Thoughts on the 2012 Olympic logo

Note: this was written in 1997, just after the official 2012 logo has been revealed.

With all the fuss about the general rubbishness of the new 2012 Olympic logo, I thought I'd point out a lesser-discussed issue about the logo.

As eyedropper has pointed out, almost every newspaper, and the BBC News website, have run ‘send us your alternative design’ competitions. Which has been interesting from a people-being-creative, ‘user generated content’ point of view. And I agree with eyedropper in that a lot of the alternative designs have been tat - using obvious London icons, or worse, the Union flag.

As well as being inventive with new ideas for the logo, people have also been creative in re-interpreting the official logo too. Versions of the logo being flushed down the loo, shoved into recycling bins, or re-arranged to spell ‘shit’ are all circulating online. Not only this, but loads of people have used the Olympics rings in their designs too.

‘What’s wrong with this?’, you might ask - and I’d agree with you. The Olympics organizers might disagree however. Not only are the Olympics logos protected by standard copyright and trademark law, but there’s even a separate Act just covering the use of Olympic logos - Olympic Symbol etc. (Protection) Act 1995, as explained on the 2012 Olympics’ lengthy brand guidelines page. Whilst most of these are intended to protect sponsorship deals - and prevent people implying an ”unauthorised association” with the Games – it does show just how protective they’d like to be with their logos, and creates a bit of a grey area. The recently-published Gowers Report [full PDF] would’t be recommending “an exception to copyright for the purpose of caricature, parody or pastiche” if that already existed.

The 2012 Olympics team seem to be split in two directions though. On the one hand, they are creating unprecedented protections for their sponsors (and have already threatened a website), but on the other hand, they want to be seen as creating a Games for ‘everyone’ and supporting community groups. To this end, they are creating a different logo that ‘grassroots projects‘ can use. As the BBC News article reports, “it would not include the Olympic rings but would spread the benefits of hosting the Games to projects involved in its grassroots cultural, environmental and sporting work”. However, an Olympics spokesperson is seemingly quick to add that “it is not going to be a free for all. There would be conditions to qualify for it“.

It’s presumably this desire to support community efforts that gave the brand consultants the idea to let users ‘create their own designs’. Unlike the design galleries hosted by the newspapers and news websites, however, their gallery asks people to use one of four bewildering templates (since removed), which bear little relation to the 2012 logo at all.

I think that fact that the 2012 Olympics is seen as a major, public event, means that we all feel a sense of ownership over the games — and therefore the right to use the logos, or derivations thereof, on websites and other materials, to identify different community groups, campaigns and forums with the event. Whilst this isn't quite the same as exploiting the Olympics name to sell dodgy merchandise, it does make the idea of stopping ambush marketing pretty hard.

It’s all a far cry from the Festival of Britain (1951) emblem, by Abram Games, which was allowed to be used freely, even to promote goods, as Dan Hill noted some time ago:

Games’ symbol proved to be a success. It was reproduced in an astonishing variety of sizes, colours and contexts. It adorned the exhibition pavilions and the Festival ship, it was franked on the nation’s mail, it was printed on cellophane toffee wrappers, on the stationery of the Festival administration and on the covers of the Festival programmes.

It was decided that the use of the symbol should should be ‘free for all with no strings attached’ although use on high quality commodities was encouraged.

Inevitably, many souvenir manufacturers made the most of the opportunity to profit from this national celebration. There were suggestions that it might be used long term as a ‘Made in Britain’ symbol and fears were expressed from the Board of Trade that overseas competitors might use it ‘to foist non-British goods on the British consumer’.

Though prolonged use of the symbol did not materialise it remained immediately associated with the summer of 1951. Its unrestricted use did not bring about the debasement, as some had feared, but contributed to the ubiquity of this optimistic and contemporary motif.

(Quote from Abram Games, Graphic Designer: Maximum Meaning, Minimum Means, Dan’s emphasis)