Richard Williams on tendering for 2012

With the London 2012 Olympics set to put British design in the limelight, why have procurement officers blown this golden opportunity with nit-picking technicalities? Go back to 1972, says Richard Williams, and you’ll see how things should have been done

With the London 2012 Olympics set to put British design in the limelight, why have procurement officers blown this golden opportunity with nit-picking technicalities?  Go back to 1972, says Richard Williams, and you’ll see how things should have been done.


Some time ago I spent the weekend filling out Williams Murray Hamm’s London 2012 Olympics PQQ (pre-qualification and applicant shortlisting) application form. This is the first step in getting on to the 2012 design consultancy roster.

I slavishly answered every question as honestly as I could, meticulously inserting every interesting piece of work and every hard-won award, assuring them we’re not going bust next week and that if you nick your finger with a scalpel, at Williams Murray Hamm you get a week off and get sent for ‘accident in the workplace awareness training’. I have to say, at the end of it all – in spite of the inanities of this kind of form-filling – the whole application looked pretty good and, at 58, I could see my twilight years basking in the glory of fabulous posters and moving image work for this, the most important event since the Festival of Britain, when only the very best design will do.

All over the UK there were people like me doing the same. The darned document took a lifetime to complete and, in time, was followed by a short e-mail saying we hadn’t made it through the first hoop. OK, I could just take the pain. Someone better than us got the gig. I awaited the formal notification that arrived months later.

Horror of horrors. We’ve not been rejected because we’re not up to it, or because we don’t have experience in the right areas. No, it’s nothing like that. Here’s the fatal extract:

‘Design, Print, Copywriting and Distribution & Storage Framework. Lot 1

WMH failed on the following mandatory requirement(s):
Insufficient evidence of the Applicant’s understanding of RNIB’s guidelines for accessible design and print and experience in creating artwork that meets these needs.’


Surely this is a joke? Forgive my irritation, but the Royal National Institute of Blind People guidelines, as seen on the Web, are an absolute no-brainer to implement. What has actually happened is that some procurement officer has been looking for an excuse to eliminate as many businesses as possible from the 950 applicants and the RNIB guidelines are a simple trapdoor down which we fell. The computer says ‘no’.

Friends who run other design consultancies around the country, some of them with rooms full of creative awards, have had the same experience. The bloody RNIB artwork guideline got them all. This set me thinking that perhaps the Olympic Delivery Authority is approaching this the wrong way round. Instead of getting everyone under the sun to apply and then eliminating most of them on a technical point, wouldn’t it have been better to have appointed an inspired and respected design director, who would appoint their own hand-picked team and put them through a vetting process? Instead, they chose to follow the ‘EU Public Procurement Directives using the Restricted Procedure as described in the PCR’ (whatever that means).

Design for London 2012 is an opportunity to say something significant about the United Kingdom. The UK isn’t a nation at ease with itself and the games could be a cathartic moment in our lives. A simple search for best practice should have led the ODA to the Munich Olympics of 1972. The work of Otl Aicher’s team has never been matched at any of the subsequent games.

Its aim was to transform the image of post-war Germany and banish the legacy of the Nazi games of 1936. This work was driven by a view that may be old-fashioned today – that design has a greater role than mere marketing or decoration. It can transform perceptions.

Munich’s scheme was beautifully and joyously executed to every single element, from posters and ticketing to the smallest gifts. Led by a person who had faith in the power of the medium he was using and a will to change things, this must be the benchmark for 2012.

Instead, when the ODA gets round to hiring a design ringmaster, he or she will inherit a roster of designers whose one common skill is that they can make their way through the morass of form-filling and procurement cost controls.  it could be one of the biggest missed opportunities of the whole event.

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