Why we hate the 2012 Olympics logo, and why we shouldn’t

Fast Company named the font from 2012’s Olympic games the bar-none worst in the world.  49,000 people petitioned for the logo design to be torn up and redrawn.

Taking jabs at this logo is too easy.  I won’t, and for now I’m asking you not to either.  Not that you don’t have a right to do so (the logo stands for a spectacle that belongs to the world), but that discussion would be unproductive.

What would be productive is getting into the mind of the man who pushed this design forward.  He’s brilliant by the way, if a little too taken by fluorescent colors.  I’ll explain why he thought this design was the nuts, and I promise you’ll learn something if you stick with me.

Karl Heiselman, CEO, Wolff Olins.

He was trained as a graphic designer, then spent years as an art director before becoming a high-flying CEO.

His agency, Wolff Olins, has a reputation for disruptive and avant-garde designs. The truth is that they pitch better than any other agency and can get their clients to buy anything they dream up. In any case, the Olympic Committee passed up a thousand seemingly tamer agencies when they selected WO to create their branding campaign.  Heiselman knew what his team was expected to do.

Yet, Heiselman championed this wild design not just out of obligation, but because it jived with his beliefs about good branding.  I’ll paraphrase them for you:

  1. In this age of transparency, people form attitudes about a company by looking at its leadership, products, actions and mission.  A logo is but an empty vessel into which people pour their feelings and attitudes towards a brand.
  2. However, a logo does ask a particular demographic to engage with the brand.  Different logos may solicit engagement from different demographics.
  3. It matters not whether observers love or hate the look of a logo- -and here’s the big caveat- -so long as that logo expresses the direction a brand is headed.  Particularly, the logo must indicate which demographic the brand wants to engage.
  4. Every brand should experiment, Campbells and Coca Cola included.  They should branch out; they should disrupt the status quo and surprise or even alarm people.  Looking backwards is cynical.  Looking forwards is admirable.
  5. Technologically innovative companies don’t need techno-futuristic logos and type.  That look is dated, stale, and overused.  (Let’s keep the future inspiring, not silly!)
  6. Rebranding means changing the entire company.  Don’t change the logo if you won’t change the products, behavior, and corporate mission.
  7. Flexible companies- -those which slide often and easily across market boundaries- -benefit from flexible logos.  A flexible logo is one that can take various forms and that lends itself to experimentation.

Heiselman hoped that wild, youthful branding would set the stage for Adidas and Gatorade to bridge the gap between the Olympics and young audiences.  This logo would get young people talking about the Olympics, he thought.  And he was right, but he never expected to face such fury.

The world joins hands against the 2012 Olympics logo design not because it’s ugly or offensive, but because it doesn’t sync with the Olympic tradition.  People doubt that the Olympics Committee can relate to urban youths or to hot trendsetters any more than American Airlines or AAA can relate to these groups.  Observers perceive try-hard awkwardness.

And that’s where super-aggressive branding gets in trouble.  When you switch the logo or slogan before you switch the organization it stands for, people shout “Imposter!”  They’re saying it now.

Still, I’ll stand behind Wolff Olins on this one.  That’s not because Heiselman and his crew don’t make mistakes, and it’s not because the world shouldn’t have a say in the direction the 2012 Olympics takes.  I’ll stand behind them because they’re smart, because they’re as forward thinking as any team in New York or London, and because this ugly little doodle they put next to the five rings will open more doors than it closes for the Olympics brand.

Why we hate the 2012 Olympics logo, and why we shouldn’t