Years before the official games begin, one of the most highly visible and widely judged events of the Olympics takes place, the creation of the Olympic logo.
Every two years the host city is charged with creating its own logo in the spirit of the Olympic Games. It is the starting point for designing all other aspects of the Games including the venue architecture, wayfinding system, pictograms, uniforms, graphics, tickets, merchandise and the list goes on.
The logo must communicate the Olympic Movement’s values of excellence, friendship and respect; and it also needs to represent the city in which the games will be held. It is required that the logo must feature the Olympic rings, one of the world’s most recognizable symbols. Like most successful logos, the Olympic rings reflect a visual conceptualization that represents the most important aspects of its “business”, in this case, the spirit and meaning of a worldwide event. The interlaced rings represent the five continents that participate in the Olympics and are interconnected to symbolize the friendship to be gained from these international competitions. The colors were chosen because the flag of every country in the world contains at least one of them.
There is meaning behind every decision that went into creating the Olympic rings, and the task of designing a logo to stand alongside it is a tall order. It has to work really hard on a number of levels to be successful and most importantly, it needs to be the catalyst for making the Olympic brand come to life. Not only that, the amount of pressure that comes from having an enormous pool of “clients” to please (the host city’s Olympic Organizing Committee, the International Olympic Committee, and the general population) would make almost any designer run for the hills. Except that the challenge and prestige that comes from having designed an Olympic logo is very enticing.
This year’s London 2012 Summer Olympic logo, designed by the branding firm Wolff Olins, met with a lot of criticism. At first glance, I had the same negative reaction as many other people in regards to its design. Some critics saw it as a broken swastika, others visualized an unsavory act played out by cartoon characters. Iran threatened to boycott the Games because they claimed it spelled out the word “Zion”, and an animated version of the logo was pulled because it was causing seizures in individuals with a certain kind of epilepsy. My initial response was not quite as strong as any of these, but something about the design did feel off-kilter to me. It didn’t really conform to previous Olympic logos, whose designs are softer and more inspirational in gesture. Except for the city name appearing inside one of the five jagged geometric shapes, it didn’t feel ownable to London. There is no visual representation of any London landmarks, unless you see it as a graffiti tag which could be a nod to the city’s infamous street art (a complaint that many Londoners have about the logo). In any case, my curiosity was piqued, and I wanted to find out what the thinking was behind this year’s design.
As I dug deeper an interesting thing happened. The logo, specifically the larger brand identity behind it, started to grow on me. The strategy behind fleshing out this logo to the rest of the brand was amazing. London took a “one look” approach to all aspects of the Olympic and Paralympic games and the visuals all stemmed from the logo’s “energy grid” of geometric shapes and a vibrant color palette. The logo was supposed to make you feel “slightly off-center and still be cool” according to Wolff Olins’ managing director, Ije Nwokorie. It was meant to appeal to a younger generation to inspire excitement for the Games, thus the motto “Inspire a generation”. It is described as a symbol of the digital age – dynamic, modern and flexible. The logo was designed to be occupied so that graphics or photos could be laid inside the shapes. The push was for this to be “Everyone’s Games” according to London 2012 chairman Lord Coe. Its anarchy was purposeful. The logo was meant to stand apart from past years; to appeal to or lead the way for future generations of Olympiads and fans.
A successful logo does more than just look pretty. It needs to carry a brand message and extend the brand’s reach by generating a coherent look and feel that can be applied to all visual elements and carried across multiple channels. The 2012 Olympic logo does a great job of supporting the brand whether you like it or not, and just as with any good brand, its design and usage have been well thought out.
As we bid farewell to the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, I feel a bit of emptiness that was filled these past few weeks by watching the world’s greatest compete. I take comfort, however, in knowing that the logo events for the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, Korea are well under way. Let the games continue!