HL Mencken believed you would never go bust underestimating the public's taste. And this would seem to be true of Wolff Olins, the consultancy that has trousered £400,000 for the design of a 2012 Olympics logo whose sloppy mediocrity and puerile composition have excited genuine public outrage. An online petition attracted 48,000 signatories in two days. In a humbling and hastily improvised rearguard defence, an official explained that it was paid for with 'private money', as if that made a difference. As Elizabeth David knew, 'a bad meal is always expensive'. And this, so far as graphics is concerned, is a very bad meal indeed. It has left a nasty taste in everyone's mouth.

True, it's a national media tradition every so often to do shock-horror stories about the new logos for this and that, with their inflated fees and ritual accusations of plagiarism. And we have been here before, several times as a matter of fact, with Wolff Olins. Their 1991 BT logo of a wistful piper was estimated to have cost £50m to implement. BT's 'piper' lasted a mere 12 years before a meeting of 200 BT marketing 'executives' decided it was old-fashioned. A meeting of 50 million British citizens could have told them the same in 1991.

The people have spoken again, and I found myself musing about what was being discussed in the Wolff Olins boardroom at the end of last week. Might they be humbled? Will it be withdrawn? Will they pay back the 'private' money in a heroic act of contrition for imposing such a shamingly undignified device on a great city? The designers even admitted that the concept will 'evolve', which is another way of saying it is unresolved and incomplete. Since withdrawal of the offence is unlikely and we will have to live effortfully with it for the next five years, it's worth examining exactly what errors of concept and execution have caused the popular commotion.

Sebastian Coe, having not quite drunk deeply enough of the marketing lexicon, has told us that it is 'edgy'. It is nothing of the sort. Edgy would be good. In fact, edgy would be very good and wholly appropriate to the amazing hothouse of business, media and culture that London has become. But Wolff Olins is a conservative bureaucracy with a heart of lead and a brain of feathers. What they have designed is not edgy - it is lazy and inept and completely without energy. And then Coe went on to explain that it expresses the 'vitality' of the 'brand'.

I think this is what makes the public cross. We are absolutely sick to death with the annoying idea of the 'brand'. Of course brands exist, and it is easy to explain what they are. A brand is the associations and expectations that successful products acquire and, in due course, the logo becomes their affectionately recognised messenger. BMW, for example, has a brilliant logo (based on the propellers that their original aero-engines drove). And BMW has peerless, exemplary brand values. Even though the BMW 3 Series outsells the Ford Mondeo, it is still perceived to be a premium quality product of special value. But this did not happen because of the logo, it happened because BMW addressed itself to consistency and excellence in its business. The brand values followed. For Coe to be talking about the 2012 'brand' is twaddle. It is unproven, is not yet a success, and if it has any associations at all they are with uncontrolled and feckless overspending. If there any expectations, they are of Dome-style organisational calamity.

So far as the actual design is concerned, Wolff Olins appears to have neglected any opportunity to do the diligence on what they have so regrettably produced. Focus groups have their uses: market research can never tell you what to do creatively speaking, but it can most certainly tell you what at all costs you must avoid.

Within hours of Monday 's launch of the 2012 logo, the web was alive with perceptive comments: London's Olympic logo looked like a deconstructed swastika. I received an email from a young woman who pointed out that the logo is clearly a schematic diagram of fellatio, with the Olympic rings being the curly hair of one party. Whatever your view on Nazi or sexual metaphors, the letter forms themselves are clearly based on 'tagging'. That's the street language for the animated typography of the aerosol bandits who go to work vandalising trains and concrete infrastructure. And let's not forget that the animated version of the logo appears to trigger epileptic fits.

Getting something so deceptively simple as a logo or even a name right requires great art and clear thinking, not always available in public projects. During my hilarious moment as creative director of the Millennium Dome, I tried to explain that calling it 'The Millennium Experience' was a redundant amplification. Surely the Millennium was a big enough idea by itself. Peter Mandelson went on to insist that it should be called The New Millennium Experience Company Limited , a name that does not fit into the window of an envelope and a concept so baffling and grandiose it hobbled all attempts at interpretation. After some brilliant proposals were rejected, the Millennium Dome, not without appropriateness, chose a motif apparently borrowed from an over-the-counter headache cure. I resigned soon after.

Still, it is astonishing that a large professional consultancy can have produced such resonantly inadequate work. Especially so as even the most cursory knowledge of the history of graphic design offers wonderful insights into what makes a good logo. It should work in all sizes and all media, from a lapel pin to an aircraft fuselage; on a mobile phone screen and, most importantly of all, on a T-shirt. The designer should have been in possession of a witty visual pun that he or she would then simplify and exaggerate.

A perfect example is Milton Glaser 's 'I Love New York', the best regional identity ever designed. It has clarity and wit. People love it. It expresses something of New York, and people are very happy to have it on T-shirts. Rather as John Selwyn Gummer's poor daughter was required to eat a possibly contaminated burger on screen, I do wonder if Tessa Jowell might model a 2012 T-shirt.

If it was up to me, I'd call Milton Glaser right now. After all, Livingstone's London is not reluctant to employ American expertise where local nous is wanting. But the terrible thing is, while we may be weak on transport managers, London is the undisputed global centre of design expertise. There are thousands of independent designers who could do a better job than Wolff Olins and are more deserving of the opportunity. And to exploit the big pool of youthful talent would be a happier expression of the Olympic spirit than to pass a porkbarrel of a lucrative commission to a galumphing multinational.

Dolly Parton said, 'It takes a lot of money to look this trashy.' The most creative thing about the 2012 Olympics logo is how to spend £400,000 and get a cheap result.


Stephen Bayley
Sunday June 10, 2007
The Observer