These posters of Otl Aicher's brand design work for the 1972 hang in my kitchen as a reminder of how powerful effective branding can be.
Otl Aicher’s graphic design work for the 1972 summer Olympics in Munich, Germany is the gold standard by which all subsequent brand design work for Olympic Games should be compared. Hanging on my kitchen wall are two posters of Aicher’s work, and every morning as I’m sipping my coffee I’m reminded that even though 40 years has passed, the graphics have not aged at all. If Aicher’s work was released tomorrow, the freshness of the colors, the simplicity of the graphic language, and the way it communicates information would still come across as innovative and effective.
Aicher did more than create an effective official brand mark for the Munich Olympics. His foresight allowed him to translate that brand to a wide range of other collateral from way finding signage to posters to ticket stubs. He created a clear and concise language that’s aesthetically pleasing and allows its audience to access information without any confusion. Aicher truly understood how a brand can build and create an experience that captures the spirit of such an enormous occasion, and he did so without ever sacrificing clarity.
This ticket stub was revolutionary at the time. It communicates pertinent information such as the event in question, soccer, and the layout of the stadium, while branded colors tie the individual event to the Munich Olympics.
Creating a graphic language for the Olympics is one of the most challenging tasks a designer can undertake. Spectators and athletes come from such a variety of countries, all of which have vast cultural differences. Creating a coherent visual language that will make as much sense to Chinese citizens as it will to athletes from the Dominican Republic is not any easy task.
Olympic graphics also have to stand out and leave a legacy long after the games finish. Legacy doesn’t happen overnight, and it’s difficult to predict how fans will think about an Olympic logo five or 10 years after the games has concluded. This means the best Olympic designs are not only working in the moment but trying to predict the future as well.
Aitler's simple, yet elegant use of color and symbols has allowed his work to stand the test of time.
If I could bestow any advice upon designers tasked with branding an Olympics or another type of world class event such as the World Cup, I would tell them that flexibility is critical. The brand has to work well on all sorts of mediums, from ticket stubs to posters to online sources where colors often replicate themselves in different ways. For the 2004 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, graphic designer Michael Bryce created an angular, faceted graphic language that gave Olympic organizers flexibility to put the logo on all sorts of collateral without sacrificing meaning or the power of the image. It was one of the more successful pieces of brand work produced in the last decade, and similar dare I say to the 2012 brand, which bodes well for the potential legacy of London’s logo.
Strong and intelligent use of iconography is also critical. Finding symbols that can easily denote the various events without causing commotion can go a long way to keeping all relevant parties—spectators, media members, and others—informed about what is happening and where they want to focus their attention. Iconography plays a crucial part in any visual system that needs to appeal to various age groups and demographics; it can become a universal language in its own right when done effectively.
While it’s impossible to render a total judgment on an Olympic brand that is still fresh and has not yet had to stand the test of time, several things strike me about London’s official logo. First of all, it caused controversy, but that should come as no surprise. All brands that represent something that has an added public interest usually do. Does an angular graphic language feel approachable (its dynamic I hear the designer say), was the brand really pushed when it came to architectural forms? It seemed to be designed for and interpreted in a two-dimensional way. Are the collectable posters really that collectable? And is the official typeface sophisticated enough to work at all levels of application – can you imagine reading a paragraph of it?
When you are speaking to a multi-cultural audience, well-developed iconography is the best way to create a cohesive visual system that can span language barriers.
Brand is a word that is so often overused that it can sometimes loses its meaning. Good Olympic branding is a way to communicate meaning and emotion with as little effort as possible. Aicher’s work remains the gold standard—pun intended—for Olympic branding because it does just that. Whether we will hold London’s Olympic brand in the same high regard in 40 years time remains to be seen.
Tony Wilks joined Gensler in 2003 as a Senior Graphic Designer, and now leads the London brand design group. His passions include brand strategy, identity, environmental graphics, signage, way finding, and contemplating the brilliant work of his predecessors while enjoying a cup of hot coffee at his kitchen table. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.