The Surprisingly Smart Strategy Behind London’s Infamous Olympic Branding

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

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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  • Fana

    I honestly thnk the designer knew what he was thinking as he tuned the logo up. NOW, watch the branding, haaaaa its out of the water, its brilliant, brilliant. The fonts, and all that matters...

  • Soumya

    This is the result of using too much 'rationalisation' or 'logic' and forgetting the 'feel' or the subconscious message the visual representation is trying to convey. Somehow it's off-putting.

  • Ben

    Rule number 1 when designing the Olympic logo – the public have to like it.
    Wolff Olin's job was to create a logo which is a bit obvious a bit cheesy but elevated to another level.

    What they did was to tick no boxes. They created a logo that was dated when they designed it, ugly, nasty colours and the public hated it. Also I noticed their website was 'under construction'  and they went into hiding when the logo was launched. So add cowardice to this list of traits of overpaid, arrogant and incompetent.  Anyone want a bet that the place is full of middle aged men dressed in black with funky glasses and pony tails. 

    Wolff Olins  should give the £500 000 they earned from this and give it to the Olympic volunteers.

  • Paulthomp18

    "Rule number 1 when designing the Olympic logo – the public have to like it???"  LOL

  • JJL

    The section of the article " How did you develop the design?"  left me gobsmacked. Says all you need to know about the process

  • Beto Lima

    Jordan, I really liked your article that hopefully shut up many understood in design and branding. The logo of the London Olympics came to break paradigms and disturbing thoughts and outdated ideas. Congratulations to Wolf Olins for boldness.Beto Lima

  • Rich

    The fact is, most of the criticism that was/is directed at this logo comes from people who know little about graphic design, but fancy themselves as designers or arbiters of good taste. Essentially they know apple and Nike have "good' design because they've been told so, but they have no idea why.

    Graphic design is perhaps the last art to still be firmly held to the principles of modernism and minimalism popularized mid-last century by people like Paul Rand. Apple's image is the epitome of modernism. While the post-modernism movement was at its peak in the 80's for all other arts--architecture, music, film, literature, etc.--mainstream graphic design was never quite able to experiment (helvetica, helvetica, helvetica, grid, grid, grid). However, today it seems, we are finally undergoing a post-modern rebellion in graphic design--cutting edge studios in places like Helsinki, Stockholm, Oslo, Berlin, London, etc. are slowly bringing this look into the mainstream. In the US, this look is nowhere to be found, but you can bet in 5-10 years it will be all the rage. The 2012 logo seems to have been the first "mainstream" application of this new movement, and hence why it was faced with such shock.

    One of the comments said the logo "needed help from a typographer." More proof that there is a lack of understanding of where this logo is coming from. Wolff Olins is actually one of the most prestigious places for a graphic designer (or "typographer") to work. However this might be precisely the reason the logo has faced such criticism. The people who created this logo are the types of people who are aware of and at the forefront of this movement in design. The mainstream public, and even most mainstream graphic designers, are not.

    Hence, this logo will most likely be praised by the mainstream in 5-10 years. In the meantime, if you happen to be in a European city, be on the lookout for graphic design with skewed/ironic typefaces, overlapping layouts, and non-traditional color combinations.  It will be be coming over to the states very soon.

  • Dan

    As a business to business branding exercise it has been quite a success. Let's not be fooled into thinking the IOC want anything other than what they can use to gleam corporate sponsorship.

     “It’s too urban, it’s too young.” Says the middle aged, middle class critic with no connection to anything young or urban. At the end of the day its just another poor identity in a stream of poor identities that the olympics tends to bring. Wasted opportunity to really showcase to the world what British design could be. Give me Munich or Mexico any day. 

  • Artoo45

    As a Creative Director, I have to defend my design decisions on a daily basis, so I don't envy Wolff Olins having to defend themselves against constant mockery on a world stage. That said, I personally think the whole thing was a hot mess (and not in a good, edgy way). Seeing the Olympics swaddled in 80s hot paank and yellow was like watching your middle-aged dad do gangsta rap, no matter how good his Fitty imitation might be, you just want to hide under your chair. It seemed to be trying too hard (been there, done that, feel your pain). But then again, at least they weren't a cliché like Beijing's rather predictable, if elegant, branding efforts. So, the branding was inelegant, awkward and dissonant. "Good, that's what we were going for" they say. But were they also going for amateurish and clunky with a sprinkling of unintended hilarity (coughlisasimpsonblowingbartcough)? As for the mascots. W. T. F?! Sum up: there is such a thing as bad publicity.

  • Daisy

    Clearly there is such a thing as bad publicity ask Ashley Cole. Wolff Olins are a laughing stock 20 years ago they did the appalling BT logo and they've topped that with this monstrosity.  

  • Elkemo

    I don't particularly 'like' it, but the brand is a great success and it performed beautifully. So good to see something abstract, non-representational and not leaning on the use of some twee human figure. 'Like', 'don't like', 'understand' are not really critical factors unless you're selling t-shirts or particularly into rationales. The symbol was instantly recognisable; the font was legible and immediately iconic; and the roll-out was consistent and fully integrated into the brand. Aesthetics? I much prefer it to Sydney, Athens, Atlanta (both awful) and Barcelona – Cobi was cute but the logo was a very Hallmark. Think back to the beautiful approach to Mexico 1968, you'll see that as Mexico 'owned' concentric lines, so London 'owned' jagged angles. 9.5 of of 10, Wolff Olins!

  • Sonia Davis Gutierrez

    I had not made time to seek this defense of the logo but it was forwarded to me by a good friend and thought I would give it a chance. It does not really help me to like it. I was going to be open to seeing something new in it. As a very wise person mentioned before, if you have to explain the logo, it fails.

    It is hardly legible. Energy is too random. All those angles feel like a broken mirror or dried mud. Gradients are so 80's and a production nightmare.

    "We wanted to show something you could bump into on the street--using that language--as opposed to something that felt 'official.'" –My response: We are celebrating the games of the world not bad train graffiti.

    I do think the letters of the typeface were well done. They have a forward momentum. The numbers used for the identity seem like an afterthought. They have so much more vertical weight than the letters. Just because the lines are not vertical does not mean the weight is not vertical. They should have had the type designer do the identity.

    For all the people who see sexual acts, these were the XXX Games.

  • Marcy Rye

    Sonia hits it right on the head that it is illegible and dated, and needed a typographer's assistance. And I especially agree that if you have to explain it, it fails. 

    Furthermore it's ugly. Really, really ugly. It makes sense that they didn't need to show any monuments of London, but what about creating energy based on the motions of athletes instead of a random energy grid (whatever that is - and like one person below - I would love to see the in-progress docs). Focusing on athletic motion would allow grace to enter into the picture, would be relevant to what's being branded, and may have a much better result.

  • Azadi Sheridan

    Sorry detractors, this logo is now an icon. London is a street culture, multicultural, design-conscious, risk-taking community. The brash colours, and that logo were genius. I was out of town for a month before the Olympics and coming back to see garish pink on all our Olympics public transport signs, paired with the classic Harry Beck London Transport font was such clear, sight in such a busy city.  I didn't realise until the games were on how the vibrant colours would help make my city shine. How many other times has a city looked at the colour pink  and felt such huge pride? And the point about not needing Tower Bridge on a logo was so right - there was plenty or room for blue, white and red icons around town which otherwise would have washed out the main logo.

  • MiPsocial

    I like it.  Social though... I'm not so sure.  There's something to be said though about simplicity and if anything, people will always remember the year London hosted the last Olympic Games.  To bad theses Olympics won't be remembered for very much though... other than pre-games rockets on roofs, empty seats, and a very busy Olympic Village.  


  • Elliotchalk

    Is it not true to say the four main elements of the logo are the digits '2012'?. Yet it's a random shapshot of chaotic energy beams or such?