The Olympic rings are a perennial (or, more accurately, biennial!) of logo design, one of the most recognizable symbols on the planet. In addition to the rings, though, each host city comes up with its own unique logo for their particular games. The 2012 Summer Olympics just concluded in London, and there was a good deal of controversy about their super-modern logo, so as we look forward to Rio 2016, I want to take a moment to examine some of the design choices made by host cities to give their Olympic moment its own special brand.
From 1896 to 1932, there was a transition from mere poster design to implementation of simple, streamlined, modern, distinctive logos. This tendency was finally solidified in the 1960s. The 1964 Tokyo Olympics logo brought a helpful Japanese simplicity, with a big red rising sun above the rings, and it’s fair to say that this bold design set the pattern thereafter. The 60s and 70s logos are “cool” modernist concepts that can leave one a bit cold...from the op-art spiral of the tragic 1972 Munich games to the U.S.-boycotted 1980 Moscow games, whose symbol resembles a militarized version of the Atari logo.
The 1990s logos of Barcelona, Atlanta, and Sydney added a postmodern playfulness that brings out the fun and energy of the games. Logos since then have tended to be abstract, yet recognizably human-oriented and kinetic.
Beijing’s 2008 logo drew on the anthropomorphism of Barcelona’s (bold dashes of primary-color paint suggesting a gymnast) and Sydney’s (which threw in a boomerang shape for local resonance). It resembled a red traditional stamp with a white figure that resembled both a dancer and the Chinese character for “capital.”
The London logo was a stylized magenta representation of the numerals 2012: jagged but also vaguely humanoid. Indeed, some more irreverent commentators soon noted that the shape suggested a silhouette of Lisa Simpson doing something unspeakable to brother Bart. For this and other reasons, many in the (famously self-flagellating) English press considered it a bit of an atrocity. The designers at Wolff Olins certainly deserve credit for being bold, almost confrontational in their choice of color and shape, reminiscent of Italy’s equally controversial “Memphis” design movement.
The logo of the next Summer Olympics, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2016, is the diametrical opposite of London’s. Rather than sharp edges and fierce colors, it is all gentle curves and a cool blue/green/yellow palate offering slight echoes of the country’s flag and its tropical good-time image. The figure clearly indicates a trio (pun intended?) of people holding hands and dancing. In this blogger’s opinion, the 2016 Rio logo sets a great tone for our next global celebration of human movement and togetherness.
[Note: The IOC is infamously protective (litigious) about their trademarks, so it was tricky to find good public-domain sources for all the logos discussed here. If you’re looking for a survey of graphic design from all modern Olympic games, this site seems to have the most useful and comprehensive rundown.]
About the Author