Rings round time

There’s a great tradition of Olympic logos, but few recent examples have been inspiring works of graphic design. London 2012 should mark a return to form, argues Michael Johnson as he looks back at some old favourites

Now that the dust has settled a little after the five coloured rings landed around Big Ben rather than the Eiffel tower, it’s time to consider the design implications of the first UK-based Olympics of the modern era.

You’d be forgiven for raising your eyes to the heavens. After all, for the past decade or so, the words ‘Olympics’ and ‘good graphic design’ have hardly been synonymous. Atlanta (1996) offered us little apart from a generic torch symbol and a pastiche poster. In 2000, Sydney gave us a Ken Done-flavoured boomerang man. Athens? A hand-drawn ring of vines, unceremoniously plonked down on to winners’ heads. And Beijing has just decided to give us another man, this time in a quasi-woodcut shape, just to remind us that we’re east of the West. Not a very distinguished list, is it?

Once, the Olympics provided genuine design best practice, kicked off by Kamekura’s fabulously reductionist scheme for the games in Tokyo in 1964. By simply levitating a Japanese sun above the Olympic rings, he opened everyone’s eyes to the power of identity applied on an Olympian scale – pun intended.

But that was then. For two decades, the brush stroke branding popularised by Wolff Olins and Landor for 3i and La Caixa respectively in the 1980s has trickled inexorably downwards, like slow-setting identity cement. The brushes came out again for Barcelona’s obligatory ‘man jumping over Olympic rings’ in 1992, and we haven’t looked forward since.

By the Beijing games in 2008, we’ll have endured 16 years of men running in a similar, familiar style. This brush stroke banality usually features swooping shapes, a sense of motion, with perhaps some ribbons thrown in for good measure. In some respects, brush stroke banality does its job, because wherever you are in the world, it reaches out in a reassuringly familiar way. It reassures, saying, ‘You’re OK, you’re among friends, here are your slippers.’ It’s the modern equivalent of what the International Style became by the mid-1970s – effective, but deadly dull.

Now there’s an added complication: the bid logo. As bids have become ever more cut-throat, premature emphasis has been placed on logos for an event that may be nine years in the future. Once a bid has been accepted, its logo is ‘retired’ and the International Olympic Committee becomes the client proper, hence Beijing’s recent change. There’s sometimes a lingering aftertaste of the bid logos – the Aboriginal squiggle that hinted at the Opera House was retained to hover above ‘boomerang man’, leaving Sydney with a true kitchen sink of a logo for 2000.

The controversies surrounding the bid logos receive acres of press and blog coverage. You can read about the provenance of Ogilvy & Mather’s logo for New York’s 2012 bid, or track an on-line discussion of Paula Scher’s second-placed entry. Until quite recently, there was a John Nash and Friends sub-site for the disenchanted free-pitchers who submitted ideas for the London bid.

The truth of the shift from ‘bid logo’ to ‘country logo’ is this: once the bid is awarded, the games become an expression of a nation, not a city. But before the IOC embarks on that journey, it is worth looking back at the great Olympic identities to remind everyone that good design once seemed possible.

Designers the world over quite rightly revere Tokyo (1964) and Munich (1972) as keystones of modern systems design. Otl Aicher inspired a new generation of aesthetic modernists with his cool celebration of Univers, aided by a palette that removed red entirely (apparently as an anti-Nazi gesture). Three decades later, no one has adequately managed to redesign his set of symbols, now the default for information pictogram design. His scheme overshadows its successor in 1976 – Montreal’s symbol could easily have slipped off Aicher’s drawing board.

The bizarrely op-art scheme produced for Mexico in 1968, with the Huichol Indians as its progenitors, has swung full circle; once state of the art, by the 1980s it looked time-locked, but is now enjoying critical reappraisal.

I’d like to add one of my own favourites to the list – the work produced for the 1984 games. The logo dates from 1980 and still bears the scars of American modernism. But then matters improve dramatically with Arnold Schwartzman’s poster for the cycling event, which must rank as the finest photographic capture ever of the five Olympic circles.

But it’s the environmental applications developed by Sussman/Prejza that take the gold. A celebration of riotous fluorescent colours, perfectly expressing early 1980s Californian graphics and nascent postmodernism, they were so vibrant that books recording the work used specially modified pinks to ensure that the dayglo glories of the arenas came through.

What do we learn from our fab Olympic four? That great ‘fashion’ schemes, such as LA and Mexico, can capture the zeitgeist and wallow unashamedly in contemporaneous trends. Sometimes, there’s nothing wrong with that – let’s face it, what could be more ‘of a time’ than an Olympics? Both the LA and Mexico schemes benefited from a shortage of preparation, having been produced in less than two years. But the classic schemes of Tokyo and Munich thrived on unhurried, uncluttered thought, and up to five years of careful planning.

Designing a 2-D scheme in one decade when trying to anticipate the trends of the next is virtually impossible, of course. Hence the attractions of brush stroke bland.

But London deserves better. It’s one of the world’s greatest cities and a world centre for design. Luckily, London has time on its side. It can draw upon a vast pool of great designers, and could use many of them, not just a few. It could sort it all out next year and give someone six years to apply the scheme. Or it could leave the final decisions until as late as possible, to ensure that everything is of 2012, not 2007.

We should demand more of ourselves and the IOC. The bid logo was chosen by one committee to appeal to another. It was an ‘it’ll do’ solution. The trick next is to consider not that which will do, but that which will dare. l

Michael Johnson is design director of Johnson Banks

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