Along with many others, I was quick to pour scorn on the Wolff Olins-designed London 2012 brand identity when it first appeared in 2007. But I find that my opinion has changed. I haven’t become a flag-waving evangelist for the work, but I’m now convinced that there is genuine merit in what Wolff Olins did – even if the brand implementation sometimes makes it hard to see exactly what that merit is.
The reason for this conversion is the outcome of two sessions with Wolff Olins’ chairman Brian Boylan and the company’s former executive creative director, Patrick Cox. The first took place when I visited the firm’s London office to interview Boylan and Cox for a previous CR article, shortly after the logo was launched [CR Feb 08]; the second occurred a few weeks ago, when I took part in an event at Wolff Olins’ HQ, during which Boylan and Cox presented, for the first time, a candid and revealing account of their work for London 2012 to an audience of staff, friends, clients and media.
I still stand by my view that the 2012 logo and its accompanying brand collateral are ugly, or, to use Patrick Cox’s more considered adjective, dissonant. But I now also see the work as an example of prescient thinking and iconoclastic intent: in other words, Wolff Olins set out to create something that deliberately jarred; that was suited to the age of participatory media; that was never static; and which trounced genteel Olympic notions of fluttering ribbons and jingoistic flags.
Boylan and Cox talk eloquently about their work; they avoid brand guff and grandiose assumptions. They explain their intentions calmly, rationally and – it must be said – persuasively. All of which makes it inexplicable that LOCOG prevented them from speaking about their work when it first appeared in 2007. Even at a press junket at the Roundhouse to launch the brand identity to the media, Wolff Olins were barred from presenting their own work.
The man who took on the role of the work’s explainer-in-chief was Lord Coe, leader of London’s bid team to host the 2012 Summer Olympics, and now chairman of LOCOG. Boylan is fulsome in his praise of Coe’s enthusiastic support for the radical proposals put forward by Wolff Olins; but Coe’s public defence was weak and only gave fuel to the campaign’s critics. Boylan and Cox would have made better advocates.
The gagging of Wolff Olins, and Coe’s lacklustre defence, had two consequences: the first was that the 2012 logo haters carried the day; it’s hard to find evidence that the branding is widely liked, and I still meet intelligent people who think it was just another example of a slick branding agency trousering a wad of cash for a few blocks of colour that might or might not look like Lisa Simpson giving someone a blow job.
The second consequence was that Boylan and Cox were forced to endure a sustained attack from both the tabloid and broadsheet press. Boylan had reporters shouting through his letterbox, and Cox and his family were forced to move house for a few days. The harassment even extended to Luke Gifford, at the time a key member of the 2012 design team (in fact, it was Gifford who first sketched the now famous jagged 2012 symbol). Post-Leveson it would not be in the least surprising to learn that their phones were hacked.
By Wolff Olins’ own admission, the 2012 work as we know it today, has not been fully realised. Not all elements of their brand master plan have been implemented. But it is the fate of all graphic and branding work that it is judged by what we see, and not by the back-story that shaped the final outcome. And yet, now that Wolff Olins have shared their thinking, it is at least possible to come to a fuller understanding of their intentions.
Not just about London
The story begins in 2005 when the IOC awarded London the right to host the Olympic games in 2012. The bid was based on four ambitions: the London games were to be aimed at the young; cultural activities were to be championed as well as sport; London was not to be the sole focus of Olympic activity; and finally there was to be a post-games legacy to inspire future generations to take up sport.
It was against these stated aims that Wolff Olins presented LOCOG with their branding blueprint. Boylan makes the point that unlike previous Olympic organising committees, LOCOG had the good sense to request a brand identity rather than the customary logo with ribbons, flags and ethereal gymnasts.
Accordingly, Wolff Olins unveiled a strategy that can be summarised as “going beyond sport, going beyond London and going beyond the Games”. To achieve this they proposed turning the calendar year – 2012 – into the focal point of the communications architecture. They reasoned that this was a way of “claiming the future”, and of making the Olympics into a time that could be shared by everyone, and not just two weeks for the exclusive benefit of athletes, sports fans and IOC officials.
In the Wolff Olins scheme the word ‘London’ and the Olympic rings were relegated to subsidiary roles. There was no need to overstress London, they argued, since unlike Sydney, Barcelona and Beijing, where the Olympics were used to establish the aspiring metropolitan credentials of these cities, London was already one of the world’s megacities. And if the logo was intended to live beyond sport it was also unnecessary to overemphasise the rings.
The Wolff Olins proposal was based on three recommendations: firstly, the branding should encourage and promote participation; secondly, the communication strategy should take the Games “off the podium and into the streets”; and finally, all aspects of the games should be treated as “never before”; in other words, here was an opportunity to stage a global event in the 21st century which didn’t do things just because they had been the norm in previous Olympics.
To achieve these goals, Boylan and his team offered up some radical un-Olympic-like ideas. One of the more daring of these was the notion of a ‘ninth lane’. Normally, stadium running tracks have eight lanes; Wolff Olins proposed painting a ‘ninth lane’ through every city, town and village to foster the idea of participation and promote a view of the Olympics as more than just an event for elite sportsmen and sportswomen. And although in 2007, social media was not as entrenched in our lives as it is today, Boylan and Cox foresaw an important application for their ninth lane in digital media, as an area that could be owned and populated by everyone.
But the ninth lane concept, along with other schemes designed to encourage participation and to break with convention, was not implemented. Other ideas, however, made it through the LOCOG and IOC approval process. For example, London 2012 is the first Olympics to have one marque to cover all aspects of the games: normally there is a separate logo for the Paralympics, but Wolff Olins pressed for a single unifying marque, and after much resistance, convinced all parties that this was the correct path to take.
And yet, despite all these conceptual fireworks, it is the 2012 logo that has been the focal point of the brand activity. And ironically, it is in the logo that we see Wolff Olins’ participatory strategy at its most lucid. There are, in fact, three categories of logo. There is an official version for use by the games and by the sponsors; there is a ‘Festival’ version (without rings) for the cultural Olympiad and non-sporting events; and there is the ‘Inspire’ version where the public are encouraged to make their own versions by infilling the shapes with whatever imagery they choose.
The marque itself is famously oddball. Undoubtedly, and to its credit, it lives up to Wolff Olins’ ambition to create a brand identity that avoids “stars, leaping figures, nationalism and nostalgia”. Patrick Cox and the creative team set out to produce a symbol – and a graphic language – that would live in the world for six years: “This meant it could never feel tired,” he notes, “or just be another one of those Olympic things that you get used to.” The logo design grew out of research into the world of handmade marks: “We knew we didn’t want a piece of typography,” Cox says. “We wanted a marque that looked like it was made by human beings. But above all, we were looking for dissonance. We wanted it to sit outside of what we are comfortable with. We didn’t want a logo with something swishy and a bit of Swiss typography.”
Boylan is equally emphatic in his aims for the brand: “We didn’t want consistency. We didn’t want compliance. We wanted to make some tools that could be handed over to others to do what whatever they liked with. You could say, we prescribed anarchy.”
“Prescribed anarchy” takes us to the nub of the matter. Personally, I find the aims and intentions that underpin the 2012 campaign to be wholly admirable. The ambitious, ‘open source’, unprotected rationale behind the campaign is genuinely inclusive, and although designed and planned in 2007, brilliantly anticipated the coming participatory spirit of the age brought about through social media. Wolff Olins also foresaw the era of fluid and iterative identities where the logo never looks the same twice.
The work also deserves credit for throwing down a challenge to two entrenched groups: copyright protection lawyers and, perhaps surprisingly, branding agencies. Let me explain: many of the best ideas that Wolff Olins proposed were quashed by lawyers protecting the interests of the games’ sponsors. By Boylan’s own admission, the notion of the Inspire logo, where everyone is given the chance to make his or her own versions, “never gained traction.” Why would it, when we are surrounded by stories of LOCOG brand police clamping down on any attempt to use the logo for non-official purposes? A look at LOCOG’s website “Using the brand” would scare anyone off.
But in what way are branding agencies (of which Wolff Olins are one of the foremost) challenged? With their brand manuals and protectionist policies, branding agencies have created a stifling culture of compliance – to use a favourite Boylan epithet – which has led to the now widely held notion of brands as dictatorial, overbearing, and out of touch with the new era of open networks where the consumer is in charge and where, in order to survive, brands need to communicate with their audience rather than dictate to them. The sort of compliance beloved of branding agencies – and brand guardians – will be increasingly unenforceable in the future; less compliance is the answer, not more.
And yet, admirable as it is to antagonise corporate lawyers and brand control freaks, we are still left with the question of whether Wolff Olins got it right with 2012. My own view is that they did. Undoubtedly some of the momentum of what they proposed was lost as a result of being caught between Locog’s genuine desire to have a truly participatory games, and the need to enforce sponsor’s rights: Visa only cash machines at Olympic events, and restricting the choice of food and drink on sale at the Olympic Park to sponsors’ brands only, is not participatory. Nor are designated car lanes for officials to whizz about in. This is dictatorial, and the antithesis of what Wolff Olins proposed.
Ironically, as we get closer to the Olympics there are signs that Locog realise that the brand protectionism has been over zealous. But this softening has come too late, and the notion of the “people’s games” has been lost.
In one regard at least, the Wolff Olins plan has been an unqualified success. In the famous London 2012 logo, with its lack of rounded edges and its stubborn reluctance to please, they have created a truly dissonant symbol. It has a brutality that makes it hard to love, but also hard to ignore; with its palette of buzzy, migraine-inducing colours, and its angular formation, it is a bit like an elbow in the retinas. Perhaps, inadvertently, they have created a symbol that fits our anxiety-filled era.