Opinion: the 2012 Olympics artists posters

The 2012 Olympics artists’ posters come from a fine tradition of involving the visual arts in the Games, but they have left designers and illustrators feeling further frustrated and excluded

‘My three year-old could’ve done that’: Pierre Soulages’ poster for Munich 1972 (left) and Howard Hodgkin’s poster for the London 2012 Olympics (right)

The 2012 Olympics artists’ posters come from a fine tradition of involving the visual arts in the Games, but they have left designers and illustrators feeling further frustrated and excluded

First, some context. For the 1972 Games (for many designers the ultimate Olympics for visual expression) the organising committee decided to produce a series of posters to “represent the intertwining of sports and art worldwide”. This Artists series was to be in addition to the more functional Sports and Culture poster series produced under the direction of Otl Aicher’s team. In collaboration with a publisher, 28 artists produced images for the series which were turned into posters for sale. The series was successful, generating over 2m Deutschmarks for the Organising Committee (more here).

Munich poster by Horst Antes

The London 2012 posters are attempting to revive this “artistic tradition”, a decision for which LOCOG should be applauded, but this context hasn’t been made very clear. Commenter simondk summarised the issue on our post announcing the posters “Perhaps the problem here is the description of these as ‘Posters’. If they had been titled as ‘Prints’ taken from works of art inspired by the Olympics and Paralympics, then I suspect they could be seen for what they are – a series of individual creative responses to the events with no purpose other than to communicate that artist’s emotional response, and perhaps then be criticised on the basis of their artistic merit.
 By calling them Posters, the Olympic Organising Committee puts them into a more commercial arena in my mind, where some of those parameters we are all familiar with come into play – communication objectives, visual messaging and an understanding of the audience to name but a few – and to my mind, it is here where these fail. I can admire and respect them as works of art, but I cannot see how they work as posters for the Olympics.”

The artists were given a brief which “encouraged them to celebrate the Games coming to London and to look at the values of the Olympic or Paralympic Games”. The responses are just as varied and at times obtuse as those of the Munich artists. What, for example, would today’s blog commenters have made of Hans Hartung’s 1972 response (above)?

Or that of Serge Poliakoff?

Max Bill?

Josef Albers?

Do they represent Munich? Do they directly depict Olympic events? No, because they weren’t asked to. There were other posters for that purpose.



And it wasn’t just for the Munich games that artists were encouraged to produce imagery. Over the past three years the Century of Olympic Posters exhibition has been touring the UK providing further examples of the sometime controversial intersection of art and sport. Here, for example, is Per Arnoldi’s poster for the 1996 Paralympics – anyone else find the misshapen rings a clumsily offensive metaphor for the disabled athletes?


And what about this poster for the Montreal games? Does it say ‘Montreal’ to you? Or Yong Seung-Choon’s spectacular Seoul poster?

(Have a look here for a complete list of the posters featured in the exhibition)


In commissioning contemporary artists to respond to the upcoming games, LOCOG has continued a tradition of longstanding: the eclectic nature of the responses and their varied quality are an inevitable part of that tradition. It’s just the way projects of this nature work: there will be good work, bad work and indiffererent work.

Amongst the design community there has been the suggestion that, had designers and illustrators been invited to respond to the same brief, the resulting images would have been a significant improvement on the artists’ efforts. I’m not sure there is much evidence of that. And I’m sure that had, say Peter Saville or Neville Brody been invited to design a poster commenters on here would have been queueing up to tear their work apart.

In my experience, designers and illustrators work best when responding to a tight brief or solving a visual problem. Give them as open a brief as the 2012 artists had and the results will be just as mixed. Don’t believe me? Have a look at the response to the Designers for Japan effort or LDF’s London Posters show.

Looking at the 2012 posters I can see some direct parallels with design poster projects I have been involved in. You have the works that virtually ignore the brief and just quote from existing practice (you might say Bridget Riley falls into this trap in the Olympics series).


The works that are more about the artist/designer themselves than the project theme (Tracey Emin).


And those that cause you to think, ‘no, sorry, I have no idea where this is coming from’ (Gary Hume?)

Out of every dozen or so, there will perhaps be two or three standouts – no more. In terms of the Olympics posters, those standouts for me would be Sarah Morris’s re-imagining of Big Ben,

Martin Creed’s riff on the winner’s podium

and Howard Hodgkin’s joyous Swimming.


But that’s an entirely subjective choice, as any response to this project will surely be.

Where I think the frustration for our readership comes in is that this is a high profile visual Olympics-related project from which they have been excluded. And one to which they feel eminently suited.

This comes on top of widespread disappointment (outrage even) over the logo, typeface and mascots, followed by the incredibly dreary ticketing advertising campaign. Our readership is itching to get involved in producing work for the Olympics that, in their eyes, will show off the best of what UK visual communications has to offer. Will they get the chance?

There is a whole raft of 2012 visual material to come but LOCOG has so far inspired little confidence that it possesses the ability to buy work that will blow us all away (the single ray of hope having been provided by Von’s Paralympic posters for McCann). It’s not been for a lack of trying from those involved. Sources close to 2012 have told CR about numerous projects involving leading designers and illustrators that were kyboshed by the client in favour of banal alternatives. Perhaps the problem dates back to the logo: LOCOG was brave to buy that piece of work, whatever you think of it aesthetically. And look where it got them. The fear is that, following the outcry over these artists’ posters, on top of that surrounding the logo, a mixture of fear of adverse public reaction and a lack of clear creative direction will result in an already timorous LOCOG shying away from anything the least bit adventurous in future.

Instead of providing a vehicle to celebrate our creative industries, there is a very real danger that the 2012 Games will forever be remembered by the visual communications community as a missed opportunity of truly Olympian proportions.

Related content
See our original post on the Olympics posters here


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