Why designing an Olympic logo is so difficult (revisited)

The first logo identifying the Olympic games was created by its founder, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, in 1913. The familiar five coloured interlocking rings symbolise the participating continents and ‘flags of all nations’ united in sports. Its simplicity and clarity have continued to deliver the values of the Olympics brand, and the main challenge to the designers appointed to create new symbols of each host city is in retaining the integrity of the original while adding their own unique imagery.

With every design, we all have an opinion, which we are of course entitled to. Personally, I think the simpler the design the more aligned it is with the comparative simplicity of the original rings. My favourite and one of Milton Glaser’s (well respected USA designer) is the 1964 Tokyo design with its simple shaded red rising sun. My least favourite is the Wolf Olins’ (UK design group) 2012 design comprising 4 sharp shapes representing the numbers in the year 2012. I find it jarring and that it somehow ignores the five rings, instead focussing on the date.** Personally, I think that matters, a date does not identify the character of a city. The rings are the very foundation of the Games and I like that it visually holds the hand of those logos that follow.

I was not alone with my opinion of the 2012 design. It was quoted as looking like a swastika and the word zion. Jonathan Glancey from Guardian arts blog said it was ‘fundamentally ‘patronizing’ and ‘fails the Olympic spirit completely’. Adrian Shaughnessy of Design Observer called it a ‘solid gold stinker ‘ and a ‘clunkey oafish design’.

I am, of course, curious about how logos are designed and about the messages they carry. Some of these are deliberately incorporated by the designers but we humans have been working with symbols for thousands of years and I think we unconsciously incorporate details and rituals as we design and deliver. I write about this sort of thing in my books. It amuses me to think that in the year of the contentious 2012 London logo, that perhaps the original logo was boosted. I wrote of this in my book Identify Yourself.

Some months before the London Olympics in 2012, a barge carrying a huge Olympics logo, costing £930,000, travelled down the Thames. Measuring eleven metres high, the glowing display sailed at dawn through the centre of London past iconic landmarks including the Tower of London, HMS Belfast and Tower Bridge. When we consider this event more closely it could be more than a publicity stunt. Water is a powerful liquid that, according to Japanese researcher Masaru Emoto, has been shown to hold memory. Emoto spent nearly 20 years studying the effect of consciousness on water and found that words, sounds, thoughts and emotions had an effect on the molecular structure of water. For example, water from a container labelled with Evil on it formed globular shapes when frozen whereas water from a container with the words Thank you formed beautiful snowflake shapes.

The French immunologist Jacques Beneviste provided evidence that water that once contained biological molecules retained the effect of these molecules after extensive dilution meant they no longer physically existed in it. This, of course, is the premise behind homeopathy.

Could the journey of the original Olympics logo have carried the energy of the Olympics history along one of the world’s most famous waterways to prepare the space 150 days before the event? What prompted the choice of the original symbol of five rings, which interlock to form the sacred symbol known as a vesica piscis and symbolising the feminine, rather than the controversial 2012 logo? Interestingly the Games became the first at which every sport had female competitors.

Why 150 days before the event? I asked numerologist Bonni Southey for her take on the number 150 and she said: ‘The numbers within 150 days represent a subtle communication of a powerful, intentional path of leadership and success — the 1 and the 5 engender pioneering, winning, strong yet flowing activity. All of this impulse is further empowered and completed by the zero, making the slow passage of the barge a very deliberate and intentional international communication of a winning intention. All the numbers add up to a 6 which talks about legend and legacy.’ I don’t know what the date was or I would have asked an astrologer.

Why was dawn chosen for the timing, the start of a new beginning? Was there any significance of the short journey through the heart of the City of London, one of the world’s most important financial centres? The 2012 logo is the only one I can find that makes the year the primary focus. In 1968, Mexican designers integrated the date figures but they also included the original Olympics logo as an integral part of the design. 2012 adds to 5, knows as a magical number, and was regarded as the end-date of a 5,126-year-long cycle in the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar. Perhaps it did symbolise the dawn of some sort of new beginnings. Great Britain did do very well even taking into account the home advantage.