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July 24th saw the unveiling of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic logo for both the Summer Games and Paralympic Games of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

A striking flat, minimalist composition, the logo is formed by a central black rectangle, with a negative space circle created by two corner elements and finished off with a red circle in another corner. The Paralympic logo simply flips the negative space and the black rectangle.

Designed by Japanese artist, Kenjiro Sano, the identity is loaded with symbolism and is said to represent diversity, inclusivity and the power of a beating heart, while also forming an abstract ‘T’ shape and including the famous rising sun of the Japanese flag.

The identity is an obvious departure from more recent Olympic logos, forgoing the characterised, vibrant, playful and often garish approaches of recent times for a humbler, classicist interpretation.

However, the bold approach, as always, has split both the design communities and the man in the street, with responses varying from ‘great mix of modern and classical’ to ‘logo looks pretty neat’ to ‘a confusing geometric mess’. One commentator even compared the identity to a Pong paddle and ball.

In addition to the wide-ranging design opinions generated by the release of a major identity, the Tokyo Games logo has also encountered its fair share of controversy, with accusations of plagiarism aimed at the designer. The ‘rip-off’ in question is a very similar logo for Théâtre de Liége in Belgium, created in 2011 by designer Olivier Debie.

While the new identity unquestionably looks similar, I believe accusations of plagiarism are wide of the mark. All designers know and understand that design is iterative and that any creative endeavour is informed by your environments, your experiences and your interpretations, whether consciously or sub-consciously. When using stripped back and minimal shape arrangements such as this its not atypical for something similar to exist in the wider world. Also, while I’m not privy to Mr Sano’s travel history, I would suggest it particularly unlikely that an obscure Belgian logo was even on his radar when creating the Tokyo Games logo.

Despite the initial controversy and opinion generated by the recent launch, the Twitter comment of ‘at least it’s a step up from London 2012 logo…just’ took me back to June 2007, when the London 2012 logo was unveiled to great fanfare and significant public (and creative community) derision. Designed by Wolff Ollins, the logo was aimed at engaging the youth of the nation and was said to be a hard-working brand that represented dynamism, modernity and inclusiveness.

It’s difficult to comprehend now, 8 years on, the vitriolic response that the identity generated at the time, prompting a series of bland ‘alternative’ designs that were championed by sections of the media. What the lessons on London 2012 have taught us is to fully understand the bigger picture. Regardless of the brand, and instead of analysing a logo in isolation against a white backdrop, it is essential to understand the wider branding system and context of its application before fully embracing or rejecting it. Additionally, a brand’s impact can only be measured over time, living with it on a regular basis. Another difficult consideration when it comes to creating an identity for the Olympic and Paralympic Games is that it will be launched 5 years prior to the event itself. As designers we can struggle to represent feelings and emotions within the fads and fashions of today, let alone considering how to represent the mood of a nation in 5 years’ time!

For what it’s worth, I actually liked the London 2012 logo at launch, but grew to love it over time, especially when seen in context at the Games themselves. I felt the whole branding system captured and reflected the mood of the nation at the time (remember it was designed 5 years previously), and became a memorable icon to represent that significant point in time.

Ultimately, that is what an Olympic and Paralympic Games logo should strive to achieve. While symbolic of a given point in time, the identity should generate anticipation prior to the Games, and serve as a reminder of the emotions experienced and memories created during the Games. It is for this reason that the Tokyo 2020 branding has made some ground, as it has already generated some feeling and emotion. Rather than dividing opinion, the worst possible outcome would be to elicit no emotion and no response.

So, what do I think of the Tokyo 2020 branding? I haven’t had the same emotional response to it that I did with the London 2012 identity, but overall it appeals to the minimalist in me. I think it has a timeless feel (which may actually work against it in the long-term memorability stakes) and the wider branding system looks fantastic – the animation is great. However, I don’t feel the choice of font works with the iconography. I would have preferred a bolder sans, to reinforce the modernity rather than the classicism.

And finally, my favourite Olympic logo is possibly Atlanta 96. Again it reminds me of a point in time – we were on a family holiday in the States while the Games were on – feels reverential, but also representative of a nation. The Atlanta Games themselves were a corporate mess, but that’s another story!

*** UPDATE ***

As of 1st September 2015, the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Logo has been scrapped due to allegations of plagiarism. Toshio Muto, director general of the Tokyo organising committee said, “We’re certain the two logos are different.

“But we became aware of new things this weekend and there was a sense of crisis that we thought could not be ignored.

“We have reached a conclusion that it would be only appropriate for us to drop the logo and develop a new emblem. At this point, we have decided that the logo cannot gain public support.”

However, while Sano has maintained that he did not copy the Olivier Debie creation, he has subsequently become embroiled in a row about copying other designs in previous works. The Tokyo 2020 organising committee will now hold a competition to create the new Games ident, while the bid logo comprising a multicoloured wreath will be used in the meantime.

I think that the committee should have stuck to its guns on this one and maintained the use of the Sano logo, despite the plagiarism allegations and the controversy surrounding him, although I understand the move to distance themselves from the controversy. Additionally, I would also have preferred to see a singular vision commissioned to create the new brand rather than a competition. As I noted earlier, I believe that would lead to a much more sanitised solution, that may avoid controversy, but also avoid memorability too.


Article originally written as part of Nuance & Fathom’s portfolio.

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