Athletic? Or Pathetic?

The 2012 London Olympics Committee has just released a series of posters intended to celebrate the spirit of athletics in relation to the Olympics and Paralympics taking place next summer.

Olympic games and the arts enjoy a wonderful relationship. With their focus on excellence and achievement, it’s understandable that the spirit of the games includes an emphasis on artistic achievement.

Cities hosting the Olympics have had a long tradition of releasing posters as a way of creating excitement around the upcoming event. These have typically demonstrated pretty high standards of visual design. Below are three posters from past Olympic Games:

Unfortunately, the 2012 London Olympic posters are far removed from great design. The committee asked top artists to come up with designs, but gave them no framework within which to operate, perhaps believing that such a framework would restrict their creative freedom (it doesn’t). The result are posters that mostly fail to speak of athletics. We end up with a series of posters that have no concept behind them, no cohesion, and no Olympic branding whatsoever.

You can view the entire series on the BBC website, but here’s a look at some of them:

I fail to see how a series of horizontal lines relates in any way to the Olympic games. It doesn’t matter how the artist tries to justify his or her work. What matters in this type of communication is how the viewer perceives it.

The athletes involved in the games have worked tirelessly for years to give their very best effort in a world-class competition to see who comes out on top. These posters have absolutely nothing to do with athletic achievement, nor geography, nor competition. There is no sense of national diversity, no hint of athletic unity. Even more pathetic, there is no sense of brand cohesion.

This travesty is just another step in an increasingly dissonant Olympic communications program. First, we encountered the controversy of the logo design, a visual mess of sharply angled boxes that fails to convey anything related to the spirit of the games. The logo is about disarray and confusion, not a coming together of nations in a spirit of friendly competition.

Next came the mascot designs, featuring one-eyed metallic creatures that fail to speak of London nor of anything related to Olympic achievement.

Now we have a poster series which again fail to have any shared elements.

Where’s the brand?

An important aspect of all graphic design, art direction, branding or advertising is to create a cohesiveness that brings diverse elements of the message together, giving them a common focus. This becomes even more important when a design strategy calls for widely different ideas.

In our over-communicated world, strategy is vital. We are assaulted by a barrage of messages daily — some 4,000 different commercial messages every day — and have learned to tune out everything that isn’t relevant to our individual lives. As a result, even when messaging needs to be very different from piece to piece, there must be some underlying concept tying the parts together into a whole so that when we see them we put together the puzzle, as it were. We begin to understand the message being presented and enjoy the journey of discovery we go through in the process.

I’m not opposed to modern art or creativity. I’m not opposed to breaking the so-called “rules” in design. We need to do that sometimes. But I have failed to see anything approaching a concept in any of the 2012 Olympic branding or communications. It looks like the work of a committee without direction, a rudderless strategy without leadership. Instead of celebrating unity in the midst of diversity — the spirit of the games — what I’ve seen so far communicates only confusion and discord.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know what you think.

George Pytlik

George Pytlik has been involved in the advertising industry for over 30 years and designed his first website when the Internet was one year old. He was an internationally recognized speaker on advertising and branding and served on a number of communication committees at various times throughout his career, as well as writing a regular column for Marketing magazine.

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