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Adrian Shaughnessy | Essays

The 2012 Olympic Logo Ate My Hamster

Cover from The Sun, Wednesday June 6, 2007.

Three days after the launch of the logo for the 2012 London Olympics, Britain's biggest selling tabloid newspaper still regards the furor surrounding the new symbol as front-page news. Not only is it widely regarded as a badly designed logo, but nearly 30,000 people have signed an online petition demanding its withdrawal. And now, in its animated form, it is said to cause epileptic attacks.

Designers often bemoan the lack of coverage given to graphic design in mainstream media. Yet when design catches the attention of journalists and commentators it usually results in a vicious mugging rather than hearty praise. Since the organisers of the 2012 London Olympics unveiled their new logo (or 'brand' as they call it), we Brits have been treated to our national press in fixed-bayonets assault mode. This is normally an unappetising sight, but on this occasion — although it wounds me to say it — the self-righteous indignation of the British press is justified. The London 2012 logo is a solid gold stinker.

Earlier this week, the in-boxes of British designers filled up with links to the London 2012 website and with messages of incredulity from fellow designers. I went to the site determined to maintain an open mind. I wanted to like it, to swim against the tide and defend it against instantaneous dismissals by friends and colleagues. Surely it would have some redeeming features?

I logged on expecting a typo-illustration — the sort of coy, wafty thing you see at the end of CNN TV commercials from countries with questionable human rights records. Instead, I got a piece of clumsy, oafish design; a self-conscious gesture of forced trendiness that failed every test you can apply to a new logo: clarity, precision, memorability. The Wolf Ollins 'brand' for the London 2012 Olympics looks as if it has been designed by a committee desperate to prove its street credentials.

The London 2012 chairman, Sebastian Coe (Lord Coe, a former athlete, and a former Conservative MP) announced: "We don't do bland. This is not a bland city. We weren't going to come to you with a dull or dry corporate logo that will appear on a polo shirt and we're all gardening in it, in a year's time. This is something that has got to live for the next five years." The logo is an example of the sort of design you get when politicos and business people try to be hip. What we've ended up with is a logo commissioned by middle-class suburbanites who do 'gardening in polo shirts.' In other words, it's a laughable attempt at 'cutting edge' design.

For Brits there's nothing new in the spectacle of the press rounding on new logos. In today's Independent, an article appears entitled "Design disasters: logos that proved a flop." It lists British Airways ethnic tail fins (famously despised by that well-known design critic Margaret Thatcher), and Wolf Ollins' 1991 'prancing piper' logo for British Telecom. Wolf Ollins must be getting used to appearing on the front of The Sun: at the time the prevocational tabloid ran the headline 'BT blows £5m on a trumpet.'

But in the era of the Internet, the reprisals for getting it wrong are even harsher. The organisers clearly attempted to use the viral power of the internet to spread awareness of the new logo and to encourage participation: visitors to the site are encouraged to create their 'own designs' and post the results. But rather than leading to a mass acceptance, the internet has provided a forum for vast numbers of people to bite the organisers: it has become a platform for Olympic bashing — and rightly so. This is public money.

Both the left and right wing press seem determined to damn the new logo (The Guardian also carries the epilepsy story on it's front page). The emotive language of the logo's detractors is widely and gleefully quoted: 'toilet monkey,' 'broken swastika,' 'some sort of sex act between The Simpsons.' Supporters are hard to find amongst the vitriol and abuse, but there are some advocates. The Creative Review blog has comments from both sides of the argument. Peter Saville has given it his languid approval ('incredibly noticable, brave and confrontational'), and the leading British designer Michael Johnson wrote a lukewarm appraisal in The Guardian. ("It's trying to be 'vibrant' and 'youthful'," he argues. "The website suggests you download bits for children to colour in. When animated it has an edginess not normally associated with the Olympics.") The Independent reports the existence of two petitions devoted to supporting the logo. noting among other things that "... they attracted 70 signatures in total, many of which seemed false including Ms. Lisa Simpson, of Springfield, USA."

The gist of the arguments from the logo's champions is that it at least the marque has the virtue of stirring up debate and controversy. But this is a facile defence and plays into the hands of branding and marketing people who will see the London 2012 logo as a dazzlingly successful paradigm of hype and spin. Wolff Olins have been silent on the matter. They are rumoured to have been paid £400,000 for their work. Why should they worry? Their phone is probably white hot with calls from corporations desperate to gain a fraction of the PR that their 2012 logo has generated. Meanwhile, yet again, graphic design skulks off into the corner wearing a cap with a D on it: D for dreadful.

Posted in: Cities + Places, Graphic Design, Internet, Journalism, Sports


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