In The Spirit Of The Games – The Olympic Brand
This could have been like shooting fish in a barrel if I had wanted. The London 2012 Games have drawn almost as much attention for their logo than the actual staging of the games themselves. It has been dissected, disapproved, defended, and derided; I’d love to say ‘in equal measure’ but the reaction has been very firmly in the ‘Kill it with fire’ camp.
But I’ve not come here to earn easy SEO link points or trot out the same jokes about it.
If you like it, nothing I could really say is going to change your opinion. If you hate it, then I’m just going to be preaching to the choir.
I’ve had friends, who are better designers than I could ever hope to be, defend it with passion, and I’ve had friends with no artistic interest or leanings give some of the most insightful criticisms of it. But the one thing they have in common is that they are firmly in their camps and they’re more than happy to stay there.
I’ve got no new jokes about it; yes, it looks like Lisa Simpson performing a sex act; yes, I’m pretty sure I used to own a pair of Bermuda shorts in the 80s with a pattern like that, too; yes, Wolff Ollins, one of the biggest and greatest names in the history of advertising got paid £400,000 to design it. All repeated ad infinitum amongst a million tweets and retweets. +1. Like.
But this year’s look is just the latest step in what has become the Olympic brand. It’s one of the most recognisable brands in the world, synonymous with achievement and aspiration. Constantly changing for 116 years, it’s survived recessions, world wars, social upheaval, drugs & cheating scandals, and the birth of other major sporting brands like the World Cup, to still be held amongst the elite brands in society.
On Your Marks…
For such a large-scale brand, the Olympics have over the years reflected visual trends remarkably well. Some of the earliest advertising posters, such as the 1900 and 1904 Games, had strong Art Nouveau stylings in both the graphics and the typography. Certainly not classic examples of the style, but when you consider that some big brands are often accused of playing it ‘safe’ and watering down their aesthetics, it’s still quite refreshing to see something like the Olympics keeping with the times to a certain degree.
As the Games went on, they continued to change, but some things became themes very quickly. From the early outset, there was always a strong visual play on the notion of ‘the world coming together.’
The notion of physical prowess has naturally always been there. You can’t really run an event where the motto is ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’ without it really. Although interestingly, bodies at their physical peak have played a lot less of an immediate role since the Berlin Olympics of 1936. You know, the one with all the Nazis and stuff. Funny little moustachioed guy getting angry because a black dude kept winning. You might have heard of it.
The Olympic movement certainly hasn’t completely shied away from the body beautiful – far from it – but whether they wanted to distance themselves after the Nazi obsession with the idea of the Superman, or the various designers just got bored and wanted to do something different, physical perfection has not been as dominant in their advertising. Certainly after the Wars, the idea of the World in union has definitely been more apparent.
Probably the most celebrated Olympic branding in design circles (although I’ve always had a thing for the Tokyo 1964 styling) is that of the Munich Olympics of 1972. Created by legendary designer Otl Aicher (who consulted the designer of the Tokyo games, Masaru Katsumie, before beginning work on the branding), the designs have gone down as being classics.
Aicher created iconography for each event using now-familiar stylised stick figures, meaning that people could understand which event was being held without having to know the host nation’s language. This idea of communication through pictograms in their simplest form has been adopted at pretty much every games since, and certainly has become more ubiquitous in everyday design (although the idea certainly wasn’t a new one when Aicher adopted it).
The posters embraced minimalism, really showing how much you can say with little on the page. He also heavily used ‘posterisation’ techniques on a lot of the imagery, separating the colours of the images onto separate layers and then repositioning them to create an arty, staggered effect. Contrary to popular belief, Otl Aicher didn’t travel back from the future with a copy of Photoshop 5.5 to achieve this, but actually did it by hand! Who’d a-thought it?!
You can see more of the great design that came out of the ’72 Games here.
A lot of people these days say that the Olympics has a certain look. “Oh it always features a funny little stick figure in an ‘indigenous style’ running along with lots of colours, doesn’t it?” Well the Games that really did most to instil what we’d class as the modern Olympic ‘look’ was the Barcelona Games of 1992.
The expressionist hurdler made of three simple marks became very iconic very quickly. The simplicity of it tied into so many angles – simplicity, athleticism, elation, traditional local stylings… This approach has been the one most identified with being the Olympics in recent times, with echoes of it found in the branding of the 2000, 2004, and 2008 Games.
5 Rings To Rule Them All
The most instantly recognisable part of the brand is obviously the Olympic Rings. The rings were designed by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the man who was actually responsible for the founding of the modern Olympic Games, in 1912. For the time they were actually pretty radical. It was still very much a time when decoration ruled, and although minimalist approaches to design were becoming more prevalent, it was still quite a bold decision to brand the Games in this way.
Representing ‘the world coming together in harmony’ and using 5 colours – one of which can be found in every country’s flag – it again kept with the idea of aspiration, which the Games tried to keep to the fore.
From their first use in 1920, the rings have become more and more prominent with each passing Games, and are now amongst the most recognisable symbols on the planet. It’s the key symbol to any marketing tie-in with corporate partners, and is fiercely protected by the Olympic movement through trademarks and copyrights.
The Olympic mascots have always been served with a healthy side order of weird.
The 2012 mascots Wenlock and Mandeville have come in for some criticism for looking like terrifying alien overlords hell-bent on Earth’s destruction, but they’re nothing compared to some of the previous bat-poo insane mascots that have come before them.
The mascot has been an identifiable part of the Olympic brand since the 1972 Games in Munich, with the introduction of ‘Waldi’, a rainbow coloured Dachshund.
The mascot has always been quite prominent since then as it helps sell the brand to younger children, and provides extra revenue opportunities. However, that extra revenue has varied wildly from Games to Games, partly due to how successful the Games are perceived to be, and partly down to whether the mascots themselves have followed any comprehensive logic for existing.
The two most derided mascots from Games gone by are Izzy from the ’96 Atlanta games, which was a cross-eyed blue… thing… with Olympic rings for eyelids & tail accessories, and lightning for eyebrows. The second is Athena & Phevos from the Greek 2004 Games, which were… I have no idea.
But not all mascots have been so crazy. For the highly successful 2008 Games in Beijing, the Chinese came up with the Fuwa, 5 good luck dolls that each represent one of Earth’s Continents (Europe, Africa, America, Asia, Oceana), one of the 5 Olympic ring colours, and one of the elements (Water, Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal).
They were a perfect example of sporting mascots done right. Apart from being visually appealing, they tied in culturally to the host nation, and embodied aspects of the games themselves. They didn’t feel like a shameless cash-in or an afterthought, they were generally felt to be a key part of the branding.
The Olympics have had a very long tradition in terms of sponsors. Coca Cola have been a sponsor of the games since the 1928 Amsterdam Games. The way the Games worked with sponsors changed with the 1984 LA Games, where select brands were approached to become official ‘Partners’, giving those brands the rights to cross-market with the Olympic brand and have only their products endorsed and available for public consumption at each Games. This proved to be a huge financial boon to the Games and has continued ever since.
However, the way the Games (or at least the Host Cities) have enforced this has come under media criticism, after head of the London Games Organising Committee Lord Coe said sports fans ‘probably wouldn’t’ be ejected from arenas for wearing Pepsi merchandise.
Although the Olympics have been keen to exploit their own brand through partnerships, they have kept their Partner list to an exclusive few. They’ve seen the benefit in not totally saturating the marketplace with different Olympic brands, instead keeping to a relatively small number of brands that they see as sharing core brand principles. The BBC recently did a nice job of showing how Olympic sponsorship has changed over the years.
The Future Champion
So what’s the future of the Olympic brand? Well I’m pretty sure that the rings aren’t going anywhere for starters.
The Olympic Brand is something that has evolved over time; every 4 years someone different has brought something new to the table, people have kept the bits they want to build on and dropped the bits they didn’t like, and once in a while someone has come along and tried to really push things forward; sometimes with success, sometimes without.
That could describe the evolution of pretty much any long-standing brand you care to mention, but with the Olympics it’s a truly global process. It’s not a brand that has been passed around a select few agencies in New York or London; it’s something that has been passed round nearly every time zone on the planet. Different cultural takes, different values; this isn’t a brand you could really identify with any one country.
I’ll leave you with what we can say about the future of the Olympic brand – how it will look in 2016 with the next host city – Rio De Janeiro.
It was conceived as being a 3D piece that, as it turns round to its resting form, can change from the letters that spell ‘Rio’, to the outlines of recognisable Brazillian landscapes, to the finished form of 3 people celebrating together.
I have to say I’m a fan of the Rio 2016 branding. Although it’s early days – I don’t think there has been a sighting of the inevitably weird mascot – I really do feel that the revision of the brand for the 31st Olympiad is a success. You can watch a video of Tátil, the Brazilian design agency who created it.
Sure, it’s VERY Olympic-y with almost the same gusto that the London branding has tried NOT to be Olympic-y. But often from a designer’s point of view it’s almost as satisfying to see something that has stayed within the outlines of the initial brief, ticked all the right boxes of the core concept of the brand, and has STILL come out looking brilliant. Evolution and not Revolution (although Revolution is almost undeniably more impactful when done right).
The logo and typography have a certain grace to them, they complement each other really well, and you can see that it retained a Latin flair even though it is distinctly Olympic. The logo really comes to life in some of the early motion graphic idents you can see in the video above, with the ergonomic shape really coming into its own as it swirls around.
Sure, I don’t think it’s a design classic; it might turn out to be remembered as well and as fondly as the Barcelona 1992 logo which launched a thousand mimics, but I doubt it. But it serves its purpose well – it says ‘Large International Sporting Event’ whilst retaining character and visual loveliness.
It’s safe, true. I find the sketch work for the logo concept to be far more exciting than the finished, polished product; but that doesn’t mean that in this case it’s not going home with a medal.
(And you shall now also receive a medal for reaching the end of another epic graphic design post!)