Plagiarist or not, Tokyo 2020 designer Kenjiro Sano doesn’t deserve this treatment

Sano says he agreed to withdraw his design to protect his family from “persistent attacks”, adding: “I feel the situation has become unbearable as a human being.”

Kenjiro Sano defends his logo in a press conference
Kenjiro Sano defends his logo in a press conference

Why did the Tokyo 2020 Olympic organisers decide to ditch their logo after just one month? Not because of plagiarism claims, they say, but because of “lack of public understanding” around the identity.

During the month it was in use, the logo’s designer Kenjiro Sano has faced accusations of copying from around the world, has had his back catalogue raked over and has became the focus of internet shaming.

Sano’s identity first hit a hurdle when Belgian designer Olivier Debie suggested that it was a copy of a logo he designed in 2011 for the Theatre de Liege.

Plagiarism claims still denied

Whether or not Debie’s accusations are justified (and he is reported to be suing the International Olympic Committee over the claims), both Sano and the Tokyo Olympics organisers have consistently denied any plagiarism – and continue to.

Announcing the decision to ditch the logo this week, Toshio Muto, director general of the Tokyo organising committee, said the move was being made not because of copying, but due to “lack of public understanding” around the identity (rather ironic considering the number of column inches it has received).

Muto said: “We have an understanding that the design shows enough evidence of being different [to other designs] and, as Mr Sano suggested, the design is recognised as being an original by Mr Sano and the design committee has agreed with this assessment.

Lack of public understanding

“However at the same time, when the issue has been expanded upon this far without gaining an understanding from the general public, we find this to be a problem.”

He concluded: “The decision to make a fresh start in creating a new logo seems to be the most appropriate.”

So the logo isn’t a copy – at least according to the Tokyo organisers.

Stadium design already ditched

So why drop it? And what is the result of this decision? The Olympic organisers now look like they couldn’t organise anything.

They have ditched the logo weeks after scrapping architect Zaha Hadid’s designs for the Olympic Stadium – just as they were about to start on site.

Spiralling costs killed off the project, although Hadid insists she had warned the organisers about this since being appointed in 2012.

Designer hung out to dry

And logo designer Kenjiro Sano, a D&AD award-winner this year and one of Japan’s leading designers, has had his reputation dragged through the mud.

Forced to go public to defend his Tokyo 2020 work, Sano has subsequently faced accusations that he used unauthorised images in his initial logo presentation (he’d hardly be the first), drew heavily from the motif of Costa Rica’s national museum in a logo he created for a Nagoya zoo (?!) and ripped off Jan Tschichold in his initial submissions (well if you’re going to steal, steal from the best).

In a statement on his website Sano says he agreed to withdraw the logo “to protect my family and staff from persistent attacks” adding: “I feel the situation has become unbearable as a human being.”

Trial by social media

Even if Sano is guilty of plagiarism – and it’s a big if – surely there are better ways of dealing with this than having the Olympic organising committee force him to publicly defend the design and then hang him out to dry and then ditch him, reportedly without payment.

Guilty or not, Sano has become the latest designer to suffer trial by social media – a brutal courtroom adjudicated by commentators with little understanding of the realities of huge design projects like this.

How would previous Olympic designers Otl Aicher or Deborah Sussman have fared on Twitter? What sort of hysterical reaction might Lance Wyman’s Mexico 1968 Olympic designs have received?

For identity designers, the public unveiling of a big logo project – and they don’t get any bigger then the Olympics – used to provoke feelings of excitement with an underlying fear.

Now no-one would be surprised if they only feel fear.

Discover more:

Tokyo Olympics scraps logo in plagiarism row

• Tokyo 2020 designer hits out at Olympic logo plagiarism claims

• Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic logos play with negative space

Hide Comments (8)Show Comments (8)
  • Paul Bailey September 3, 2015 at 10:08 am

    The treatment of Sano has been a disgrace. The committee who pulled the identity have very little idea about brand or design, or Public Relations for that matter.

    In my opinion Sano should publish the paper trail of development that led to the final design, showing the design process and disproving copying claims. He should then sue for defamation of character and professional impact this will have to his studio.

    Finally, maybe designers such as Olivier Debie should think long and hard about the effects their actions might have before they go public making such grand claims of copying.

  • Mark Magidson September 3, 2015 at 10:16 am

    I have huge sympathy for the logo designer as the plagiarism charge is more than tenuous.

    The stadium on the other hand closely resembles a rather expensive foot spar and would have been open to challenge.

  • John Scarratt September 3, 2015 at 10:20 am

    This is shameful behaviour on the part of an extremely defensive and selfish design community.

    This logo uses such basic shape forms that similarities with other marks is inevitable. In no way did Sano (or his family) deserve this.

  • Derek Johnston September 3, 2015 at 12:51 pm

    I agree with all of the comments above. It’s a noble design solution that stands apart and ABOVE the identity that claims plagiarism. I believe that Debie is simply seeking personal notoriety .

  • Dan Barber September 3, 2015 at 1:28 pm

    Wasn’t it Picasso who said “good artists borrow, great artists steal” ?

    • Derek Johnston September 3, 2015 at 3:57 pm

      Like all ad agencies : )

  • Mike Dempsey September 3, 2015 at 2:18 pm

    Wasn’t there a similar issue over Thomas Heatherwick’s Olympic flame and a US design firm?
    These similarities always crop up in the design world. I feel sad for both designers in this case.

  • Maxine Horn September 9, 2015 at 4:09 pm

    Lawyers said that changes to the design laws (which recently came into force) that now apply criminal sanctions for blatant copying would result in designers suing designers. Registered designs at least have some form of paper trail and time-stamping (whether national public service registration or private registration services), unregistered design rights (3D) and the vast majority of the world relying on unregistered copyright (2D), leave designers ever more vulnerable to accusations.

    It supports the argument / business case for irrefutable third party registration of designs & documentation in order to retain an evidence base and shut down claims rapidly. Designers should explore options open to them that are fast and low cost, such as Creative Barcode – not just for instances such as those suffered by Kenjiro Sano and Thomas Heatherwick before him, but also for commercial, cultural and historic record.

    A recent Design Week article was sparked by Mellor & Scott who sought to track down the original designer of the Neighbourhood Watch logo – article and outcomes here

    The original work was destroyed when the COI shut down it’s in-house studio and the Met Police (the original client) kept no records at all. The second generation designer Viv Wilcock was the closest anyone could get, and now that record at least exists. Mellor & Scott seeking to do the right thing in crediting the original designer when they significantly update the original brand, had a really tough and time-consuming task on their hands to locate the designers details and ensure correct attribution.

    Creating an IP record is easy – why do so few designers do it?

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