The 'edgy' 2012 logo has abolished Olympian grace and geography

By Ian Jack (THE GUARDIAN, 09/06/07):

When the Olympics last came to London, in 1948, their advertisements showed an easily understood combination of the Olympic rings, Big Ben and an ancient statue of a Greek discus thrower (a Roman marble copy of the original Greek bronze, which was and is still one of the British Museum's most prized possessions).

The games were an event rather than a brand. "Logo" existed only as a prefix in the Shorter Oxford: "logocracy, a community or system of government in which words are the ruling powers ... logotype, a type containing a word, or two or more letters, cast in one piece."

London then was also more easily understood: mainly white, mainly monolingual, the sources of its wealth - docks, warehouses, factories, banks - more plainly visible. What did the word "brand" mean then? It meant motionless words and illustrations on packets, tins and posters: Bird's Custard, Brooke Bond, Bovril, Bass. The industrial revolution had divided the population into producers and consumers and broken the association between growing things and eating them.

Food ceased to be local or fresh. A brand name established trust, the idea of invariable quality. Into the freight yards and canal wharves of north London came the produce of rural Britain and the overseas empire, swung by sackloads into warehouses, there to be divided and then dispatched to factories which would process and package it, to give plain things (peas, leaf tea, flour) a vivid, appealing identity.

Time moves on. Branding is now a profession with a vocabulary and a philosophy. Wolff Olins, "the world's most influential brand business", according to its website, now occupies one of those warehouses in the little grid of streets wedged between King's Cross station and the Regent's Canal.

It was there in a Victorian building of lovely mellowed brick that the emblem for London's 2012 Olympics was conceived - the logo that has caused so much affront and mockery, that in its animated televised form has caused at least 22 epileptic seizures, and that about 50,000 online petitioners and several newspapers say should be scrapped.

Wolff Olins, founded in 1965 and now part of the American Omnicom group, has branded or rebranded clients as various as Tesco, Unilever, the state of Liechtenstein, the Athens Olympics and Tate Modern (insisting in the last case that the definite article be dropped - "the" has become an unfashionable word, interfering with urgency).

We may not quite understand what they do - according to a company statement, Wolff Olins "helps clients seize the opportunities presented by a changing world, by making them unique in their markets, and uniquely valuable to customers and shareholders" - but must assume they are good at doing it.

The loud distaste and the epileptic fits have frightened Wolff Olins into silence; nobody in the office has been given a licence to talk about the logo, which is a nice paradox for a company that specialises in talking ("If you require a comment that means business, an informed point of view that comes from an expert and a swift response that is backed by examples, then please call us").

A common accusation is that the emblem is the work of middle-aged designers trying to be streetwise and "edgy" (or Banksy) - the "vicar on a motorbike" syndrome. In fact, the motivation was grander than that - at least if you believe the reasoning in the documents. London's bid for the Olympic and Paralympic Games was won on the strength of a presentation that promised London would inspire the youth of the world. Wolff Olins met the brief by producing something that in its words was "neither an appendage to London nor the Olympic symbol" but "a brand which can be read and understood by people of all ages, around the world". It was "unexpectedly bold, deliberately spirited and unexpectedly dissonant", echoing London's qualities as "a modern, diverse and vibrant city" while eschewing "sporting images and London landmarks" to mitigate the impression that the Olympics actually comprise a series of athletic events with luxuriously trained winners and losers and outbreaks of nationalism, held every four years at great expense in a different but real city. The emblem's form, therefore, "is inclusive ... for everyone, regardless of age, culture and language".

For that reason, when in print and in repose, it looks like nothing very much at all. It has abolished any idea of Olympian grace and elevation - highest, fastest, strongest - and done its best to remove geography. Removing geography can be tricky. On the one hand, who cares where Nikes are made? That isn't the point of them. On the other, there is the cautionary story of British Airways' livery redesign, when it was decided to change BA's identity from that of a British airline with global routes to one of a global airline with British origins, and by doing so exchange, or so it was thought, an image that included focus-group words such as "proper, boring, formal" with opposites such as "culturally sensitive, fun, warm and friendly". Most noticeably, the change was to be effected by the tail fins, which were painted in "world art" derived from, among other things and people, British narrow boats, Chinese calligraphy and the tribes of the Kalahari desert. The London consultancy Newell and Sorrell inspired the change and 170 aircraft were repainted by 1999. Then the chief executive, Bob Ayling, announced a stop. Two years later his successor ordered every tail recovered in red, white and blue. Margaret Thatcher had famously covered a world-art tail with her handkerchief when shown a model, saying: "We fly the British flag, not these awful things." More important, the airline's British core customers, many of them patriotic men of a certain age, hated the change.

In the branding business, people tend to see this as the customer losing his bottle rather than a strategic mistake. What Wolff Olins needs to do now, according to Rita Clifton, chairman of international branding consultancy Interbrand, is to show "real united confidence - absolutely no hesitation or wobble. You never get a second chance to make a first impression." She also said "people get used to things", and this is true; and it is, after all, only a logo.

Still, I think the opposition has more on its side than cultural conservatism and a desire for dignity and elegance. Global marketing and global brands - or anything aspiring to be one, such as the new emblem - are the enemy of the local and erode our already diminished sense of belonging. London may be "the world's greatest world city", but all those who live in it know a price is paid for that status, literally and in less quantifiable ways connected to how people treat each other in society that no longer seems so steadily familiar. Some see it as vibrancy, others as turbulence.

The human attachment to things as they are, or recently were, is the emotion that branding has so little patience with. Being paid to innovate, to retain or expand market share, the profits of the future are its constant concern, and its ability to make us buy into this future is apparently unassailable.

This week many amateur drawers and designers had their alternatives to the logo published in newspapers and by the BBC. Not all of them showed Big Ben. Many managed to be pleasing and interesting while still attached to an idea of London. They showed that creativity flourishes beyond people lucky enough to be paid to have it. They may even for a moment have dented the confidence of the professional marketer. They were good to see.