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Sense of identityJohn Sorrell has six more months to run as chairman of the Design Council, just one of the bodies where he has helped to bring a recognition of the importance of good design into the political mainstream

Design Council chairman John Sorrell is a man in a hurry. With just six months to go before he hands over the reins of an organisation, which in the last five years under his stewardship has risen Lazarus-like from the nearly dead to become the prototype Blairite quango, he is racing to make things happen with characteristic vigour and enthusiasm.

Sorrell, an expert on corporate identity and chairman of Interbrand Newell and Sorrell, is keen to secure his legacy not just at the Design Council but also in other public spheres where he makes his influence felt. Sorrell sits on the creative advisory group of the Millennium Dome - the famous 'litmus group' of the great and the good charged with steering the project forward - as 'godfather' to the national identity zone. He is also a member of Panel 2000, the body set up by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to co-ordinate the way Britain is promoted overseas.

All of this brings him into constant contact with architects, whose work he believes is central to creating a better international image for Britain among investors and visitors. Graphic designers have traditionally been impatient with architects and their longer lead times. At Pentagram, Bob Gill once testily told Theo Crosby that 'seven years is a long time to wait for a proof'. But Sorrell is prepared to be patient. 'Architects have extraordinary perception and unusual insights about the way we need to live in the future,' he explains. 'I'd like to see architects given the kind of status they enjoy in other countries. I enjoy working with architects, but then I've always believed in different design disciplines working together.'

That philosophy was formed when Sorrell, a Londoner, worked at pioneering identity firm Wolff Olins in the 1960s, having attended Saturday-morning art classes as a 15-year-old schoolboy at Hornsey College of Art and subsequently studied graphic design there. At Wolff Olins, Sorrell worked alongside architects Mike Fletcher and Keith Priest who have remained close professional allies. The mood of the sixties encouraged a holistic view of identity which embraced graphics, buildings, products and people. When Sorrell formed his own design practice with partner Frances Newell in 1976, he carried forward this utopian spirit, even installing his new firm in a place called Utopia Village, with its all-day cafe, artworks and Utopian Nights series of evening lectures.

Radical roots have proved no obstacle to success. Newell and Sorrell, which recently merged with Interbrand, is today a £20 million design and communication business, with 250 staff in London and Amsterdam and a string of high-profile identity credits including British Airways and Price Waterhouse Coopers. Sorrell credits his wife Frances Newell as the creative powerhouse behind the practice. 'We're probably the most enduring partnership in the design business,' he says. Indeed it is her sensitivity to form and willingness to take creative risks which gets the work noticed - even if, in the case of BA, the results prove controversial. But there is no doubt that Sorrell has built a public persona alongside his private practice as assiduously as he manages identities for his commercial clients.

His first real step onto the public stage was to lead a formal review of the Design Council in 1993, which at the time was condemned as 'dead as a dodo'. Sorrell is fond of saying that he was born, in January 1945, at the same time as the Design Council and he fought to keep the organisation alive. His blueprint for survival was couched in exactly the same language of modernisation (even down to 'New Design Council') as Blair's formula for New Labour. But then, as a spokesman for design, Sorrell exuded a Blairite feel-good approach (accentuate the positive, appeal to people's better instincts, use simple language etc.) long before it was fashionable or necessary to do so.

When Labour came to power in May 1997, one of the first Downing Street parties was for the design industry. It was organised by the Design Council, which had miraculously clawed its way back from political oblivion to the seat of power. Out of this event, at which Blair asked for professional help in rebranding Britain, came the Creative Britain workshops featuring a bevy of top architects including Nigel Coates, Richard Rogers, Zaha Hadid and Terry Farrell. Many of their suggestions, including more investment in 'national gateways' such as ports and airports and more modern urban venues for political summits (getting away from stately homes and hunting prints), have since been put into practice.

Sorrell is justifiably proud of what the new slimline Design Council has achieved, including the current Millennium Products initiative to find Britain's most innovative goods and services. But then he refuses to be downbeat, even when Cool Britannia goes off the rails or when confronted by the problems of the Dome. 'It'll get there,' he promises of the Greenwich exhibit. 'Lorenzo Apicella has done a wonderful piece of architectural design for the national identity zone. There's a huge amount of talent at our disposal.'

Sorrell may be constantly wearing a hard hat as he inspects progress on the Millennium Dome site. But he has also had to wear a flak jacket. In the early days of the Design Council rebirth, the pundits predicted disaster and, more recently, critics have had the knives out for his own design practice given its political links and its tendency to create identity programmes by commissioning artists or photographers rather than designing definitive symbols or logos.

Sorrell is cool under pressure and sticks to his guns. 'I'm always glad to prove people wrong,' says this designer for whom perception is everything. 'The business of identity is changing. It's not just about logotypes. In the past, identity was all about making sure organisations were recognised. Now companies need to find new ways to express their personality, they need to be liked. What's the point in being recognised by everyone if they hate you?'

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