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Lessons from the Creation of the 2016 Olympics Logo

Nyla Smith | Thursday, July 28, 2016

With the summer Olympics right around the corner, I’m sure you’re excited to watch the world’s best in swimming, volleyball, and gymnastics. And the one player making an appearance at every sport? The Olympics logo, of course. Read on for the fascinating story of how the official Rio 2016 logo and font came to be, and some lessons you can learn from the process.

The fine folks over at 99U have given us a behind-the-scenes look at the process that went into creating the 2016 Olympics logo and font. Throughout are some valuable nuggets of truth that can teach or remind us of a few things, whether as business owners, marketing professionals, or creatives.

Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic lgoos
Rio 2016 font
Rio 2016 Olympics and Paralympics logos (top), Rio 2016 font (bottom). Image Source: Rio 2016 Brand Guidelines

Eight takeaways from the creation of the 2016 Summer Olympics logo and font

  1. Collaboration is a necessary part of design (and life!).
    two are better than one

    In the real world, conditions are rarely ideal. Perhaps the budget isn’t there to do what you want, or your creativity is constrained by the rules of a heavily-regulated industry, or perhaps, as in this case, you are thrown together with a stranger to complete a highly-visible project in tandem and are forced out of your element to do so. That is what happened with the two firms selected to design the Rio 2016 Olympics logo and font. (The Olympics committee outsourced the different collateral to various local firms instead of choosing just one to handle everything. Tátil Design de Ideias created the logo and Dalton Maag created the full font.). Collaboration requires us to be flexible, and can sometimes feel restrictive. But, more often than not, it results in a better finished product. Related: Collaborative Creativity
  2. Spec work runs rampant in the design industry, even from those who should know better.
    Time and effort cannot be separated from money

    Spec work is work performed without promise of payment (basically, working for free). A total of 139 agencies competed for the Rio 2016 logo design project, and the Olympics committee required submission of a logo concept as part of the bidding process. (In what other industry can you get a finished product before even selecting a vendor?) The winning agency, Tátil Design, put in two solid months of work, utilizing the efforts of everybody in the company. The other 138 agencies likely worked just as hard, and in the end were compensated nothing for their time, effort, and ideas. Working on spec is a poor practice that plagues creative industries and I’m disappointed that the Olympics committee decided that was the route to take. Do better, Olympics committee. Do better.
    Related: S is for Spec Work
  3. Inspiration usually comes when you’re not looking for it, and often can be found readily in nature.
    Nature inspiration

    The idea for the winning logo came to creative director Frederico Gelli when he was swimming. He emerged from the water and inspiration struck as he looked at the mountains above him. Some of the best inspiration is God’s own design. Oftentimes, when we have a challenge in front of us, we try too hard to solve it, or try to force solutions, and often end up running repeatedly into a brick wall. I find, in those times, a great thing to do is take a step back and focus on something else. Being inspired is unpredictable. Opening our eyes to the world around us can make us more receptive to it. Related: Inspiration from food? Certainly!
  4. You don’t always need to reinvent the wheel (just put your own spin on it!).
    wagon wheel

    The Rio 2016 Olympic logo is essentially an infinity symbol. It's something we've all seen and can relate to. It crosses time and culture. Archetypal symbolism is powerful, and Tátil Design relied on this to strengthen the communication value of their logo. The design agency didn't make up a new symbol; they took something that already has deeply intuitive meaning and re-imagined it. And it became the winning logo. Of course being original is important, but there truly is nothing new under the sun. It's all been done before in some iteration. Our job (as creatives, entrepreneurs, or business owners) is to do it differently or better. I must caution though — beware of plagiarism, intended or otherwise! Related: Plagiarism and the 2020 Olympics Logo
  5. Be flexible when it comes to your logo / visual brand.
    Yoga at sunset

    The Rio Olympics logo was molded into a beautiful 3D model. While this was actually part of the design exploration process for Tátil Design, there’s no reason why the logo can’t actually be erected as a finished full-scale sculpture, and I hope and expect that it will. When having a logo designed, don’t box yourself in by thinking it will only ever be used on paper. These days, your visual branding should be flexible. That means a fluid branding system, or various versions of your logo for different purposes, or even — as the Olympics logo shows — your logo as a 3D rendering. Our society is so multifaceted and technological that your logo could end up in any number of places, in any manner of media. Keep this in mind and allow it some wiggle room so it can represent your brand in the best way possible. Related: Google Doodles — a fluid branding concept
  6. Know when it’s time to call in a pro.
    amateur handyman

    Sure, there are lots of things you can do on your own. But in many cases, you’re better off bringing in an expert. After designing the logo icon, Tátil Design opted to hire an expert typographer to create the logotype (“Rio 2016”) underneath it. They knew that an experienced specialist was what the job called for, even though they were professional designers and perhaps could have created something decent themselves. In your life and in your business, know what situations would be better off with an expert. Related: Designing Web Visuals: DIY or Hire a Professional?
  7. The process of designing a font deserves respect.
    r

    Surely designing a typeface can’t be that difficult, right? There are only 26 letters in the alphabet, 10 numerical figures, and there are only so many different ways you can render each one, right? Wrong, buddy. There are so many considerations that go into designing a typeface that it would make anybody’s head spin. Case in point, the finished Rio 2016 Olympics font has nearly 500 characters, including symbols, ligatures, special characters, and variants. Creative director Fabio Haag sums up the challenge his team faced “…every letter needs to work nicely next to any other and match… In order for [the] font to look like it was hand-written and spontaneous, we created a lot of alternative characters. There are two versions of ‘b’, ‘d’, ‘p’, and ‘g’ and the version that is used is based on what letters precede and follow it, so the connections look natural.” The process of designing a typeface is extremely detail-oriented and time-consuming. Typographers and their craft (any by extension, anybody who works hard at what they do) deserve our respect. (Remember that the next time you download a free bootleg version of a font that you know you should be paying for.) Related: Font vs. Typeface — What's the difference?
  8. The creative process overall can be a long and arduous winding road.
    winding road

    It took Tátil Design two months to hone in just on the logo concept, not including 150 hand-drawn logotypes, and it took Dalton Maag 23 versions to get to the finished font. The creative process is not just something that designers do to pass the time. The process has a purpose, which is to get to the best solution possible. Remember when you need a logo, you are paying for more than just a squiggle on a page, but all of the energy, effort, testing, revising and expertise that went into making that squiggle perfect. You can’t expect to pay for the finished result without paying for the process it took to create it. A simple outcome is rarely the result of a simple process. Related: Why you should never underestimate "simple"

So there we have it, eight lessons from the Rio 2016 Olympics logo and font. Perhaps as you watch the games, you’ll be able to appreciate not just the world-class athletes, but all of the effort that went into the visual branding for this historic event as well!

Nyla Smith is a Graphic Designer, Web Designer, and Front-End Web Developer with over 11 years of experience. She is the owner of n-Vision Designs, LLC in Hampton, Virginia, which exists to provide marketing support to small- and medium-sized businesses that need creative solutions. Contact Nyla if you'd like to discuss your next creative project. She can usually be bribed to a meeting with a cup of green tea and an oatmeal cookie.
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