is home to the Eurostar (Image credit: Colin / Wikimedia Commons)

17. Product design: there are many examples but, to my mind, the first Apple Mac and the iPhone 5 are the most influential.

Front, back and side views of iPhone 5

The iPhone 5 was a design game changer (Image credit: Apple)

Issue 300 of Computer Arts will be available on Friday 6 Dec in all good booksellers and direct from My Favourite Magazines.

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Tom May

Tom May is an award-winning journalist and editor specialising in design, photography and technology. Author of the Amazon #1 bestseller Great TED Talks: Creativity, published by Pavilion Books, Tom was previously editor of Professional Photography magazine, associate editor at Creative Bloq, and deputy editor at net magazine. Today, he is a regular contributor to Creative Bloq and its sister sites Digital Camera World, and Tech Radar. He also writes for Creative Boom and works on content marketing projects.