Olympic Design: Lamer, Vaguer, Duller

February 10, 2010

Once every four years, people around the world rediscover their passion for curling, speed skating, and skeleton luge.  I’ll certainly be tuning in to the Olympics to see my favorite skippers and sweepers, but I’ll also be on the lookout for excellence in Olympic design, or at least a few mediocre examples.

Olympic host cities face a difficult design challenge: they must capture the essence of their nation’s people, place and history, while simultaneously expressing openness and invitation to the entire world.  They must offer a few core elements of their culture and country without running the risk of possibly offending anyone.

The organizers of this Olympiad must try to please innumerable constituencies within Canada and around the world. This is design by committee on the world’s biggest stage.  The Vancouver organizers gave a nod to their native Arctic population in their logo.  While you can learn a interesting story about the Inukshuk, most people will only see a multicolored person–one with a less-than-Olympic physique.

Designers do best when they work with clear constraints and goals.  When they are forced to accomplish everything and please everyone, they default to vague shapes, multiple colors, and make no real statement. You get swooshes, stickmen and butterflies. The results are entirely forgettable.

This always  happens during the bidding process, as countries work overtime to please their backers at home and appeal to the highly political IOC selection committee.

Before we give up on this design challenge, let’s remember that new beginnings are part of the Olympic ideal. Sochi 2014 has a url in its logo, and I like what the London Organizers are doing for 2012.  After the grandeur and formality of the games in Beijing,  London is calling for a return to raw sporting fun in 2012.

The logo took a lot of heat when it was released in 2007, but I applaud the designers for taking a chance.  The logo skips the pointless graphic element, sticks to two colors, and might even be in style by 2012.  Cheers to the London organizing team and designers at Wollf Olins for taking a chance.  What’s the risk?  Everyone already likes the logo that they remember.