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Innovation By Design

The Surprisingly Smart Strategy Behind London’s Infamous Olympic Branding

Brian Boylan, chairman at Wolff Olins, discusses and defends his firm’s branding campaign.

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Say what you will about London’s Olympic logo—and many people have said, and are still saying, many, many things—it is nothing if not memorable. International branding consultancy Wolff Olins was no stranger to Olympic identities, having created the mark for the 2004 games in Athens. In 2006, the firm won the London logo and branding bid with their power-to-the-people style pitch, which focused on social and cultural aspects of the games and beyond in an attempt to broaden the event’s reach and appeal. When the famously staccato symbol was unveiled almost six years ago, however, the response was resoundingly critical.

Why was the world, design and otherwise, so worked up? Chairman Brian Boylan and Ije Nwokorie, managing director at Wolff Olins London, talked with Co.Design about embracing the inherent dissonance of the host city, and the strategy behind their effort.

Co.Design: In terms of branding, this idea of embracing a more social approach was actually quite prescient for 2006.

Brian Boylan: When the modern Olympics were created in 1896, they were based around ideas that were bigger idea than sport—up to 1948 they had medals for cultural activities, even poetry. These Olympics were going to be much more engaging, existing everywhere and for everyone. On that foundation we worked with LOCOG (the organizing body) to encourage unprecedented levels of participation. We would position them "off the podium, onto the street." That was the basis of the brand.

Ije Nwokorie: It was 2006; Facebook had been around for a year, YouTube was expanding, user-generated content was on the rise. You could already see this explosion of people taking matters into their own hands, and the energy that people could throw at these things. The notion of energy was really at the heart of the mark itself.

How did London’s identity play into your concept for the mark?

BB: London didn’t need to be put on the map with an iconic representation. We weren’t going to show the Tower of London, London Bridge, or the Houses of Parliament with some sort of watercolor hurdler over the top.

IN: It is, probably more than ever before, an international, multicultural, creative, modern, energetic, and therefore dissonant city. We wanted to show something you could bump into on the street—using that language—as opposed to something that felt "official."

How did you develop the design?

BB: The mark itself came from an energy grid we drew of lines that moved around, contained within a rectangle, which we stopped at one particular moment. This was used in a very random way to create a pattern, so this idea of freeform is right at the heart of the brand. The typeface very much links back to that. We never recommended anything with horizontals or verticals—it was always slightly to one side, to make people look at this thing and think twice. We used the term "prescribed anarchy"—it wasn’t [that] we just wanted to draw something spiky.

Dissonance and anarchy seem like a tough sell in terms of branding the Olympics, which are designed to foster a sense of worldwide togetherness.

IN: I don’t think dissonance means discord. It means an ability to be slightly off-center and still be cool—and actually means you’re cool because you’re slightly off center. It’s what makes London such a fascinating place.

BB: London is not homogeneous. Take the Shard, for example. Some people are asking, "What the hell is that? Why the hell did they let it go up?" Others like what is says about London, as it’s probably one of the most progressive buildings in the world. Then a lot of it has to do with a feeling. Like many others, I’m not originally from the city. You can be part of it and observe it at the same time.

How did you react to the critical response the logo received?

BB: First of all, when you do something like this you expect to get a very mixed response. We expected there would be some sort of kerfuffle. There was quite a lot of critical press, but there was quite a lot of supportive press. Last week I looked at the London daily paper on the day it came out, when there was a lot of criticism, and yet an editorial stated that in 2012 we will probably look back and wonder what all the fuss was about. And I think today that’s what people feel. What was all the fuss about?

IN: Interestingly, the critical reviews tend to point out the rules we’ve broken, and in that sense they tend to be correct; the only disagreement is whether those rules need to be broken. Take a look at the attacks: "It’s too dissonant." Absolutely, the dissonance was intentional. "It doesn’t reflect any of London’s famous landmarks." Absolutely, the world knows about those, we don’t need to tell them. "It’s too urban, it’s too young." Absolutely. It’s really interesting that even though the tone might be off, they shine quite an acute light on exactly the points we were trying to make.

BB: That’s not to say we ignore criticism, but [what] we take on most is our own self criticism. We are constantly, constantly appraising what we do. When you move outside that which is expected there’s going to be a group of people who say what they want to say. But we set out to make these Olympics in 2012 to be noticed—to be different because they are different.

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