Event logos come and go throughout history. That fleeting aspect, though, gives designers a freedom to create for a specific moment in time and place. For the Olympics, that moment—that logo—forever lives to define a two-week spectacle of sport.
The way that moment has been defined, from early 1900s in Paris, to a color-rich logo time period of the 1960s and ‘70s (Squaw Valley to Mexico City to Munich), to the recent Rio de Janeiro Olympics has varied greatly.
“I think what (Olympic logos) get right, is they always can find that hook-in point that defines that culture, that era,” Michael Raisch, a Fanbrandz designer and owner of Raisch Studios, tells HOW Design. “I think they always hit their mark in terms of being aspirational.”
Both Raisch and Todd Radom, owner of Todd Radom Design, agree that even as a bulk of the most recent crop of Olympic logo designs have fallen on flatter times, there’s a bit of hope after the success of the Rio logo, with the powerful script typography from Dalton Maag, the implied dimensionality and a host of trendy colors.
“I think it will wear well,” Radom says. “I think when we look back in four years, it will have aged well. It is trendy, but not by looking overly trendy.”
History has changed. Whereas nowadays logos come as part of a larger design program, 100 years ago there wasn’t even a logo, as posters defined the day in 1896’s birth of the modern Olympics. While Paris helped give life to Olympic design with games in 1900 and 1924, logos started taking shape in the early 1900s too, even as far back as Lake Placid’s first games in 1932. And while we can all appreciate the splash of blue in the 1952 Helsinki logo, it was the 1960 Squaw Valley logo that really started to define a new age in design.
“The Squaw Valley games was very, very elegant,” Radom says. “Olympic logos at one time captured this real sense of place and the most lofty goals the movement of the Olympics aspired to. We are left with flatness now. They are very safe and generic.”
The Mexico City logo of 1968, possibly the most-loved Olympic logo in the design community for its dynamic look that then set off each sport having their own, individualized logo, was a reminder of what Squaw Valley had done before it and a foreshadow of what Munich was able to do four years later.
“That Squaw Valley logo from 1960 was just gorgeous,” Radom says. “Timeless. It would work as well today as I would guess it did then.”
Radom says that each of these logos in the 1960s and 1970s had a sense of place, even if just the funkiness of the 1976 Montreal design. There isn’t a lot going on there, he says, but it looks like 1976 and when you close your eyes and remember Olympic moments from old, you can picture the graphics and colors of the Olympics alongside, something lost in today’s generic event logos, such as the NFL’s recurring Super Bowl logo catastrophe.
Raisch agrees, thinking back to his time as a school-age kid visiting the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. “You look back 20 years and it feels like the ‘90s,” he says. “It was something more straightforward and more nuts and bolts. You think of how the world has changed in 20 years and that was a very good brand, but it is more a reflection of how dynamic things have to be now. Atlanta was very regal. It embodied Atlanta.”
Raisch says the Olympic look is about coming down to a “really beautiful icon” that can give design to an entire region.
“For something that comes along every four years and goes away, there seems to be a way to speak to the world and connect with a particular location,” he says, saying Rio signified a move away from the bland “bowl of mashed potatoes” designs we’ve seen recently. “There is a way to have a contemporary take and maintain those qualities.”
Raisch understands the number of stakeholders involved and the need to satisfy, but also says that the larger design program has now given rise to more rich, more dynamic designs, whether the Rio logo or the 2018 Winter Olympics logo for PyeongChang, South Korea. The logo there comes across as a simple square. “Shifting over time, you always design in context,” he says. “It was first so strikingly minimal, I thought it was a minimal trend, but the 2018 Winter Games website has beautiful rectangular shapes—icon packages. They have to satisfy these needs of all these digital components and how they come to life.”
Of course, there’s power in the international stage. And there’s definition in the Olympic rings. And those items should, designers say, have a sense of current culture attached to them, a contemporary take on a city. A moment in time designed unabashedly in the period it sits.
In the online course Breakthrough Logo Design and Branding Success, Dr. Bill Haig breaks down his “credibility-based logo design” process. A model he championed from the teachings of his legendary mentor, Saul Bass. Learn more and register.