“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.” So said Seb Coe in a bid to stem the tide of criticism when the Wolff Olins Olympic logo was launched in 2007. What was extraordinary was not the level of criticism from within the design community but the frothing fury of the press as columnists queued up to rage against the LOCOG machine (almost always with mention of the reported £400,000 fee).
Take Jonathan Glancey from the Guardian arts blog for instance, who called it “fundamentally patronising,” created by designers “ fed up with the whole bullying, secretive, puerile London Olympics fiasco."
Contrasting it unfavourably with the original Olympic rings he pointed out: “The logo fails the Olympics spirit completely. Its component parts are broken apart, while the Olympics are all about athletes, spectators and nations joining together.” Others likened it to a swastika, to Lisa Simpson doing something unspeakable and even covert propaganda on the charge that it looks like “zion.”
For Wolff Olins who designed it, the backlash was not unexpected (although the scale and nature of it was). This was a brand, not a logo we were told, built to make sense in 2012 not 2007. “It is unconventionally bold, deliberately spirited and unexpectedly dissonant, echoing London’s qualities of a modern, edgy city," reads their website. "Containing neither sporting images nor pictures of London landmarks, the emblem shows that the Games are more than London, more than sport…The emblem is designed to be populated, to contain infills and images, so it is recognizable enough for everyone to feel and be part of London 2012.”
But the critics were not to be placated. Shortly after it was unveiled, Adrian Shaughnessy on Design Observer dismissed it as “a solid gold stinker” which looked “as if it has been designed by a committee desperate to prove its street credentials.” He went on: “It is a clumsy, oafish design; a self-conscious gesture of forced trendiness that failed every test you can apply to a new logo: clarity, precision, memorability.”
But in 2008 Adrian met Wolff Olins’ chairman Brian Boylan and creative director Patrick Cox and reassessed some of his previous vitriol. “I still think it’s a mistake,” he wrote, “but my gripe with it has always been aesthetic: the drop shadows and the garish buzz of the nu-rave colours make it into a visual irritant rather than an inspirational graphic statement. “And yet, the Web 2.0 philosophy that underpins it—users are encouraged to make their own versions of it—is inspirational, and a blast of freshness into the airless world of stodgy brand thinking.” He has continued to modify his original reaction in the latest issue of Creative Review.
So what about the rest of us? Sceptics have remained – two years ago Alice Rawsthorn in The New York Times called it “the graphic equivalent of… dad dancing” and comment threads on stories about the logo make for interesting reading.
“The logo fails the Olympics spirit completely. Its component parts are broken apart, while the Olympics are all about athletes, spectators and nations joining together.”
But while champions of the logo once relied very much on its ability to stir up graphic design debate as its greatest strength, other voices have come forward with more nuanced reflections.
On Creative Bloq designer Joe Stone wrote: “The brilliant use of the CMYK-inspired colour scheme also goes against the tradition of using the host nation’s colours, saving us from yet another lame use of the Union Jack plastered across a brand identity.”
And he says the accusations that it is ugly mirrors the London’s own aesthetic shortcomings. “London itself was never designed to be aesthetically pleasing. It’s a mesh of organically grown streets full of different styles and cultures. It’s not an ugly city by any means, but it’s not ‘pretty’. I think the logo with its sharp angles, strong shapes, defined edges and bright colours does a great job of representing the actual traits of London.”
I am not sure I like it but as a visual shorthand it’s easily spotted amid the visual assault of all things Olympic. Having had to be signed off by various high-powered commercial interests – all of whom needed it to work with their identities – it was never going to be the most cutting-edge piece of graphic design. And even if it hasn’t quite come into its own in the way we were promised in 2007 it does seem far less jarring than it originally appeared. And you’re right Seb, it’s certainly not bland…