“Be humble, not an arsehole.”

Funny how five concise words can sum up the mindset of Wolff Olins, the global brand consultancy founded by Michael Wolff and Wally Olins in London in 1965. (Equally funny? How the same words were enthusiastically received by students, namely on social media, during a lecture last year given by Lisa Smith, the creative director of the New York office.) And there’s good reason why such simple advice strikes such a chord with millennials and established designers alike.

“Being humble speaks to having the wisdom to look around the room, wonder what everyone else is bringing to the table, and ask ‘what can I learn from them?’” says Smith. Tim Allen, the company’s North American president, agrees. “We’re a company that wants to make businesses more desirable and ultimately, just better for people,” he says. “Humility is so important because if you can’t put yourself in someone else’s shoes, you can’t design for them.”

Working openly as a group helps with that.“I think designers typically say, ‘this is how things should look and feel’ “ says Smith. Rather than assert their knowhow right off the bat, she and her New York team fully embrace the spirit of collaboration, from the first meeting to the sign off of deliverables. Even their Varick Street office reflects the importance of transparency and sharing. Everyone, no matter their title, works on the same floor in one room. In fact, hierarchy is so inconsequential that a former tech employee developed an algorithm to switch up the office’s seating plan. It’s run every six months and ensures complete randomness, so employees have no idea whom they’ll be sitting next. So an intern could be seated right beside the president for half a year and it would no big deal.

Another thing Wolff Olins shuns? Ownership. “It’s very natural for people, especially designers, to be protective of their work and not want anyone else to touch it,” says Smith. “But we encourage people to let that go. We’re not precious about we do. At all.”

While clients have the run the gamut from the New Museum to USA Today, Smith favors Expedia, the travel booking site, because “we really collaborated with the most senior leadership team to take the existing digital platform and help them envision what the future product could be.” In fact, the Expedia team embraced the collaborative process so much that they frequently worked at Wolff Olins’s office (and vice versa). And through countless workshops, brainstorms, and most interestingly, creating personas based on types of Expedia users (businessmen and vacationing families, for example), Smith and her colleagues were able to “co-create a vision across the entire organization,” along with a new strategy adopted by all the employees.

Though it’s not typical for branding and design firms to work with such top-level management, Wolff Olins sees a clear advantage to working this way. Allen says, “Once you align internal leaders with a vision, it’s easier to have everyone else in a company execute it.”

As you can imagine, this sort of high-pressure work environment isn’t for everyone. Beyond being “best in class and brilliant in their own discipline,” Allen says the company seeks talent with “a certain demeanor and way of working that is conducive to trust-building.”

It all circles back to humility. That, and not being an arsehole.

All photos by Nicholas Prakas.