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Candid Thoughts on the 2020 Olympic Logo

Train ads and posters are popping up in Tokyo advertising the city’s aspiration to host the 2020 Olympic Games. Adorning the posters is one of the most unimaginative logo designs of recent years, and as expected, a retrograde return to the expected visual formula for Olympics after the hard left turn that was the branding of the London 2012 Olympics. (Logo pictured above – also, hover over the images for the first full-color graphics on Néojaponisme to date.1)

The website promoting Tokyo’s candidacy as the 2020 Olympic city says this about the proposed logo:

The logo comprises an arrangement of cherry blossoms, Japan’s most celebrated flower, and supports the efforts of Tokyo as its bid to host the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games. The logo has been designed to symbolise the concepts of friendship and peace, and the floral motif expresses the feelings of deep gratitude inherent in Japan’s sending of cherry blossom trees to all parts of the world.

In addition to the Olympic colours of red, blue, yellow and green, the design incorporates the traditional Japanese Edo purple, a colour that featured prominently in cultural festivals, events, etc. in Japan’s Edo period (1603-1867). Each individual petal and the circular wreath shape of cherry blossoms represent the interconnectivity and interdependence of the world.

As the wreath has no beginning and no end, the logo also signifies the concepts of eternity, happiness and a continuous unbroken cycle. The design also embodies the strength of feeling that underpins Tokyo’s bid to bring the Olympic and Paralympic Games back to Japan for the first time since 1964, and the firm conviction that the Games will serve as a catalyst for the reinvigoration and regeneration of the whole of Japan.

The logo was designed by Ai Shimamine, a Japanese student in a competition to submit logo designs for the bid. Her winning entry was selected by a panel of judges comprising Tokyo 2020 CEO Masato Mizuno, award-winning designer Kashiwa Sato, and leading script writer Kundo Koyama.

While the branding is described as such on the website, how it is being used in public has a bit of a twist — the posters and train ads (one pictured below) include the five Olympic rings as well. In essence, the logo, an obvious conflation of the Olympic rings and the hinomaru2 with a decorative treatment of randomly colored sakura vector illustrations, needed the visual components spelled out for the public, as the mark itself isn’t a stable enough signifier on its own.

Being a product of student design work, it’s worth critiquing this logo as being exemplary of the type of lazy graphic design education standards that are currently upheld in much of Japan’s design university curricula.

1. Lazy type
The logo uses DIN, one of the world’s most non-offensive typefaces, then mimics the type treatment of Kamekura Yusaku’s 1964 Olympic logo placement of the hinomaru between the “Tokyo” and the year. To some, it’s perhaps a nod to history, though I’d reckon it’s just an easy, unimaginative swipe.

2. Hamburger Hot Dog
The conflation of sakura cherry blossoms (sure, sakura are fine when they are in bloom and are a widely acknowledged symbol of Japan) and the color treatment of Olympic colors along with the distinctly non-Edo era-evocative purple are exemplary of weak conceptual thinking and the most obvious “visual solution” applied, then bolstered by the application of another weak “concept.”

I refer to this type of design as a “hamburger hot dog” — two distinctly obvious choices forced together (or, more colloquially, the inverse of peanut butter and chocolate: two great tastes that absolutely don’t go together). I get hit with this kind of thing weekly on the critique wall in my graphic design classes at Temple University Japan and insist that my students start over each time. The Modern age of “The Big Idea” in graphic design is over, but moreover, when you take what someone purports to be a Big Idea, but is actually a fairly Small Idea, and then apply an even Smaller Idea to attempt to reify your attempt at a Big Idea, and all you wind up with is visual and conceptual mud.

3. Pizza Pizza Pizza
The rings plus the circle plus the wreath is the visual equivalent of saying the same thing three times in a row.

4. Cabbage Topping
Somehow a little cabbage got tucked into the top of the logo, as well. (I understand that it’s supposed to be a sakura bud, but it just looks like a cabbage, or at the very best, a brussel sprout.)

5. Spec Work
I hate design competitions, and moreover, I hate student design competitions. Sure, it may help that student get a job after school, but design competitions are a form of speculative labor. We don’t participate in design competitions with my design studio4, and I actively encourage my students to not participate in design competitions, as well. School should be a time for exploration and experimenting in the laboratory, not aping market rules, visual trends, and reductive thinking. Why can’t the Tokyo Olympic committee afford to pay someone for something that is going to make them a lot of money whether Tokyo wins the bid or not?

6. Y-A-W-N
As inflammatory as it is, Wolff Olins’ design for the London 2012 Olympics constituted an about-face on the typical “easy on the eyes” variety of graphic design and branding schlock that has been continually foisted upon the Olympic games. The London branding was divisive and engaging, and in that way, embodies so much of what the Olympics are about: They are a series of true competitions, not mere visual coddling and cheap ethnic variations of the same theme. I am a fan of design that challenges — and London’s branding did. The proposed Tokyo Olympic branding most certainly does not. It has neither the visual complexity nor conceptual depth/ambiguity to sustain multiple viewings.

All in all, there’s just not a whole lot to grab on to visually or semiotically5. The 2020 Candidate City logo is all surface, but one that isn’t slick enough to sustain. It feels like repetitive clip art and weak themes (not concepts6) taken to their too-logical conclusion.

Craft-wise, the symbol feels amateurishly executed and displays a frightening lack of adeptness at the contemporary tools of design (notably the designer’s inability to correctly draw vectors in Illustrator — if design educators cannot teach students how to handle design-oriented thinking, they should at the very least be able to impart craft and correct practices in designing).

Most of all, I worry that I’m going to have to be stuck looking at this thing over and over again for the next eight years7. Train rides are mundane enough, but even a bit of recurring engaging graphic design makes each ride just that much better.

1 You’re welcome, Alin.

2 Also known as a circle.

3 Shimamine is a student at Joshibi.

4 I was approached regarding a speculative project this week for a non-profit, who insisted that it was 100% acceptable to, in essence, donate a day of my time to provide them with a free stab at their home page redesign. My response paraphrased:

“I’m sorry, but we cannot work for free. I have to set precedents, hence our not-working-with-Third-World-contractors policy and our not-doing-spec-work policy. Absolutely nothing good comes out of these situations — you’ll get a rushed design (which still takes hours of labor on our end) and we start our professional relationship in a non-professional manner which will have repercussions later.
We staunchly refuse to work spec because it means that:
A. The (not-quite-a-)client doesn’t understand that design is more than cultural hairdressing.
B. It sets a precedent for an unprofessional financial relationship. I don’t ask my clients for handouts, why is it acceptable the other way ’round?
C. There are no guarantees. I bet that if we agreed and did it, your company wouldn’t match our proposed budget after we provided the first round for free.
To be frank, if you proceed with a design/development studio that agrees to spec work, I bet you’re going to be disappointed in the future. Professionals act professionally and those that take on spec labor are usually the least professional in terms of output.”

5 The logo is not a visual metaphor, metonym, simile or anything truly thoughtful. In the end, it’s a ring of flowers that apes the look of the Unilever logo and other contemporary modular logos without the thought involved.

6 One of the most angering things about graphic design education in Japan is the confusion of themes, style and concept — one is not the other; however educators rarely, if ever, take the time to explain this in either the historical context or the contemporary one. Concepts can be executed stylishly, a la Robert Brownjohn and Barney Bubbles, however most design faculty in Japan tend to gloss over the finer points of conceptual thinking in an applied setting. Mere surface style is served up as a substitute for a balance of form and concept in most Japanese design university classroom settings. Even worse, style is discussed inadequately, leading to the current generation of Japanese graphic designers being unable to either make holistic work, much less talk about it. (The point: Graphic design education in Japan stinks and needs a real boot to the tuckus.)

7 An analogue can be found in issue #19 of Slanted Magazine within the section titled “Japanese Graphic Design: Not In Production” in which I wrote about Zombie Modernism 2.0 and my desire for ambiguity and contradiction in graphic design, not simplistic formula-based design.

The section functions as an overview of contemporary critical graphic design in Japan and as a critique of the myopic tendencies of the current American graphic design retrospective Graphic Design: Now In Production.

September 5, 2012

Ian Lynam is a graphic designer living in Tokyo and the art director of Neojaponisme. His website is located at His new book, Parallel Strokes, on the intersection of graffiti and typography is available now.

28 Responses

  1. Aaron Says:

    Really interesting analysis, but I found the rollovers annoying.

    You’re discussing color work. Just show the color pictures.

  2. W. David MARX Says:

    You’ve noticed every single other piece of art on Néojaponisme, right?

  3. Durf Says:

    If the monotone identity is that important to the site you might want to stay away from publishing content that requires discussion of color. (Try printing this piece to PDF or sticking it in Instapaper to see where this rollover approach falls down.)

  4. Durf Says:

    At least on a touch device the color versions do show up when you tap them; that was a pleasant surprise on this iPad viewing.

  5. hawken Says:

    Interesting article, would hope for colour images when discussing colour however.

  6. W. David MARX Says:

    Hover over the images for color. It will blow your mind.

  7. Shane Says:

    The explanation of this logo earns a bullshit index of 0.35. :)

  8. Ian LYNAM Says:

    Only .25 for the article itself!

  9. Michael Says:

    Ah, I thought was going mad when I read that Edo purple was two shades of grey! I guessed I missed the note over hovering over images.

  10. Mr. Dai Says:

    Any comments on the 1998 Winter Olympics logo?

  11. Anymouse Says:

    I will say that I thought it took a surprisingly long time to load that image. It took nearly a second to switch from grey to purple.

    Other than that I thought this was an interesting article. I do think there is a place for symmetrical tendencies in graphic design, but losing visual interest is never a good thing.

  12. Mulboyne Says:

    The article read very easily here. I’m on a PC, though, which may have made a difference.

    Tokyo held a similar competition for the 2016 bid. It yielded the musubi knot, designed by Kenji Ekuan. To my untrained eye, the old logo looked more interesting.

  13. Random Commenter Says:

    The target for this type of design is the man on the street. It may be bland, or boring, or whatever, from the eyes of a designer. If you design things for designer’s eyes, you get things like the monstrosity that was Wolf Ollin’s design, or, even worse, its website (which I’m sorely tempted to believe is taking the piss), or even might I say a site discussing colors which considers its stylistic grayscale-and-red approach more important than actual viewability and ease-of-use by readers.

  14. Ian LYNAM Says:

    Wolf Ollins’ (sic, pal) identity was amazing. AMAZING! It was brash and challenging and something outside of the pantheon of Olympic graphic design since Otl Aicher’s design for the 1972 Munich Olympics. It was not elitist – it was pure pop, designed for the people, not “for designers”. That is just plain silly.

    I admit, however, that our color theme can at times get in the way of content, but there’s a reason – to deliver meaningful content stylishly. We take the time to write this stuff and put it out there for you to read – in style, baby. So just relax and enjoy.

  15. Aaron Says:

    @Marxy Actually I hadn’t noticed, but frankly even if I had I would still find it wildly pretentious and the epitome of “form over function” to insist on B&W rollovers for color images when discussing color media.

    On a similar note, I just found that the floating header obscures the comment fields when browsing on the iPhone, making it a chore to fill anything out.

    If “art” is more important than accessibility then perhaps the web is not the medium for you.

  16. Ian LYNAM Says:

    We are about to expand the header flap 5000% to exponentially obscure usability.
    (Please be nice to David. Design issues can be ‘addressed’ to me instead.)

  17. Raymond D. Murphy Says:

    I thought the article was right on the mark. I’ve heard so much diatribe against the London Olympics logo but it received so much publicity and media coverage (granted negative views also) and from friends over there the whole experience that is now inextricably linked with that graphic was a resounding success. Utter pop!

    But I digress, lets talk about 1. the logo in question, 2. The non-spec work ethos, and the right to talk in “big words” or as some refer to as pretentious language, when deconstructing graphic design.

    1. The Tokyo Candidacy logo is fairly pump. It inspires nothing and is taken right out of the Unilever’s sketch book. Having failed at effectively visualizing Tokyo, Japan, or indeed the Olympics it decides to attach the already played out approach of the Hinomaru between the words “Tokyo” and “2020” (Lest we forget the Din font). I can actually hear the thought process for what followed, “Oh shit, I forgot I need to also re-emphasize the Olympics itself [because the logo itself doesn’t], hmm – oh just fire the rings in there too. Sure its for free, what more do they want…”

    2. Graphic Design and any creative work needs to be paid for. I agree whole-heartedly with what Ian replied about why no spec work is so important. How come people think that asking for free work is ok? Its been documented in so many publications and it generates superficial work that doesn’t dig to a deeper understanding of the design brief, if even one exists.

    Without the proper research and insight design for the sake of dress, is just that, superficial, additional eye-candy. A general lack of graphic design appreciation is the reason for this. It’s people who don’t respect design that want free or pitch work. People not willing to give credit to ‘simple’ marks and graphics are loosing the point.

    Firstly to make simple design is a complex act of reduction, not as many consider and previously mentioned, addition. Its a matter of deconstruction and linking meaning with every style choice. Not any old meaning either. Each meaning must come from an insight that is true of the subject matter and relevant to the target audience. When its true it becomes impactful and emotes a reaction from the viewer.

    In the student’s logo there are huge amounts of additions, and that is the epitome of bad design. Its not simple, and so not instinctual, and therefore takes forever to read every visual clue. In other words it carries no weight and loses impact. If I was to be brutal I would take away the main graphic at the top. Ask yourself “Does the main message come through?” Well yes, because it clearly states Tokyo, and we see the hinomaru, and the year, followed up with the Olympic rings. Granted its not going win hearts and minds, but isn’t that the function of a great logo? So in the end the logo fails. And if design fails, then its subpar and shouldn’t be employed in high profile platforms. Then again, how were the organizers to know? Well, they could have commissioned professionals to do it…

  18. W. David MARX Says:

    Our web printer can only do black and red but we get a good rate.

  19. Ian LYNAM Says:

    I would like to note that the fricking flap is gone. It was something that we meant to take out after the redesign, as we *did* note its inefficacy, however we have full time jobs and whatnot, so we lagged. It is now gone.

    I hope we are now making everyone happy, though I do kind of want to reinstate it just to be a pain.

  20. Tokyo’s Logo in Bid for 2020 Olympics, a Fad for Fangs, and Can Cows Predict Rain? « Humor-Us Guide to Japan Says:

    […] The logo to promote Tokyo’s bid for the 2020 Olympics via […]

  21. Mulboyne Says:


    By way of comparison, I wonder if there’s an example of design for a public sector project in Japan which you might regard as a decent effort.

  22. Ben Says:

    The London logo was an aberration I hope we quickly forget and don’t see repeated.
    It detracted from the games, was ugly and uninspired, it represented nothing.
    I did love however that it managed to convey zion and nazi, true to the Olympics movements past.
    I like the flowers, they’re timeless.

  23. rap Says:

    great write up! but as a design for the masses, this effort or plenty of what I see in Japan are 1000x better than most public campaigns in the US of A..

  24. catoneinutica Says:

    Perhaps they should’ve used that “Samurai” font reputed in the West to signify Chinese- and Korean-owned sushi restaurants? Go for a camp effect? Perhaps bring in Murakami or, better yet, Banksy to oversee the design?

    That the flowered graphic was meant to depict cherry blossoms forming a hinomaru was utterly lost on me, but, then, that happens a lot. The graphic looked to me at first glance like, depending on how I positiond my reading glasses, a strangely fat, round, fossilized lei, a wreath made of mighty peculiar-looking poinsettias, a chameleon’s eye, and a floral grave mound (I forget the landscape-gardening nomenclature).

  25. catoneinutica Says:

    On second thought: definitely go for camp. After all, Ishihara the Elder, godfather of this goofiness, is nothing if not camp personified.

  26. Ian LYNAM Says:

    @Mulboyne Good point! Maybe the anti-smoking character (and the character alone) of Shinjuku-ku? In general, graphic design for the public sector is pretty darn awful.

  27. Ian LYNAM Says:

    @rap I wholeheartedly disagree. I think that design for the public sector in both countries is ridden by crappy typography, an abuse of drop shadows, weird color combos and low resolution imagery in print.

  28. Nate Says:


    After reading this article, all I can think of is cabbage when I see the poster! I extend a heartfelt thanks for ruining my ability to objectively look at it! ; )