Design and the London Olympics: a winning combination?

Will designers remember London’s Olympics as fondly as they do those of Mexico, Munich and LA? Not without an improved tendering process and a creative director…

Will designers remember London’s Olympics as fondly as they do those of Mexico, Munich and LA? Not without an improved tendering process and a creative director…

Of the 29 modern Olympic Games to have been staged since 1896, only a handful have resonated as pieces of classic design. Mexico 68, Munich 72, and LA 84 are perhaps the most celebrated in terms of their visual communi­cations, each one the result of a determined creative vision. London 2012 offers the opportunity to add a fourth to this illustrious canon but there are major doubts about its ability to do so.

Mexico 68 pictograms

London’s Wolff Olins-designed logo has already proved divisive, there are rumours of public votes determining the choice of mascot and, more recently, designers have voiced complaints that the way they apply for Olympic tenders, through the CompeteFor website, is faceless, bureaucratic and ultimately flawed.

So what’s gone wrong? Are designers right to bemoan the lengthy form-filling and Pre-Qualification Questionnaires of contem­porary public sector projects? Is the CompeteFor site actually serving to distance designers from even applying for Olympics work? Perhaps, more import­antly, we should ask what needs to be done to ensure that London’s 2012 legacy reflects the best of today’s British design.

First, some background. The London 2012 Games are being delivered by two key organis­ations: the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA), the body responsible for developing and building the venues and infrastructure of the Games, and the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG), the group responsible for prepar­ing and staging the Games.

Supplying these organ­isations clearly presents a massive under­taking and so, in January last year, the London Development Agency (LDA – the mayor’s agency responsible for driving the capital’s sustainable growth) set up the online tendering website CompeteFor, to act “like a dating agency matching buyers throughout the 2012 supply chain with potential suppliers”.

After registering on the site, all suppliers – including designers – fill in an extensive range of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions in five sections which ask for details of studios’ insurance, health and safety policies, ownership and employee diversity, and – though not compulsory – details on company demographics, including sexual orient­ation and race.

Each supplier is required to describe in a maximum of 255 characters the “core capability of your organisation” – ie what they do – and, within 600 characters, provide some marketing text for the organisation, alongside three jpegs of work. All this information goes towards creating a Business Profile (which will then be matched with potential business opportunities) and, ultimately, a shortlist of potential suppliers, based on a percentage score.

Mexico 68 poster

As cold as that process sounds, it’s easy to see how bringing the complex business of splicing suppliers and clients together might be made easier online. London 2012 estimate that as many as 75,000 different contracts will be available, with CompeteFor tasked particularly with ensuring that Small and Medium Sized Enterprises (SMEs) are able to apply for a large proportion of the tenders, which is no bad thing.

(Indeed, in August last year Director magazine reported that 18,000 businesses had registered on CompeteFor and, of those, 78 per cent were smes with less than 50 staff, while 98 per cent had less than 200 staff).

At the present time, however, the sheer range of jobs advertised on CompeteFor is overwhelming. There are contracts to provide all elements of the Olympics from, for example, security fencing, plumbing and fire-fighting equipment, to supplying photocopiers, the gold, silver and bronze medals, and even fresh sausages. Design, it would seem, fits in somewhere alongside the electrical equipment and the foodstuffs – and those with experience of applying for creative work via the website have reported discernibly mixed reactions.

Kate Wooding, of digital branding agency Tictoc, recognises the importance of the pqqs that go hand-in-hand with public sector work, but thinks that it’s the procurement departments themselves, rather than the smes they seek to attract, who are often underprepared.

“We’ve noticed a real push from the companies who are involved providing services around the tendering processes to make smes aware of public sector opportunities,” she says. “I think this partly comes from their own commercial interests – making their services valuable to a larger number of companies – but also from government, who want to make public sector opportunities ‘open to all’.

“The consequences of opening the process up haven’t really been thought through, and the implications for the poor public sector procure­ment departments who now have to find a way to deal with huge shortlists and reading through hundreds of PQQs hasn’t been appreciated. We’re involved in a number of tender processes that have been delayed at the PQQ shortlisting stage because they’ve received far more submissions than they expected – and having received them, they have to treat them fairly and equally.

“In the specific case of CompeteFor, it’s great that commercial opportu­nities around the Olympics are being made ‘easier’ for smes to compete for. But it’s been made so easy that the process isn’t a useful one, and the companies involved aren’t given an opportunity to demon­strate their credentials, which makes a mockery of the process,” she argues.

LA 84 logo

According to an ODA spokesperson, the whole point of CompeteFor is to be “fair, open and trans­parent about how we procure our direct contracts and this helps create a level and competitive playing field for contracts within our supply chains. This simple and easy-to-use system is about creating unprecedented access to new business opportu­nities, relationships and company development.”

Perhaps more worrying is the experience of Paolo Amoroso, creative director at Zoo Media, who applied to design a corporate website via Compete­For. “I received a pretty standard rejection email,” he explains. “It stated that our score was 100 per cent, that the average score was 100 per cent but we didn’t get through. When I asked for feedback, I was told ‘the supplier had so many agencies with 100 per cent, they simply chose the first ten alpha­betically to take into the next round’. We start with a ‘Z’ so had no chance.

“To be fair to the lady I spoke to, she was apologetic and explained that the client made the decision to pick alphabetically, not Compete­For, as there were so many 100 per cent entries. I’m guessing I wasn’t the only one who had received 100 per cent and not gone through.

“The problem is that the three tiny images are no reflection on what a particular agency is capable of doing,” Amoroso continues. “Anybody can pull together three jpegs that look reasonably good, and if the client has no design knowledge, it puts them in a difficult position. The option to upload a pdf presentation with the bid questions would make it easier for everyone concerned.”

LA 84 signage

While PQQs can certainly be a protracted and lengthy process, one UK creative who is in the pitching stage for a key aspect of the Olympics visual communications sees the CompeteFor site as an unavoidable necessity.

“People have been moaning about it but it’s there to prove that you’re legitimate,” he says. “With things like the health and safety questions I admitted I didn’t have some things. I can see why it has to be like this, there are so many people to be answerable to, there’s a lot of politics involved, so they can’t afford not to tick all the boxes.

“But I wrote a piece about myself for the website, under the assumption that some­one would read it. I got the sense that someone had read it and that I hadn’t been selected by an autom­aton. I think the reason is because I’m a marketable force – I’m not a faceless corporation.” So, even though he would have failed to score 100 per cent, he made it through thanks to a subjective decision.

The facelessness of the PQQ culture worries designer Quentin Newark, particularly in relation to the London Olympics, though it’s illustrative of a wider cultural shift in the way that public sector projects are awarded. “These procurement systems apply to very large organisations, to ones that aren’t like design studios,” he says. “What then happens is that the paperwork matters more than the relationships you establish. It’s removing everything that matters in a design project – the relationship with a client and the ability to form a team. It’s removing the humanity.”

According to the website, the ODA has a list of six ‘priority themes’, one of which is ‘design and accessibility’. But instead of any sense of a holistic design approach to the Games, it’s merely a few paragraphs on building the permanent venues and – in a nice bit of Dome-distancing – a claim that “we will not leave ‘white elephants’”.

It’s perhaps symptomatic of a wider concern that London 2012 has – that if anything goes wrong, if the public or the media don’t like the results, then the people on the organising committees can’t be blamed. The shadow of the Dome, it seems, looms large over 2012.

Millennium Experience logo

Newark concurs. “What matters is this manage­ment protectionism, protecting the civil servants,” he adds. “They have to be accountable for the decisions they make, use systems and protocols that lead you to the point of decision. They have an audit trail so someone can look at the decisions they’ve made. A computer system comes up with the brief, it shows the matrix of permissable fees and then the design work comes out at the end.

“It’s a bureaucratic way of seeing the world and not a good way to get design work which, like good dancing or good writing, is a human activity that involves intuition, personality and interaction.” This is a major concern for many UK creatives.

But has it reached the point where some of them are actually being put off applying for Olympics-related work because of the systems in place? “Well the usual online tender procedures and PQQ processes are essentially an administrative night­mare,” says johnsonbanks‘ Michael Johnson.

“We’ve been asked to tender by two organisations in the last few years, the BBC and the COI, and have failed with both applications – you never really find out why. With the COI, we still didn’t get on the list despite the fact that three of us worked for about a week on preparing the paperwork. Extraordinary – and an extraordinary waste of time.”

For Johnson, the fact that many designers will have to take on the task of applying the London 2012 logo to a multitude of projects may prove off-putting too. “I think the truth is that whilst the new logo was a brave move, a way in which it can be applied well hasn’t really been seen yet,” he says.

“I suspect that the furore over the mark itself may well have dissuaded many ‘name’ groups from applying, simply because no-one will really be sure if they can make the scheme work, people may be nervous that the flak may turn on them. As it happens, I was asked to be on the judging commit­tee for it as a design representative, like I was for the bid logo. I said ‘Well I’m flattered but couldn’t I be considered for the logo itself?’. They said ‘that’s a good idea’ but never rang back.”

Matt Pyke of Universal Everything worked on pushing the London 2012 logo into the digital world, for a pitch presentation (image shown above) that aimed to show how the Wolff Olins brand would eventually come alive (part of which, notoriously, was accused of inducing epileptic fits when screened on TV). Pyke says that, after collaborating with Wolff Olins on some logo designs, Universal Everything was recommended to an events company by the consult­ancy, which then commissioned it to make a live action film.

Pyke’s “nice and simple” route to creating work for the Olympics was decidedly hands-on from the beginning, so would he be tempted to apply for more work via CompeteFor? “The form-filling would put me off but if it leads to being on the roster as an official supplier of the Olympics then that’s fantastic,” he says. “We’ve considered going through it ourselves [but] the risk is that the pitching process puts off those people who are busy.

“Based on the amount of work involved and the slim chance you’ll get through, we’re better off putting our creative energy elsewhere, into commercial or personal projects, rather than putting a lot of time into this. We might get trodden on by 200 other studios.” (Bear in mind that Pyke and his studio manager Philip Ward are the only permanent members of Universal Everything).

So the establishment of professional relationships between a designer and client shouldn’t be under­estimated? “Whenever we do projects, the ones where you feel much more enthusiastic are if some­one has approached you directly,” Pyke continues. “That’s hard with the Olympics, of course, but I agree that it’s a bizarre way to do things, sifting through 2,000 entries. It’s not the best way to get the cream of the crop to reflect the UK.

“The Olympics is always about the absolute best, the best athletes so, culturally, it should be that every piece of design should represent the pinnacle of British design as well, so that it reflects Britain as a creative hub.”

While LOCOG seems well-stocked with figures from a client or sponsorship background, such as head of brand and marketing, Amanda Jennings (former head of sponsorship and partnerships at O2 and the only name CR could get from the ODA press office), what appears to be missing is someone to take charge of the creative direction of the Olympics, a figurehead who can represent designers’ concerns and drive the design of the Olympics forward. Someone who knows enough about design to say “this is better than that”.

“I’m pitching to marketing and merchandising people,” says the UK creative that CR spoke to, off the record. “Of course, they have to be there, but what I don’t understand is that we’re the only creative people there; we have no ally. If there was a figurehead, in the way that Peter Saville works with Manchester as the city’s creative director, even if it was a ceremonial position, there would be someone who could bring it all together.”

Johnson agrees that appointing a “graphics overseer or creative director to kick it all into shape” is probably the best way to fix the situation, even though such a dictatorial approach runs counter to a ‘buy-in’ obsessed bureaucratic culture that seems to lack the confidence to trust in the decisions of one person.

“We need a Michael Wolff,” suggests Newark, “someone with a track record of engage­ment with studios, who can produce a team of designers that can tackle the Olympics and ensure there’s some overall coherence. The design world needs someone to argue on its behalf.”

Poster for Munich 72

It may be that the creative direction role is taken on by the advertising agency that wins a marketing services pitch called in January this year. It has been reported that the winning agency’s brief will be to devise the overall “creative identity and look” of the Games. LOCOG is apparently looking for an integrated advertising and marketing services agency for this task – the implementation of the graphic identity could then be sub-contracted by them.

This pitch has also proved highly contro­versial as locog is reportedly asking for the winning agency to do what may amount to £10 million worth of work for free in exchange for becoming a ‘Tier 3’ sponsor. Some leading agencies are believed to have refused to pitch as a result.

Whoever is in charge, time is running out but, as was the case in at least two of the successful Olympics schemes of the past, it may be that, in true creative style, everything comes together at the last minute.

“There’s still time,” says Johnson. “Two of the best ever schemes were done incred­ibly quickly – the entire Mexico 68 scheme was done in two years, as was the brilliant Sussman/ Prejza day-glo pop art stuff for LA in 84. Conversely, the one all graphic designers love, Munich 72, was started five years in advance by Otl Aicher. Now, you could argue that we got our ‘mark’ five years in advance. What we don’t have yet is a scheme, or a clear way forward.” Perhaps, as Johnson suggests, London 2012 could do with looking to the past in order to secure its future.

Munich 72 pictograms, from the Otl Aicher Flickr pool

Professor Ian McLaren worked with Otl Aicher in the last two years of his Munich 72 campaign, as part of a team of 40 who produced all of the Olympics’ visual communications. McLaren cites Willy Daume, the Munich equivalent of Seb Coe, as having a close relationship with Aicher but also a clear vision of what he wanted the Games to project.

“The whole management structure of 2012 seems lacking in vision, and is unwieldy,” says McLaren. “If there is a vision it is not being expressed in the design policy. It certainly needs someone, with a strong team, to ensure priorities and consistency. The policy of outsourcing now­adays involves public purchasing procedures that are better suited to large civil engineering projects. Most design groups will struggle with the proce­dural hurdles.

“Certainly I know of innovative groups being so put off that they do not bother. So the procedures are not necessarily attracting the best. I suspect that the process is also more costly than employing a good – ie effective – in-house team.

“In German there is a very telling expression, ‘ein gute Mann’, which translates rather feebly as ‘a good man’ but means much more in German busi­ness culture. It signifies deep respect. I can well believe that Aicher had that sort of reputation before the Olympics, and certainly did after.”

London, he suggests, needs a similarly ‘good man’ or, presum­ably, woman. Will anyone step up to the task?

This article appears in the May issue of CR, out now

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