Why Olympics Branding Is Such a Challenge

Work & Co’s founding partner breaks it down

Paris 2024 unveiled its logo last month. Olympic.org
Headshot of Doug Zanger

In October, Paris 2024 unveiled the branding for its Olympic and Paralympic Games. The logo paid homage to Marianne, France’s national symbol, and used some visual trickery to vacillate between a flame and feminine features. Adweek asked designers to weigh in with their thoughts, and sentiment was largely negative.

But designing a logo for a global event like the Olympics is nothing short of daunting. There are tons of stakeholders to appease while still working to maintain the integrity of the design. There is also no shortage of opinion. For some reason, the Olympics logo brings out the passion in both marketing professionals and people outside the industry.

One such design pro is Joe Stewart, design partner and co-founder of Work & Co, the independent agency that counts Apple, Epic Games, Ikea, Google and Mercedes among its clients. Adweek asked Stewart his thoughts on Olympics branding and the secrets to standing out when so much is at stake.

Adweek: Designing a logo for the Olympics and Paralympics is a tough brief, isn’t it?
Joe Stewart: I can’t really imagine the number of chefs in the kitchen for something like this. From politicians to committees to the citizens—I’m sure it’s groupthink hell. Good design rarely works via focus groups. It’s the same reason I don’t think the current trend of “design thinking” workshops is effective. I’d bet designing a great Olympics system is 25% design and 75% defending the work.

What do you think makes a great Olympics logo design?
The marks that have stood the test of time share a few things in common. They’re unapologetically simple: You can read them from 100 feet away, and a 10-year-old could draw them. They’re also scalable: The games are the world’s biggest event, and the way the mark is represented is really big and varied too. They have to scale down to a one-quarter of an inch and at 1,000 feet. They also give the audience credit and treat them with sophistication—no bubbly childish nonsense, which has been done, and they don’t age well. Lastly, they have to be local and global simultaneously. They represent their city, but also represent the world.

What makes this different than designing a brand identity for a company? What matters most as part of the strategy?
I think the most daunting part of designing a logo for the Olympics is knowing that the mark has to feel relevant to everyone, and it also has to stand the test of time. It has to be for all people, in every country, in every language. You’re basically designing a logo for the people of Earth for that moment in time. You get one shot at it, there are no revisions, and it will be judged against some of the best examples of design ever.

Corporate logos have the luxury of updating every few years to keep up with the times. Olympic logos have to keep up with the times from a static state. Corporate logos also are niche and need to say something very specific about the company and why it is different from its competitors. But with the Olympics, it’s about being as inclusive as possible and counting everyone and everything as on board. It’s easier to be focused than broad when you are coming up with a system—which is why they tend to go for broader themes. Both Tokyo 64 and Munich 72 use an image of the sun as the main mark. This is the level of inclusivity we are talking about. Everyone is affected by the sun—it shines on all people of Earth. It’s difficult to find many symbols as important to all of humanity as the sun. Seriously, go ahead and try it.

The Olympics are over 100 years old. What’s changed and what hasn’t in terms of its design?
The brief for designing a logo for the Olympics is the same today as it was 100 years ago, and will be the same in another 100 years—create something to unite the people of the world. Make sure it looks great today and will look great in 100 years. You get one shot. No big deal. I think this is why people love these logos. It’s either going to be one of the greatest things ever or a complete failure. There is no in between. In terms of graphic design, it’s as high stakes as it gets. That’s the same today as it was 100 years ago.

Olympics logo reveals are not exactly the smoothest of exercises. What are some smart strategies for an unveiling in your opinion?
The worst mistake is trying to create some kind of major unveil or marketing campaign around it. Don’t. Just start using it. Unveiling logos is a horrible practice that needs to end, especially for corporations. It only invites criticism, and a logo doesn’t make sense in the abstract—it has to be seen in context. It’s like just seeing a still from a movie and judging if the movie is good. The PR pop a company gets from unveiling a logo is not worth the peanut gallery ridicule. Just ask every single company that has unveiled its logo in a big presentation lately.

OK, now to the big question. What are your top three Olympics logos of all-time?
No. 1: Munich 1972

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@zanger doug.zanger@adweek.com Doug Zanger is a senior editor, agencies at Adweek, focusing on creativity and agencies.