Thoughts on the Tokyo 2020 Olympics Visual Identity.

Some frank thoughts on Tokyo’s Visual Identity for the 2020 Olympics.

On Friday 24 July the Tokyo 2020 Olympics visual identity was unveiled. Designed by Kenjiro Sano, it was the winner out of 104 entrants into the official competition. Sano’s design is characterised by friendly and often playful ideas and he has a wide breadth of experience across advertising, film and character design.

This identity has sparked some fierce debate across the design world and has even recently become embroiled in a plagiarism lawsuit with Theatre De Liege.

Frankly, I think that this identity really misses the mark as far as an identity for the Olympics and Tokyo goes. Developing an identity for The Olympics in any country cannot be an easy task. The sheer amount of stakeholders and bureaucracy involved must be mind blowing and counterproductive to what we would call “good design”. Add to that a target market of ‘everybody in the world’ and you’ve got a hell of a challenge.

While we haven’t seen any of the additional elements, such as icon sets and real world applications, what we have been presented with so far feels more like a pitch than a fully realised brand.

As with any good design, it hinges as much on the rationale and thinking as it does the execution, so let’s start by having a look at the rationale provided by the Tokyo 2020 website:

‘“When the world comes together for tokyo 2020, we will experience the joy of uniting as one team. by accepting everyone in the world as equals, we will learn the full meaning of coming together as one.
The Tokyo 2020 emblems were created to symbolise the power of this unity.
The black colour of the central column represents diversity, the combination of all colours.
The shape of the circle represents an inclusive world in which everyone accepts each other.
The red of the circle represents the power of every beating heart.
These elements combine to create the emblems of both the olympic and paralympic games.
The tokyo 2020 olympic emblem is inspired by the t in tokyo tomorrow team
The tokyo 2020 paralympic emblem is inspired by = the universal sign of equality.
2020 is almost here.
Let’s unite in the spirit of these emblems to stage an olympic and paralympic games for a better world and a brighter future.”

Okay, so this identity represents coming together, unity and diversity, team and the future. Well, I’m just not seeing it!

The elements do not fit together:
Looking at the design as a whole, the elements feel too disparate. Here we have an abstracted T, a slab serif typeface, and the olympic rings in their traditional colours.

The geometric elements of the brandmark do not click together, the curves on the terminals should mirror those of the circular ‘heart’. Creating a second circle using the negative space between the top right and bottom left elements does not feel like an ‘inclusive world’ when you have a big black bar through the middle of it. In fact this is further confused by the bottom right element also reading as an L.

Serif type and geometric patterns:

Frankly, the serif typeface does not marry well with either of the other elements. It is too florid for the highly geometric designs which it acts as a buffer between. The zeros are tall and oval instead of round, surely a typeface with round zeros would align better with the rings and the circles in the logo.

This recent article by DMIJ, identifies the font used as Clarendon. Clarendon was designed in the 1840’s for use with the printing press. These classic serif fonts strongly conjure images of this era’s printing press typography. Now there’s nothing wrong with Serif fonts, in fact Baskerville and Eames Century Modern are two of my favourites, but it just doesn’t work in this instance, nor for this event.

The small amount of customisation, joining the K and Y of Tokyo, really doesn’t feel like a well considered change to the typeface. It is not a ligature, there’s no interesting negative space created between the K and the Y, so why was it done? What does this add to the design or the message?

The colour palette is flat:
The chosen colour palette lacks the energy of the Olympic spirit. The Olympics are about sport, action, movement and competition. But these metallic tones of charcoal, grey and gold, supplemented with red, do not express these values at all.

Using black as a colour which represents unity and togetherness? While black can be seen as meaning unity it is also closely associated with darkness. It is a strong and heavy colour that weighs down the overall design and makes it overly serious.

When you look at the applications of the logo as pattern over images the colours really drain the life out of the content behind them and it flattens everything out. It feels restrained and corporate. Which brings me to my next point.

It is a retro, corporate design:

The overall feeling of these colours, typography, and geometric shapes is corporate. I’m put in mind of classic design like the work of the Bauhaus and Russian Constructivism designs through the late 1920’s.

Maybe this was designed to really stand out from all the other logo’s done for the past Olympics. To be something unique, serious, less playful than many have been recently. In fact other articles on this identity have said that they believe the designer was aiming for a timeless logo.

The identity should capture the zeitgeist of that time

But to me, the Olympics is not the event for a timeless identity. The Olympics is a 14 day event that happens every four years. The identity should capture the zeitgeist of that time, it needs to feel like it represents the era. And where is the Olympic spirit in all this? Where is the energy of all those athletes competing on the world stage, of the world’s eye turning to Tokyo for 14 days?

To me it doesn’t even speak of the life of Tokyo. I can see the drabness of this city, the monolithic towers, the concrete greys. But there is so much colour and life in Tokyo too, the pinks of Hanami along the Meguro river in spring, the colours of summer fireworks over Tokyo bay, Inokashira Koen turning red with autumn, the bright neon lights of Shinjuku on a crisp winter night. None of this is present in this identity.

I really feel that this identity could have been much more and it is a disappointing addition to the already controversial design problems facing the Tokyo Olympics. The recent announcement of the stadium plans being scrapped being the most major one.

However, as we have yet to see the identity fully applied perhaps it may grow to become something better as it develops. I for one am interested to see how it performs over the next five years.

Tim O'Hanlon

Tim is an Australian born Communication Designer with passion for applying design and strategic thinking to all of his work. Tim moved to Tokyo in 2014 and has been working as a freelance designer since. In his spare time Tim loves to travel around Japan hiking, cycling, eating and snowboarding.

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