Monday, July 27, 2009

Drawing on the Five Rings

The Olympics conjure up lots of opinions, thoughts and views. Known for outstanding athletic achievement, unity, politics and even scandal, it is often passionate comments that flow upon hearing the word Olympics. Beyond its own iconic five rings, logos and design, however, are often not the first thoughts to spring to mind when ‘Olympics’ is discussed. Though the use of the word logo is a stretch, the London 2012 logo may have changed that.

A logo is an image that provides instant recognition and understanding to the viewer. It creates an instant thought that provides a positive or negative reaction. Over the history of the modern Olympics, organizers used coats of arms, games posters and national symbols to represent their games. The first logo, or unique singular image, came at the Squaw Valley winter games of 1960. They used a simple design of red, blue and yellow triangles with the five rings. It can be argued Tokyo’s games of 1964 had this singular image too though it was simply the rising sun with the Olympic rings. The first true, unique and singular image used for a Summer Olympiad was for Munich in 1972. Munich’s organizers created a whole design theme for the games based on its funky, 70s inspired spiral logo. This fed not only into posters, which still stand out today as some of Olympic history’s best and most colourful, but also tied into the flowing design of the Olympic park that maintains a modern, fluid feel to this day.

Munich inspired a change in how Olympic logos were created. They were now on to themselves meant to be iconic images as opposed to simple symbols meant to adorn letterhead. The examples are numerous. Calgary’s 1988 snowflake made of interlocking C’s to represent Calgary and Canada, as well as the small cowboy boots depicted at the end of each arc, carried with it not only images of winter but of the sturdiness of the new west. These logos have depicted motion and energy like those of the summer games of Los Angeles, Seoul and Barcelona. The move lately has been back to the use of elements directly representative of the host city such as the opera house and aboriginal roots of Sydney’s in 2000, the olive wreath of Athens in 2004, Torino’s Mole Antonelliana in 2006, or the inukshuk of this February’s games in Vancouver. Each era has created emblems simple yet elegant in design but with powerful, clear messaging about the host city and the event itself. They have been true logos that provide the instant recognition, strength and credibility I discussed earlier.

The point here isn’t a history lesson but rather a foil for the sheer disappointment of London’s 2012 logo (again, very hard to type the word ‘logo’ next to London 2012). It is hoped then that the use of the 2012 design does not indicate a turn in another direction, one that leaves us without a sense of wonder about the host city, a vision for the future or the passion generally evoked by the Olympic Games. As my artistic abilities have not evolved past grade two stickmen, I always joke that anything I could draw or design should not be fit for public consumption. This definitely meets that test. A classic, historical city with a strong Olympic past should be at the leading edge of design; not attempting to create a brand and legacy around what can only be described as an error. An error of judgment and imagination that moves Olympic logo design to a sad place it has historically never been, and hopefully will never return to again.

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