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2012 logo: Disaster or Masterstroke ?

April 24, 2010

A well designed logo, in the end, is a reflection of the business it symbolizes. It connotes a thoughtful and purposeful enterprise, and mirrors the quality of the 
its products and services. It is good public relations, 
a harbinger of good will. It says “we care”.
Paul Rand1
Described by various bloggers, design commentators, and critics as a “a solid gold stinker”2, “a puerile mess”3, “a mad woman’s breakfast” 4, and even “pink day-glo pig’s abortion”5, the logo for the 2012 London Olympic games has received scorn from all quarters. Met with disbelief by an uncomprehending and indignant public, the logo appeared to be too ugly, brash, and inappropriate to represent a nation and a noble tradition, not to mention a waste of £400,000 of public funds. In an effort to make sense of the design’s semi-abstract shapes, and with no little glee at the opportunity to ridicule, some suggested the logo resembled to a “toileting monkey”, a “broken swastika”, or even “some sort of sex act between The Simpsons”6. So what does the logo actually look like?
Four brightly coloured shapes compose the date of the event – 2012. Stacked on top of each other, the numbers read separately as 20 and 12. An outline or drop shadow surrounds each one. Jagged and irregular, with no horizontal or vertical lines, the numbers are barley legible abstractions. The give the impression of having been thrown together, or dropped and shattered. The olympic rings form the absent counter of the 0 of 20, while lowercase lettering spells the word “London” across the 2. The relationship between the text and the surrounding forms seems unnatural and awkward. The logo appears badly composed, amateur. How and why did professional designers arrive at this solution?

An initial reference point is illustrated by a representation of the design in its launch film: as graffiti in an underpass. Even when removed from that context, the resemblance in style is remarkable. 2012bold, the angular, italic font created especially for the project, in which the word “London” is rendered upon the logo, also appears to have been inspired by graffiti writing. Despite criticism of the font as “inelegant”7, it is at least consistent with the theme of the project: “The style of a handwritten font helps to carry through the contemporary theme”8.
Others have suggested the logo is a throwback to an MTV launch video from 1981, or to Jamie Reid’s artwork for the Sex Pistols. There is a resemblance to the band’s Never Mind The Bollocks album, though the pink and yellow of one of the four initially released versions of the logo are significant in this interpretation. And while Punk may be a definitively London-bred invention, but it would be an odd choice of influence, given the anti-authoritarian and anti-monarchy associations of the band.
Another youth sub-culture, New Rave, has been referred to by several critics as an apparent influence, and as a potential weakness – “It already seems outdated. “New Rave may be very On Trend with the fashion world this season but this still has five years of life to live out”9. Colour is an important issue again here. Steve Slocombe, Creative Director of youth style magazine Super Super, comments upon the tastes of his magazine’s 14-24 year old target audience: “If you are 30-plus, white may embody sophistication and expense, but to the Super Super reader it is colour that does this – bright colours and lots of them”10. However when you consider the feedback of a survey of 11 to 20-year-olds, in which “68% of respondents said they ‘hate’ the design”11, it appears the designers may have missed their mark. Although the organisers have clearly stated their commitment to ensure the event’s appeal to the youth of Britain, they may have in fact, in what MP Philip Davies describes as “a pathetic attempt to appear trendy”12, created a logo which lacks credibility with any audience.
So how did the designers and organisers intend the logo to function? Wolff Olins, internationally established world-leaders in their field, with a 40-year history in corporate branding, must have know what they were doing, right? Perhaps, but consider the problems they faced: First is the 6-year delay between launch and event, the challenge to create a logo for launch in 2007 that will remain fresh in 2012. As brand designer Michael Johnson warned in advance of the logo’s launch “absolutely don’t pick a typeface that seems groovy in 2006 because you know what it will feel like in 2012. Yep, 6 years out of date”13. Then there are the impossibly high standards set by previous designs for the ‘68 and ‘72 Olympic games, against which all subsequent designs are held for comparison. Design commentator Steve Rigley’s refers to the task of Olympic design as “a poisoned chalice… virtually inevitable that any design will suffer unfavourable comparisons with Mexico, and Munich”14
I disagree with Adrian Shaughnessy’s remark that the logo “looks as if it has been designed by a committee desperate to prove its street credentials”15. On the contrary, the logo appears to be the result of the designers’ ability to push-through an unconventional solution, and of a brave decision by the organisers to accept one. The design is unlike any other Olympic logo. Just as Lance Wyman’s work for Mexico ‘68 reflected the contemporary influence of Op Art, Wolff Olins’ logo eschews the content and graphic mannerisms – brush strokes, garlands, flames – that have traditionally been a feature of Olympic design, in favour of the influence of contemporary youth and street culture.
But what of the logo’s unpopularity? Speaking to The Independent, Chris Townsend, the Olympic committee’s commercial director, highlights a positive aspect of the fierce critical reaction – “we achieved within 18 weeks the level of recognition we were anticipating within 18 months”16 Conspiracy theorists may suggest that the backlash was planned by the organisers to ensure maximum exposure. While this seems unlikely, the logo is undeniably provocative. Perhaps people aren’t supposed to like it. The designers admit that their creation is “intentionally raw, it doesn’t… ask to be liked very much. It was meant to provoke a response, like the little thorn in the chair that gets you to breathe in, sit up and take notice”17. Perhaps this is one of the only remaining tactics for a designer hoping to catch the attention of a public already jaded by overexposed to brand imagery. Wolff Olins may not have created a logo that many people like, but at least one which is impossible to ignore. As Will Novosedlik suggests, writing in Eye Magazine, “If a brand has half a second to catch your attention, it must do so at an unconscious level… it is not a matter of communicating rationally, but emotionally”18. So it is not inconceivable that the viral spread of debate following the logo’s launch was anticipated or even planned by Wolff Olins as part of their brand strategy, but the tone of that debate is almost certainly not what they had in mind. Their intention to create a logo that “can talk to anyone”19 appears to have succeeded, but then what use is a logo that everyone recognises, but also hates? One could argue that the Olympics, which presents a once in a lifetime opportunity for the promotion and regeneration of a city, the celebration of of multiculturalism, athletic excellence, and a host of other worth ideals, may not be the best testing-ground for such a strategy. Although it may have communicated news of the event far and wide, has the logo in fact damaged the Olympic brand, the image of London and the UK, or even the reputation of the graphic design profession? Given the wealth of press coverage guaranteed by the status of the event, the risk taken by Wolff Olins in designing such a controversial logo seems unecessary.
The intensely critical reaction to the logo has obscured a key feature of its design – the potential for interactivity. The thick shapes of the numbers 2012 have been designed to “act as a ‘window’ for images to fill the space, such as photographs and sponsorship messages, some of which will be created by the public following competitions”20. The logo is intended to function as a portal through which the public can access the Olympic brand and invest their own creativity in the project. In the words of Wolff Olins’ Patrick Cox: “When people are saying that a child could have done it, or are coming up with their own designs, that’s what we want: we want everyone to be able to do something with it”21.
The failure to clearly communicate this concept to the public may be due to the launch event itself. A “launch event” implies the unveiling of a product. Combine this with the expectation of a media and public, unfamiliar with the concept of versatile branding, to see THE logo, and the opportunity for misinterpretation is obvious. Added to which, considering designers intention to create a mark to operate world in which people “no longer relate to static logos”22, the single yellow and pink version reproduced in the pages of many newspapers following the launch does little justice to a brand that features potentially thousands of both static and animated variations, across a range of traditionally and new media platforms. Wally Olins himself, though no longer working directly with Wolff Olins, commented upon this discrepancy: “Where the criticisms lie, as it seems to me, are what happens to it when you look at it statically. The whole point of the thing is that it moves. It will appear year after year after year in all kinds of situations. Over the years, whenever you see it statically, it will remind you of what it’s like when it moves”23.
The logo has been designed to be viewed not just in print, but on television, online, and (especially for the youth demographic the organisers are so keen to involve) on the screens of mobile phones. The idea of versatile branding has been around for a few years, but this is the first time it has been attempted on such a large scale, or with so much at stake. The idea that the existence of the Olympic brand could be reliant upon public contribution is undeniably exciting, and certainly appropriate for a project in which inclusivity is paramount. A parallel can be drawn with user-developed online content, as Max Brunsma writes “without the collective collaboration of the gamers – as co-developers, coauthors and performers of the game – the product would not exist”24.
If we side-step the conspiracy theories, then it seems Wolff Olins and the Olympic committee were short-sighted in their failure to anticipate these problems, and the resulting criticism. Seduced by their own rhetoric when they should have known better, they should have realised that the gap between theory and practice would lead to ridicule. Brands require time to become established with and trusted by the public. As Paul Rand (and he should know) wrote “it is foolhardy to believe that a logo will do its job right off, before an audience has been properly conditioned. Only after it becomes familiar does a logo function as intended”25. In this case the concept hatched by the designers, however cunningly engineered and closely scrutinised within the board room, fails to operate properly in the real world. Form obstructs function. As Nick Bell writes in Eye Magazine, “however hard communication managers with graphic designers try to draft branding design briefs that talk of responding to the internal characteristics of the organisation, the visual solutions always appear arbitrary”26
Looking forward, the effects of Olympic committee’s decision to use the logo may yet yield positive results. The event remains two years away, and in that length of time perceptions can change. Even one of the logo’s most vocal critics, Adrian Shaughnessy, concedes that “I’ve become acclimatised to it. I’d even go as far as to say that when it’s used in isolation it can be a pretty effective piece of graphic communication”27. Although flawed, I believe the logo at least represents an artistic triumph over the bland predominance of safe but inoffensive repetition. As Steven Heller noted in his essay The Cult of Ugly, “in order to stretch the perimeters of art and design to any serious extent it becomes necessary to suspend popular notions of beauty so that alternative aesthetic can be explored”28. I expect the 2012 logo will stand along side those of ‘68 and ‘72 as a favourite subject of debate for design students of the future. And although each of the bid cities for the 2016 games chose to convention for their bid logos, we may yet see the influence of Wolff Olin’s effort when Rio unveils its logo proper. As optimistically expressed by the editors of Creative Review, “for several years now, designers have toyed with the idea of flexible identity systems: London 2012 takes that notion to the extreme. If it works, we may have to tear up the rule book”29
*1 Rand, Paul (1991) “Logos, Flags, and Escutcheons”, Beirut, Michael… [et al.] (1994) Looking Closer, Critical Writings on Graphic Design. New York: Allworth Press
*2 Shaughnessy, Adrian (2007) “The Olympic Logo Ate My Hamster” Design Observer. First visited 11 Nov 2009
*3 Bayley, Stephen. cited by Burrell, Ian (2008) “It’s A New Brand Day For UK Olympics: The London Olympic Logo Takes Off” The Independent. First visited 11 Nov 2009
*4 Perks, Martyn. cited by Burrell, Ian (2008) “It’s A New Brand Day For UK Olympics: The London Olympic Logo Takes Off” The Independent
*5 Mr Eugenides (2007) “Olympic logo unveiled” Mr Eugenides blog First visited 11 Nov 2009
*6 Anon blogger cited by Shaughnessy, Adrian (2007) 
“The Olympic Logo Ate My Hamster” Design Observer.
*7 Autry, Chris. cited by Geoghegan, Tom (2007) 
“Oh No Logo” BBC News website. First visited 11 Nov 2009
*8 Murray, Simon. cited by Geoghegan, Tom (2007) “Oh No Logo” BBC News website. First visited 11 Nov 2009
*9 Sinclair, Mark (2007) “London 2012. Well, At Least It Doesn’t Have Big Ben On It” Creative Review blog. First visited 11 Nov 2009
*10 Slocombe, Steve. cited by Burgoyne, Patrick (2007) “The New Ugly” Creative Review blog. First visited 11 Nov 2009
*11 Q Research survey cited by Sweney, Mark (2007) 
“Most Youngsters ‘Hate’ The 2012 Logo” The Guardian. First visited 11 Nov 2009
*12 Davies, Phillip cited by Smith, David (2007) “The Olympian Silence of the Man Behind The Logo” The Observer. First visited 11 Nov 2009
*13 Johnson, Michael (2006) “Well Done But Watch Out” Though of The Week blog. 
First visited 11 Nov 2009
*14 Rigley, Steve (2007) Dancing and demolition in old Beijing by Steve Rigley, EYE 65/07. 
First visited 11 Nov 2009
*15 Shaughnessy, Adrian (2007) “The Olympic Logo Ate My Hamster” Design Observer
*16 Townsend, Chris. cited by Burrell, Ian (2008) “It’s A New Brand Day For UK Olympics: The London Olympic Logo Takes Off” The Independent.
*17 Cox, Patrick cited by Burgoyne, Patrick (2007) 
“The New Ugly” Creative Review blog
*18 Novosedlik, Will (1995) “Branding As Mythology” EYE 19/95 p37
*19 Wolff Olins website, cited by Gomez-Palacio, Bryony / Vit, Armin “London, How Do I Hate Thee? Let Me Count the Ways, 1, 2… 2012” Under Consideration. First visited 11 Nov 2009
*20 Woods, Sarah (2007) “Wolff Olins Tells Its Side of the London 2012 Brand Saga” Design Week. 
First visited 11 Nov 2009
*21 Cox, Patrick. cited by Beirut, Michael (2007) 
“How To Be Ugly” Design Observer
*22 2012 Olympic committee press release, cited by Gomez-Palacio, Bryony / Vit, Armin “London, How Do I Hate Thee? Let Me Count the Ways, 1, 2… 2012” 
Under Consideration.
*23 Olins, Wally cited by Smith, David (2007) 
“The Olympian Silence of the Man Behind The Logo” 
The Observer.
*24 Bruinsma, Max (2003) “Deep Sites: Intelligent Innovation in Contemporary Web Design” 
London: Thames and Hudson
*25 Rand, Paul (1991) “Logos, Flags, and Escutcheons”
*26 Bell, Nick (2004) “Art and Culture Are Open to Interpretation. Why Must We Give Them Fixed identities?” EYE 53/04, pp 18-28
*27 Shaughnessy, Adrian cited by Burrell, Ian (2008) 
“It’s A New Brand Day For UK Olympics: The London Olympic Logo Takes Off” The Independent.
*28 Heller, Steven (1993) “The Cult of Ugly” EYE 09/03
*29 Burgoyne, Patrick (2007) “London 2012: Pro or Con?” Creative Review July 2007, pp 38-39.
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