Justin McGuirk doesn’t like the newly unveiled 2016 Olympic logo. He thinks it’s a politically correct damp squib – a bland compromise designed to please the unambitious hopes of the politicians who commissioned it.
I think it’s beautiful. I love the movement, the harmony, the colours. And – I’m sure this is not intended – I think it makes a wonderful symbol of the Holy Trinity.
You have to be careful when you enter this territory, because any ‘depiction’ of the Holy Trinity falls short, and inevitably betrays something fundamental about the relationship between the three Divine Persons – think of the shamrock, the triangle, the Russian three-banded wedding ring, etc. But this Olympic logo captures a lot: the unity of the three Persons, their interdependence, the giving and receiving that takes place within their relationships, the vitality, and the joy.
Careful viewers will see that there is a slight lack of equality in the Persons here, because the orange figure in the centre has two ‘legs’, while the other two figures seem to have one. But – if some brave patron wants to commission a religious version for their local church – I think this could be slightly adjusted to iron out the theological ambiguity. (And of course there are the copyright issues…)
Justin McGuirk isn’t quite as negative as I suggested. Here are his own words:
The first thing to say about the logo, designed by Brazilian design firm Tátil, is that it has spadefuls of that most important quality in any Olympic branding: inoffensiveness. With its ring of multi-coloured figures hand in hand – reminiscent of Matisse’s painting The Dance, as others have pointed out – its most obvious message is “togetherness in diversity”. On top of that, this being Rio, it also communicates joie de vivre. Already that’s a handful, but the designers didn’t stop there. The green, yellow and blue colour scheme mimics the Brazilian flag. And if you look at the shape of the logo you’ll see that it evokes Rio’s most famous natural landmark, the Pão d’Açúcar, or Sugarloaf Mountain. What we have here is a semiotic Where’s Wally?
In fairness, the shape of the logo has a three-dimensional, MC Escher-ish cleverness. But it’s cheapened by the way the colours fade into each other, and by the brushstroke-effect script beneath it. What is it with this mandatory brushstroke effect? It all began with Josep Maria Trias’s bold, and appropriate, use of it for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics but it’s been hanging around like a bad smell ever since: in Athens, in Beijing and, most embarrassingly, in Sydney. Sydney’s logo, with its boomerangs and Opera House, looked like it was designed by a nursery school class. It is somehow in the nature of Olympic logos to be condescending. They don’t credit people with the maturity or the intelligence to find meaning in something dignified and abstract. Their stock in trade is the literal and the faux-naif.
Does the Rio logo need to try and do so much? Does it signify multiple meanings or is it simply inscribed with indecision? I asked one of its designers, Fred Gelli, to tell me the one essential quality that it communicates and he replied “passion and transformation” (alright, I admit, it was a tough question). But there is a clear reason why these designs always come out so wishy-washy, and that’s because the brief is near impossible to fulfil. Gelli, whose design emerged from a competition between 139 Brazilian practices, says: “We were asked to transmit Olympic values and attributes, to reflect the local culture, to project the city and country’s image, to assure universal understanding as well as be current until the actual Games, along with many other considerations.” Is that all? I’m surprised they weren’t also asked to make it reveal the word Beelzebub in moonlight.
It’s very simple: good design requires a good client. The problem is that municipal Olympic committees tend to be risk-averse, micro-managing and aesthetically stunted, with a far lower sense of where the lowest common denominator is than does the public justice. It follows, therefore, that as the awareness of branding’s importance has grown in the politicians’ estimation, so the quality of Olympic logos has declined.
And here are his comments on the infamous London 2012 logo:
Compared to the politically correct designs of Sydney and Rio et al, the London 2012 logo has a certain edgy panache. At least it has the balls to be brash. But having blamed clients earlier, one has to admit that sometimes the designer just gets it wrong, and London’s mark is one of those cases. Yes, it evokes London in its punky choppiness and nu-rave fluoresence, but in an inauthentic, embarrassingly try-hard way. This is a problem with big branding agencies such as Wolff Olins, authors of the 2012 logo: they are often as susceptible to design by committee as the Olympic committees themselves.
The Aicher and Wyman days are over. No longer are art directors with a singular vision given the responsibility they need to create something unique and memorable. There are too many boxes to tick now; the whole process has been health-and-safetied. Politicians believe that the branding is too important to leave to designers. They really ought to loosen up – you never know, they might get themselves a decent logo.