Imagine a project that involves the world’s largest sporting event – a project estimated to be seen by 4 billion people that must bear the weight of expectation to “inspire and engage with a global audience”. That is the starting point for developing the brand identity for each Olympic and Paralympic Games.
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It’s not every day that a graphic designer gets the chance to contribute to the development of an iconic brand that encompasses an ideal, an emblem, a symbol, a logo and national identity all in the same product.
The graphic identity project for the Olympic and Paralympic Games is also unique because the brand has to live for several years before the actual sporting events take place.
The core graphic identity and thematic essentials of the Olympic brand for each Olympiad contribute to what is known as ”the Look of the Games”.
The London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics brand and vision were launched in 2007, signalling the start of the creation of 2012’s Look of the Games.
Wolff Olins, the agency responsible for creating the London 2012 brand and graphic identity, gave the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games a unified look and a new approach. For the first time, the emblems for both Games are based on the same core shape — a highly stylised number 2012 displaying the Olympic Rings and the name of the host city, London.
“The brand we created will shape the experience of 2012,” Wolff Olins says. “It will take the Games beyond sport, creating wider interest and even greater inspiration. It will create an event for everyone.”
The 2007 launch of the London 2012 brand did generate wider interest in graphic design, but not without controversy. Nearly 50,000 Britons signed a “Change the London 2012 Logo” petition in an online campaign to demand a change of logo. As they put it, “It is an embarrassment and portrays our country in the worst possible way.”
Since then, public dislike has quieted, the logo is unchanged, and at the London 2012 Opening Ceremony it will be displayed in its many forms.
Ben Hulse was the design manager for the 2010 Winter Olympics held in Vancouver, Canada.
The 32-year-old creative director, multi-disciplinary designer, photographer and musician worked for three years on the Vancouver 2010 brand identity project prior to the start of the Games. He has been watching the development of the London 2012 Look of the Games with interest.
“The Olympic Look of the Games is considered by many to be one of the most complex branding exercises in the world,” Hulse says. ”It tells a unique story about the host region and requires applications of incredible proportions.”
The London 2012 creative team is approaching the branding exercise from a different starting point than was used in Vancouver, he says.
“In the design work for London, it appears that they wanted to shed cliché or preconceived notions about the country by developing a more abstract, progressive identity,” Hulse says.
The challenge in the work for Vancouver 2010 was how to present Canada’s unique intersection of urban and natural environments, the diversity of its citizens and the aesthetics of the West Coast of North America.
“We are by comparison a new country,” Hulse says. “We were looking to help shape and create an identity for Canada with our branding work.”
The process to determine how to represent Canada had already begun in 2004, well before Hulse joined the team.
“When I came on board in 2007 a number of things were in place, such as the emblem, which was based on a Canadian Inuit symbol,” he says. ”It set the DNA for our project and was a backdrop for the work ahead. It was a good time to join.”
“I had no previous Games experience, and many on the creative team hadn’t been involved in earlier Games either,” Hulse says. ”We needed to develop a graphic system which would tell our story with a consistent yet flexible aesthetic for countless applications and mediums.”
Hulse and his colleagues on the Vancouver 2010 creative team embraced regional and national iconography “with a playful twist” in their work to create the Look of the Games identity system.
”We were given an overwhelming but strong creative brief from Ali Gardiner, the director of the brand, and Leo Obstbaum, our design director, and we started from there. It was a very interesting process.”
Development began with ethnographic field trips, library research and consultation with former Olympic design directors.
Hulse says the briefs prompted the team to “explore history while remembering that we are representing a specific time and place, pull from influences that will make the work feel fresh and current, and strive to balance a youthful approach with a timeless view of Canada”.
Ben Hulse and his colleagues on the Vancouver 2010 creative team embraced regional and national iconography “with a playful twist” in their work to create the Look of the Games identity system. The work to develop the brand identity for Vancouver 2010 took three and a half years.
The 2010 Look of the Games was apparent throughout Vancouver on banners, fences and buildings, as well as the Olympic venues.
The brand was featured on everything from pens, posters, apparel and sporting equipment to airplanes, ferries and thousands of vehicles. There were also applications for a new media generation, with the Look of the Games translated to small-screen handheld devices, as well as television and the Web.
The size of the creative department varied at different stages in the project.
“We went from a small group of 10 people — six designers, two product designers and a small video team — to around 30 people at our largest,” Hulse says. “Most of the other members who joined us were involved with project management, which gives an idea of the scale of this process.”
The team worked on thousands of unique “dockets” created to organize and track the immense workload in the computer system.
Apart from delivering on key games icons including the Olympic medals, podiums, torch and mascots, the creative team was used as an in-house agency servicing 50 different departments within the organisation.
Because of the size of the operation and the different layers of approval, Hulse and his colleagues “challenged each other a lot” to make sure they approached solutions from conceptual, aesthetic and practical perspectives before presenting ideas to senior management.
The work to develop the brand identity took three and a half years. Hulse says it also involved “a very long graphic standards manual” that was to be followed to the letter.
“The manual was almost too long and complicated to use,” he says. “It needed to be adhered to by so many different types of users — partners, producers and so on.”
Most of the brand identity work was carried out as group work.
“When I was contributing art direction on the Olympic Torch, there were three people in the room with me, each adding something to the process, it was very collaborative” Hulse says. “Projects have become much more interdisciplinary in general, and this was certainly the case with Vancouver 2010.”
One of the only solo pieces of work by Ben Hulse during the Vancouver 2010 branding process was the creation of the official Olympic poster.
An internal design competition for the Olympic poster concept was held with the director of design and judges from internal senior management and licensing. It was one of the few times that the design team did not work collaboratively.
“I pitched my idea for the poster, and it was selected as the winning concept,” Hulse says. “I had done my sketches 100 percent digitally, and our late design director Leo Obstbaum, who was from Spain, told me that he needed to ’smell the ink’ – that the poster concept was right, but it needed to feel more like a Warhol, like it had lived in the world before being reproduced.”
Over several weeks, Hulse stencilled and inked each element of the design by hand at a 1:1 ratio (61 mm x 91 mm) before digital assembly of the piece.
“It was a long process,” he says. “I’m really grateful Leo suggested doing the work by hand, because the final result became so much better as a result.”
Hulse says the best Olympic designs are ones that are executed in a timeless and restrained manner. For him, simplicity in communicating is essential.
“The London 2012 emblem is very clean, with everything in one mark and nothing hanging out,” he says. “From a functional point of view, this simplicity will make things easier in multiple applications.”
As the final touches are being put in place for London 2012, graphic designers around the world will be watching with interest to see which design elements from this Olympics will stand the test of time.
“Overall, I feel like the key pieces we did for Vancouver 2010 are very good and will retain an element of iconic timelessness,” Hulse says. “The medals, the Olympic Torch, the podiums and the official poster all took elements from the Look of the Games and expanded on them. I think these particular pieces will age gracefully.”
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