4 min Read
February 17, 2010

Branding of Olympic Proportions

Big Duck

I’ve been swept up with 2010 Winter Olympics fever over the past couple of days, not because I’m a huge fan of figure skating or ice hockey, mind you, but mostly because my wife is pretty obsessed with the Games (yes, I’m blaming her for my watching sports).


As I started watching the opening ceremony and the subsequent individual competitions, it struck me how the Olympics brand is such a global venture. And I don’t just mean global in the “countries-around-the-world” sense. I mean from a designer’s standpoint, it’s a dream opportunity to design things on a scale that can vary from the size of a pen to something akin to a literal architectural village, across multiple disciplines.

With all the elements that would need to be designed for the Olympics, you can bet that design is one of the first major tasks to be tackled for a host city. Heck, even before a final city is selected, the candidates will design a visual campaign system around the push to be picked. Anyone remember the bids for Chicago or New York City ?

There are a lot of competing and overwhelming forces that come to play when you take a look at an event such as this. There are the participating nations. There are the sponsors. The host city/country. And the Olympic brand itself. I admit to having a “whoa” moment myself even as I try to think about all of these things, and how they work together. What has helped me understand all of this visual eye candy is something I use myself when I look at the work we do for our clients–what’s the hierarchy?

A visual hierarchy in design uses colors, sizes, textures–all sorts of tools to advise a viewer on what to “read” first. It suggests a sense of order and importance, giving some ground rules for the audience to follow. It’s the difference between looking at a page full of clutter, and a page that feels more manageable to read. For example, a big headline on the front page of a newspaper tells the reader that he/she should pay attention there first, while subsequent smaller articles get behind the line.

The Olympic symbol, with its five colorful interlocking rings, has always been a very well known and universal one. They’re not just something physical–they’re a set of ideals meant to span the globe. In fact, they refer to themselves as a “movement.” The Olympic symbol is the “mother brand” during the games, at the top of the hierarchy. However, it’s also one of those rare brands whose goals are to act as a vessel to help spotlight something else. One of the decisions to have those Olympic colors on the flag was that someone figured that every country had at least one of those colors on their flags. A little something for everyone, right?

With this idea, the Olympic brand invites a lot of interpretations on how to work with that symbol, while incorporating each host city’s unique perspective. This is the part that I find most fascinating–how many different ways can one use ideas like “winter” or “summer” and “sports” mixed in with your city’s personal characteristics, while respecting those Olympic ideals?


For the 2010 Winter Games going on now, the design team began with the Vancouver Olympics emblem, which harkened to the inukshuk, a directional rock form created by the Inuit people of Canada.

From there, design elements were created–a literal and figurative visual landscape to tie all of the individual games together. It’s an attention-grabber, a way to incorporate a story that can have an impact in a way the emblem alone could not.

There’s a nice video here that gives you a glimpse of the story behind some of the thinking of this look.

So what was my takeaway from all these Olympic designs? Love ’em or hate ’em, I’m impressed with the countless ways designers have worked within the Olympic guidelines. And grown and adapted to new technologies, techniques, and aesthetics.

Here are some other thoughts, o great nonprofiteers:

  • Once you have your brand, guard it, enforce it, and nurture it.
  • Have a styleguide with rules for both the visual identity and messaging. This will help ensure consistency in how you project yourself to your audience. From the visual side, it gives your agency or designer a set of parameters from which to work.
  • Look at your designs from a hierarchical and contextual point of view. Who’s the hero? Are logos fighting each other for attention? How can my brand work in unusual environments?
  • The rules evolve everyday. So should your brand. Do a regular checkup and update your styleguide to allow for flexibility to stay relevant and forward-looking.

And finally, what’s next? I leave you with the look of the next Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. You may notice that for the first time, the emblem has a url, meant to address a more digital audience.

I wonder what other new ways a brand will find to take the spotlight in 2014.