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Identity Crisis: London 2012

The past 50 years of graphic design in the Summer Olympics, and why the 2012 Games are already a disappointment.

By / Posted on 11 March 2011

London 2012 logoLong before telephone lines and the internet tethered the entire planet’s population 24/7, the global community met as ambassadors every four years in friendly competition. The Olympic Games are the original international arena, showcasing the very best of what the world has to offer, both athletically and culturally. Neutral ground allowed us to compare cultures, extend friendships, and share experiences with our brothers and sisters from around the world.

As media exposure has increased over the past fifty years, so has the public awareness of the Games. As such, the recent uproar regarding the branding for the 2012 Summer Games in London is only a little surprising. Worldwide controversy over an identity package speaks volumes about how we have all become connected through new technologies. Consider that up until only the past half-century the Games have been a relatively private affair, with most of the world only hearing of the events through news reports after-the-fact. Now we have live televised broadcasts on six channels, podcasts, blogs, livestreams…

The story of how the Olympic Games became a global multimedia phenomenon is more than just the story of technology. It is the story of graphic design.

Tokyo 1964 posterWhen commercially-televised broadcasts of the Olympic Games began in 1960, the Olympic committee suddenly realized problems they’d never considered before. As if it weren’t bad enough that Americans call “Soccer” what the English call “Football,” the event would also need to be translated and printed into every other language of Olympic participants/audiences. Pictograms came into play with the 1964 Games in Tokyo as a way to simplify signage and prevent confusion.

Tokyo pictograms

A year for worldly evolution, 1964 was the first time the Games were held in a non-Western nation. It also served as a formal introduction of the world to the new post-wartime Japan. With these new universal pictograms for an international audience, Tokyo also featured a bold and graphic poster design over the more illustrative images of Games past.

Munich 1972 posterTokyo set the bar for modern and universal design, but Munich cleared it a mere eight years later. Renowned art director Otl Aicher designed both the first-ever Olympic mascot (Waldi the daschund) as well as arguably the greatest collection of pictograms ever devised, in or out of sports.

Munich pictograms

Aicher’s clean geometry proved so efficient and popular on the global stage that the system was reused for the Montreal Games four years later and served as inspiration for public signage in airports and similar venues around the world. Similar to Tokyo, West German Government was eager to show Munich as the optimistic home of a bright new democracy, rid of the tainted image of the Nazi regime.

Posters 1980-2008

The 1980s proved so turbulent politically that graphic changes were kept at a minimum, perhaps to reduce the sense of unease in audiences (61 countries boycotted the 1980 Moscow Games after the Soviet war in Afghanistan, 14 Eastern Bloc countries boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles Games in retaliation, and 1988′s Games in South Korea saw tension due to continuing war with neighboring North Korea). Iconography these years was clearly inspired by Aicher’s set from 1972, with stylistic nuances for each respective city.

The past twenty years, while taking on a more classical tone in their posters with call-backs to traditional folk art, have seen a wide variety in abstraction of the iconography. See below, the same five events as portrayed at Sydney in 2000, Athens in 2004, Beijing in 2008, and London in 2012:

Pictograms, 2000-2012

With stark and hard-edged geometric graphics, the Olympic Organizing Committee claims that the London 2012 identity package is “about reaching out and engaging young people.” The attempt at reaching out seems almost desperate, as the graphics all seem to be somewhere between onscreen guides for Wii Sports and logos for a fashionable sporting goods store (unsurprisingly, Adidas is already breaking sales records for their officially-branded 2012 Olympic merchandise).

There’s no arguing that some of the icons from the past decade have been ugly or difficult to decipher, but at least they were consistent in design, with attention to well-distributed line weights, consistent forms and overall cohesiveness of the iconographic vocabulary. There was a sense of a universal character, one all-around ideal athlete demonstrating each of the events. 2012′s imagery lacks personality and seems to have no direction aside from “looking cool.” Some icons feature a great deal more detail or negative space than others, some seem to be recreating reference photos of events while others aim for a general feel of the movement. Why bother showing the headwear on the boxers, cyclists, fencers and equestrian riders? Are we worried the silhouettes might bump their heads? Are the other athletes not allowed to wear headwear?

And at the risk of seeming insensitive, you can’t tell me these icons don’t look just a little gay:

London 2012 Water Polo, Gymnastics, Judo, Triathalon and Sailing

London 2012 logoThe largest source of contention seems to be the logo, an attempt at an edgy-rendition of the numbers “2012″ that turns out to be almost illegible. A number of interest groups claim that the logo looks like the word “zion.” Others argue that it looks like a swastika. Some even claim it looks like Lisa Simpson performing a sexual act (of the three misreads, this is the one that, once seen, cannot be unseen). Fact is, this is a pure failure in execution, regardless of whether the concept was even halfway decent. What’s with the parallelogram in the middle? Is that supposed to be part of the second 2?

That the logo is intended to be displayed with any number of color combinations shows lack of confidence in the organization conceptually. That the demonstrated colors are stock CMYK values shows lazy and almost amateur design sense. Besides, CMYK refers to colors used in print design (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black) and, as history has progressed, these games are more about being on-screen and online than ever before, so basing your identity on print design seems aggressively obsolete.

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Derrick Sanskrit has produced critically-acclaimed work as an artist and writer for Nerve, Babble, Pitchfork, The Onion and the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, among others. He founded The Pop Aesthetic during the coldest months of his life in 2010.