Wherein Avaragado pontificates about that logo

It’s received wisdom for UI design and many other disciplines: listen to your users but ignore what they say. People sometimes misunderstand this and come over all uppity, thinking it means “pretend to listen, but take no notice”. Ironically, by doing so they are themselves listening but ignoring, which I’ve just suggested is a good thing, but here it’s wrong, I tell you, wrong.

What’s the correct interpretation? That people are experts at telling you what they like or (more often) dislike, or wish they could or could not do, but useless at deciding what to do about it. They’re great at problems, but meh with the answers.

Oh, they’ll give you answers, answers by the bucketload. But following Sturgeon’s law, you can chuck at least 90% of them away without thinking. In fact, save the thinking and bin the lot. For a discipline like UI design, the suggested solutions tend to be unworkable, unusable, inappropriate, inadvisable, and other negative nancy words. To quote a certain forthright African, we’re outnumbered by morons. (By “morons” I do of course mean “well-intentioned individuals without sufficient domain expertise to judge the most appropriate solution”.)

But this post isn’t about UI design. It’s about the new London 2012 logo.

Who knew so many people cared about design? Or, at least, cared about £400,000-worth of design. On the one hand, I’m glad. On the other hand, it’s a shame that the logo is disliked so much, since it’s going to be in all our faces for the next five years (unless the organisers cave and change it). I’m not as vehemently negative about it as many people, but for the avoidance of doubt, I don’t like it either.

However, the armies of amateurs now rushing to produce their ten-second replacement logos are proving the “listen but ignore” mantra beyond all doubt. Because their “better” ideas aren’t.

It starts and ends with the client’s brief.

If I might go all horn-rimmed on yo’ asses for a moment, the client decides what message it wants the brand to convey. It sets the tone. It rules in and rules out. The agency sets its finest minds/interns on the project, presents some ideas (often two reasonable proposals plus a joke one that the client can reject out of hand to feel in control), and then they iterate until all parties are so fed up with the entire process that the client decides to go with whatever’s on the table when the deadline bangs on the door.

For London 2012, what was LOCOG’s brief to the agency, Wolff Olins? That’s key to this whole saga. I don’t know, but we can reverse-engineer it from the web site, the launch event, and so on. LOCOG wanted something bold not bland; representing more than just the few short weeks of the Olympic (and Paralympic) games themselves; representing more than just London; to be dynamic, modern, flexible and inspirational. Phrases like “everyone’s 2012”, “a Games for the next generation”, “reaching out and engaging young people”, and so on, abound in the press materials. And here’s something: “It’s not a logo, it’s a brand that will take us forward for the next five years” (Seb Coe). And this, from the BBC News web site: “It is a deliberate change from previous Olympic logos, which often feature an image from the city”.

And here’s something I don’t believe anyone has picked up on yet, from the London 2012 blog:

We have built a brand identity which has over 40,000 elements, which will evolve over the coming months and years in many smart ways … It’s not about the shape. It’s not about the colours. It’s about what we can do with it – there is a lot more to see, and you’ll see it soon.

When you look at the chosen logo, and compare it with the suggested replacements, you have to measure them all against the client’s brief. How well do they rate? It’s not just the aesthetic qualities, or lack thereof. Because if the client asks for something bold and you give them something bland, you haven’t done your job.

Let’s measure the chosen logo against the (apparent) brief.

  • Bold not bland: It’s definitely that. It’s amazingly daring for an Olympic logo; the only ones that come close are the psychedelic Mexico 1968 and Munich 1972 logos. In contrast, all logos since 1972 have been hewn from very similar rock. The London 2012 logo immediately stands out from these.
  • Not just the games: Absolutely. Notice how the logo does not say “sport” at all. The Olympic rings can be substituted with all manner of other logos (or no logo at all). The Paralympics to be held in London just a few weeks after the Olympics uses the same brand – here’s the 2012 Paralympics logo, with the Paralympics symbol in place of the Olympic rings. I can see events across the country piggybacking on this brand – I imagine LOCOG saying, “give us a tenner and a packet of crisps and you can shove your logo in”, that sort of thing.
  • More than just London: Again, absolutely. There’s no cliched London skyline, which makes the logo usable – possibly in altered form – across the country. Don’t forget that many Olympic events will take place outside of London (sailing in Weymouth, football all over the place).
  • Dynamic: Yes, though this is always hand-wavy. You can make anything dynamic by making it jiggle. Here the idea seems to be that the logo can break apart and reform, change colour, and so on. It always seems a good idea originally, but I’m sceptical that this is something we’ll see a lot of in practice; time will tell.
  • Modern: Hmm. Everything is a product of its time; nothing dates quite so fast as the future. To me and people of my advanced years, the logo is retro: 80s style, 80s colours. It has been compared to the Tiswas logo. Here I think they’re gambling, and I have a vision of a grown-up desperately trying to be hip wiv da kidz innit.
  • Flexible: Yes, it’s certainly that. Perhaps too flexible: all you need is the right colour combinations and a couple of jagged edges and you’ve got a cast-iron knock-off. See also ‘dynamic’: there’s so much you could do with this brand that you might end up doing very little to avoid diluting it too much.
  • Inspirational: Nope, sorry. It doesn’t inspire me. Well, it’s inspired me to write this long piece, but I’m doing so on my backside in front of Big Brother. I’m not sure that’s the inspirational effect they’re aiming for.

Measured against what I believe to be the brief, the logo holds up pretty well. Aesthetically, of course, I don’t think it works. But that’s a different matter (although valid).

How about the alternative logos that people have been creating? How do they measure up to the client’s brief? The BBC News web site lets you vote for your favourite 2012 logo from a small selection of reader submissions, plus the LOCOG-approved logo. Here’s what I think about them (you’ll have to look at the page, I’m not reproducing them all here):

  • Reader logo 1: Nice trick: “2012don” reading as “London”. If LOCOG wanted bland, they’d have chosen something like this. It’s not dynamic or flexible, nor is it inspirational. It’s all about London. Apart from the trick it’s just meh.
  • Reader logo 2: It’s the Union Flag in flames, by the look of it. Cheesy, nationalistic, boring. They’d never have picked this.
  • Reader logo 3: Breaks the Olympic rings (I don’t believe the IOC would allow this today, though they have done so in the past) and reminds me of the current Sky One/Two/Three logos. The lack of a nice arc for the ‘l’ of ‘london’ ruins the effect. But again, pretty bland and undynamic, just a bit of a trick (finding letters in the rings). Again, it’s all about London.
  • Reader logo 4: This kind of idea is the safe choice. But LOCOG didn’t want anything sporty. This logo fails miserably on that score. Again, another trick (finding a runner from the digits in 2012).
  • Reader logo 5: It’s a logo for a radio station. Next!
  • Reader logo 6: Clearly infringes Transport for London’s roundel logo, and thus is lawyer fodder. Screams London, but that’s not what LOCOG wants the logo to do (can you imagine that logo adorning Anfield for an Olympic football match?). Apart from that, wow, how bland can you get?

None of those logos fulfils the brief as well as the chosen logo does. (Predictably, Reader logo 1 is the most popular with voters, with Reader logo 3 in second place. People love a nice trick in a logo.)

What happens next? For what it’s worth, I think the (ugh) “brand attributes” are all desirable ones; but I don’t much like the end result, along with the vast majority of the public it seems.

LOCOG can either stand its ground or cave in. They’ll be nervous since they’re already under fire for budget escalations and everyone’s worried the Olympics are going to turn into Wembley times ten. They’ll hope that the fuss will die down, the brand and the logo will begin to seep into people’s brains, and the much-promised dynamic, flexible etc nature will start to win people over.

But I find it hard to believe that they’ll be able to ignore such a hugely negative reaction – if they listen to the people, they have to act.

Just as long as they ignore what the people are saying.

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