Designing the Winter Olympics

The graphic identity of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics doesn’t speak to history. Rather, it’s entirely contemporary, taking what Canada is now, the differing layers and textures of society and art and life, and weaving that into an all-encompassing look. After all, the Olympics are about converging cultures—and so are the Vancouver 2010 graphics.

Not only did Vancouver 2010 develop new graphic elements for the February Games that have never been used before in an Olympics, but it also infused them with an athletic energy, says Ali Gardiner, vice president of brand and creative services for the Vancouver Organizing Committee. Local firm Karacters Design Group consulted on preliminary identity direction before the Committee’s internal design group came together. All the essentials for the “Look of the Games”—the foundational graphic that set the creative direction for the whole event, the pictograms, posters, tickets and more—were created by the committee’s in-house design team led by Leo Obstbaum, who passed away suddenly in August 2009. The team produced every visual element except the Olympic and Paralympic logos (designed by Elena Rivera MacGregor and by Karacters Design Group, respectively).

Laying a Foundation
In order to weave the identity together across the limitless array of platforms used for an Olympic Games, the team focused on creating a core graphic—a foundational piece—that would tie the Look of the Games together. In Olympic campaigns, this image lends consistency, often serving as a backdrop that’s slipped behind a sport illustration, woven onto the top of a ticket or swept across a banner. “In past Games, some designs have been really simple and the aesthetic has been characteristic of their look,” Gardiner says. “In our case, the design is full of a lot of elements and is complex. It distinguishes us from other games.”

The foundational piece ties together multiple elements in the identity. Amid the curving fields of color and pattern, the team scattered whimsical line illustrations to create a sense of fun. Those designs include a tree that turns into a streetlight, a fire hydrant that morphs into an umbrella and railroad tracks that fade to rocks. Since the core graphic is applied to thousands of mediums, the icons fade into the background and provide what Gardiner calls a “useful perspective to look at the city and country.” She says the group steered clear of typical Canadian cliché images (Mounties and Maple Leafs come to mind), instead taking a look at the country in a way that was “cool and fun and probably a little risky” in merging natural and urban environments.

Building a Look
With the core direction established, the design team went to work on additional elements, like color palette and imagery. All imaginable shades of silvery blue and wintry green are used throughout the identity. The scheme is a change of pace from previous Olympic identities, which often played on a traditional palette of primary colors represented in the five-ring Olympic logo.

The team had to choose colors that would look good on both cloudy and sunny days, and that would easily reproduce on TV, in person and on printed materials. The palette, with colors named Mist, Winter Ocean, Moss and Coast Forest, among others, is a strong salvo in the barrage of contemporary imagery the Vancouver design team developed.

The Vancouver creative team then created sport pictograms—standard elements in the Olympic graphic vocabulary—to use as icons on maps and as reference markers for each individual sport. In addition to the pictograms, the team created more detailed illustrations to represent each sport. The pictograms are simple, dark-blue images with white shading on a light blue background; the illustrations are six-color, full-detail versions that appear on merchandise, tickets and mediums where details can shine. These dynamic images convey the flavor of each sport’s contemporary culture. Overlay a pictogram and its companion illustration, and you’ll see that the silhouette is the same. To help vitalize the pictograms and illustrations, the design team enlisted Irene Jacobs, an illustrator based in the Netherlands, because her style fit their creative vision.

From personal scrapbooks to public billboards, the Look of the Games for Vancouver 2010 has run the gamut of mediums. The design team had a hand in creating a brand for the organizing committee’s variety of marketing avenues. John Furlong, the committee’s CEO, says the look is symbolic of a country that is young at heart, diverse, dynamic and fun.

Tim Newcomb, a newspaper editor and freelance magazine writer based in Western Washington, is looking forward to seeing how the Vancouver Olympic identity plays out on the worldwide stage in February.

See the full article and additional images in HOW’s January/February 2010 issue.

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