“It was a strange moment in time”: Wolff Olins on London 2012 ten years later

Wolff Olins global CEO Sairah Ashman discusses the design process, backlash and legacy of the London 2012 Olympics brand on its tenth anniversary.

Just before Wolff Olins launched its brand for the London 2012 Olympics, the studio refreshed its website in anticipation of a “a little bit of traffic”, recalls global CEO Sairah Ashman. The consultancy had perhaps underestimated the amount of attention it was about to receive –⁠ within half an hour, its website crashed. It was just the start of a backlash so extreme that some of its designers had to be rehoused.

The design process leading up to that point had been exciting if a little unusual, Ashman explains. Former Wolff Olins chairman Brian Boylan led the £400,000 project, while Patrick Cox was the most senior designer involved. Given the top-secret level of the job, the team was sectioned off at the office, meaning that the work was carried out in isolation.

London 2012 Olympic medals. Courtesy of Wolff Olins

Unsurprisingly, this created difficulties. “A big part of doing great creative work is to get to bounce ideas around,” Ashman says. The team worked like this for the best part of a year, locked away and only emerging for breakfast and lunch. The rest of the studio cheered them on, but they didn’t entirely know what they were up to. Another complexity was working with the raft of stakeholders an Olympic project inevitably brings: the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) and the International Olympics Committee (IOC).

Olympic branding is a sweet spot for many designers. From Lance Wyman to Yusaku Kamekura, Olympic masterminds hold a special place in the industry. But the legacy of the Games wasn’t particularly helpful for Wolff Olins. Neither was London’s more obvious iconography; there wasn’t going to be any reference to Big Ben. “This was to be an Olympics like never before,” Ashman says, “so you can’t draw down on history.” Instead the team hoped to engage with a young crowd, showcasing accessibility. The ambition was to sum up the city’s vibe at the time –⁠ what Cox would refer to as “my beautiful, disobedient London.”

The logo on a T-shirt. Courtesy of Wolff Olins

While the Olympics took place in 2012, the branding was designed five years earlier. London in 2007 was a very different place from today – a time before the 2008 recession, Brexit and coronavirus. “We had to take a run at what the world was going to feel like then, and to our minds we were optimistic about that,” Ashman says about designing the brand in advance. With guidance from LOCOG president Sebastian Coe, the aim was to go for a look that would attract younger people and “not be so elitist” in its focus. “It had traditionally been about Olympians, incredible human beings competing, and not really about us on the street,” she adds.

Wolff Olins now describes the colourful, jagged logo as “bold, spirited and dissonant, reflecting London’s modern, urban edge”. Opinions differed at the time. People condemned it as dated, illegible or too ‘80s. Thousands signed a petition to scrap the logo, brand footage was withdrawn amid fears it triggered epileptic fits and politicians called for a rethink. While the branding had some champions, the immediate response was overwhelmingly negative. How did Wolff Olins feel? “You can’t expect everyone to love what you’re doing,” Ashman says. “And we didn’t expect them to, but we did want people to notice it.” Some journalists were “particularly savage”, Ashman notes. For the general public, she believes the “shock of the new” had an impact.

“You’d love to grab a microphone and be able to tell the whole story”

Courtesy of Wolff Olins

One of the frustrations at the time was that Wolff Olins was not able to discuss the work publicly. “Obviously, you’d love to grab a microphone and be able to tell the whole story,” Ashman admits, while noting that there were good reasons not to – chiefly that while they had worked on the design, the branding didn’t belong to them. But an explanation from the studio may have helped people understand the work –⁠⁠ which was part of a wider brand, and not simply the logo which most people focussed on.

She also believes that it elicited some of the best and worst behaviour in the design industry. On the positive side, there was thoughtful, constructive feedback about what it takes to create good work, Ashman explains. But the negative reaction went beyond the now-standard internet takedowns which follow a controversial logo reveal. Designers were chased and doorstepped. Ashman says that they had to move people out of their homes temporarily to give them a break. “It was a strange moment in time.” It hasn’t hurt Wolff Olins in the long-run; Ashman says that clients often “want an Olympics” and  designers have joined the studio on the back of the work.

A poster from the Games. Courtesy of Wolff Olins

It’s impossible to talk about the London 2012 logo without discussing Lisa Simpson – many noted how the logo looked like the cartoon character engaged in a sex act. “We could see the humour back then,” she says. “And we photographed a lot of it for posterity to make sure that we always stay grounded.” There were of course, less amusing interpretations – including comparisons to a swastika and SS symbols.

Lost among the controversy was a key feature of the logo: its flexibility. One of the main reasons people came round to the branding, Ashman believes, is because they were able to see the logo in context with branding. For example, the designers were particularly proud of the branding’s adaptability – the logo could be easily adapted by taking on a sponsor’s colour, like the black and white tones of Adidas. It was also rare in that it embedded the Olympic rings inside rather than outside the logo –⁠ a feature only shared with the Mexico 1968 Olympics –⁠ which afforded another degree of flexibility. If an organisation did not have the permission to use the rings, they could be dropped.

“It got the whole world talking five years before the event was even happening”

Courtesy of Wolff Olins

By the time the Olympics rolled around five years later, the brand had been developed widely by other design studios. The branding was applied to tickets, retail spaces and Olympic venues. This marked a shift in perception for the much-maligned work, according to Ashman. “As some of the other pieces came together, so did the big idea behind it –⁠ participation,” she says.

Amid the backlash, was there ever a moment when the designers felt like they had made a mistake? Ashman, ten years later, is resolute that it was the right way to go. “I don’t want that to sound arrogant, I just think we felt confident about the idea and didn’t feel like a lot of people had had enough time to get used to what was a very new idea for the Olympics,” she explains. It also helped that they had the full backing from the various organising committees. “I wouldn’t feel nearly so proud if we’d done something that we couldn’t be talking about ten years after the event,” Ashman adds, pointing out that London has never been home to “boring or forgettable” culture.

Courtesy of Wolff Olins

But perhaps the biggest boon to the brand was just how fondly everyone viewed the Games that summer. It’s hard to gauge an overall mood-lift an Olympics provides for a nation, but LSE research found that the 2012 Games had “a sizeable but short-lived effect on happiness”. According to a new survey, 81% of people believe it was right to invest in the Olympics and 79% are proud of its legacy. To mark the ten-year anniversary, London mayor Sadiq Khan is leading a celebration at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, which will be a focal point for anniversary celebrations. It’s likely that Wolff Olins’ logo will be in the public imagination once more, if it ever even left.

“We’re not proud of the controversy, but in retrospect, it’s great that it got so much attention in a way that these things never normally do,” Ashman says. It’s true that the saga piqued an interest in design and its value. And in terms of attention and PR, the logo was a runaway success. “It got the whole world talking five years before the event was even happening,” she adds. “I’m not sure that has happened before –⁠ in terms of generating eyeballs and interest.”

Hide Comments (12)Show Comments (12)
  • Neil Littman June 24, 2022 at 8:26 am

    Time hasn’t been kind to the London 2012 Olympics brand and I dislike it as much as I did at the time it was launched. One aspect of the controversy surrounding the design, which the article doesn’t mention is that around that time I heard that Wolff Olins, who I have always respected very highly, were selected to design the branding because they were a consultancy who the public might have heard of. I remember there was a public competition for entries as well and some of them were very good solutions. I think basically the wrong consultancy were chosen for the wrong reasons.

  • Carl St. James June 24, 2022 at 10:38 am

    The designers should be proud of what they achieved. It remains a timeless logo with some forward thinking ideas such as the heavy use of gradiants which in 2007 was not common across graphic design.

    The 2012 Olympics was the one of the few moments this century where, coupled with the incredible opening ceremony, the country actually came together and felt proud to live here.

  • David Woods June 24, 2022 at 11:16 am

    I’ll definitely put my hand up as someone who initially thought the logo was terrible. With the jagged edges, the lurid colours and asymmetrical hard shadow, it felt like a self-conscious, slightly embarrassing attempt to be ‘cool’ by people who were old enough to know better. I changed my opinion, however, as soon as I saw it used as a container. I still didn’t like it in isolation but, as a frame, it could hold pretty much anything and still be recognisable. Overall, IMHO, it was a very clever, very flexible piece of design.

  • Rana Brightman June 24, 2022 at 3:01 pm

    Wolff Olins at its best! London 2012 truly changed the game in terms of its iconic design but also the strategic intent behind it. It signalled a new type of Olympics unlike any other. In my rather biased eyes I think it’s a cracking example of transformative brand work and will certainly live to tell its story for generations to come.

  • DC June 24, 2022 at 3:29 pm

    “I just think we felt confident about the idea and didn’t feel like a lot of people had had enough time to get used to what was a very new idea for the Olympics.”

    10 years ago it didn’t work… and 10 years later now that I’ve had “enough time to get used to what was a very new idea for the Olympics” it really still doesn’t work.

  • BG Brand Esq. June 27, 2022 at 9:34 pm

    Unfortunately, I still see the same image now as I did every time I saw the blinkin’ thing at the time – an old man stooping to pick up litter. And I’m afraid it still gives me the heaves.

  • Darren L June 28, 2022 at 11:05 am

    As someone who worked with the logo on a daily basis in the run up to the Games, it certainly has kept me in long conversations with various designers and directors up and down the land over the following years. One especially–whom shall remain nameless–that said to me any creative who defended the logo let alone worked with it should reconsider their career in design! It seems emotions really do run deep when it comes to creating things that cause a bit of a stir.

  • mike dempsey June 29, 2022 at 8:51 am

    The simple truth is the sheer visual saturation of this brand on the public makes it indelibly imprinted on our hard drive and all the statistics listed by Sairah Ashman may be impressive but, the fact remains the creative community at the time viewed this piece of work as an embarrassment. A view reflected by all of the designers I knew in the graphics community back then. Everyone felt it was the one national design project that deserved something truly exceptional. Unfortunately, the brand was crowned with that underwhelming logo. And seeing it again does not change my view.

  • Neil Littman June 30, 2022 at 8:15 am

    Think it’s a testimony of some sort that this has been one of the most commented about posts on DW for some time. Enough said!

  • Daniel Gana July 8, 2022 at 9:00 pm

    Un diseño rupturista e innovador, adelantado. Recoge toda la percepción contestataria de la cultura londinense, me acuerdo que en su momento dije que era un “logo punk”… Creo que en sí mismo es toda una lección de diseño, del diseño como debe ser, atrevido e innovador. ¡Fantástico!

    Trad.: A groundbreaking and innovative design, advanced. It gathers all the oppositional perception of the London culture, I remember that at the time I said that it was a “punk logo”… I think that in itself it is a lesson in design, in design as it should be, daring and innovative. Fantastic!

  • DJ August 2, 2022 at 6:45 am


  • Steven October 20, 2023 at 11:26 am

    I’ve just seen this article and it riles me that Wolff Olins is still taking all the credit for the identity ten years on and more now!. They only did the logo and font.

    FutureBrand designed the final ‘identity’ when Wolff Olins lost the project after the backlash they received. FB was quickly drafted in to revise the designs and only retained the font and logo, because the sponsors needed to start using them well in advance of the opening ceremony and the general public were clearly now very aware of their design.

    The 80s kids TV show graphics WO launched was replaced with a maturer, cleaner and more easily implementable identity based on the pictograms created by SomeOne (another agency that deserves far more credit too).

    FB then worked solidly for three years thereafter, implementing every brand touchpoint that we all saw on our screens and in the stadium on July 2012. The uniforms, livery for the golden plane, BMW shuttle cars, the count-down clock in Trafalgar square, wayfinding, podium and venue graphics etc. none of this was done by Wolff Olins, who have cleverly removed the disastrous launch video and any early concepts from the web, so perpetuating this false impression that they were the sole designers of the 2012 identity.

    Credit where it’s due.

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