Official Logo for Tokyo 2020 Olympics Dissected

It’s been the talk of the past few days in the design community (and beyond) and it doesn’t come as a surprise.The new logo for 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games is revealed. The creator of the logo is Kenjiro Sano of MR DESIGN.

Tokyo 2020 Olympics Official logo

Tokyo 2020 Olympics Official logo

When it’s an Olympics logo, everybody has an opinion. Not surprising after seeing the shake and the stir London 2012 Olympics logo caused. And, of course, it is Japanese design we are talking about and Japanese design should be ground breaking, especially for the events like these. It is supposed to be a peak of the designers career — making a logo for the biggest and most famous sporting event in the world. It comes with a great burden and even greater responsibility to shine and make something memorable. Some kind of controversy was expected, taking into account that there always is one and the design is… well, different :)

I will try and not be negative, just raising a few questions and hopefully finding the answers to them. Finding at least some answers is valuable in terms of better understanding of what a sports event logo looks and feels like, what are the limits and how far they can be pushed. Exploration of the new logos treating important subjects are always a chance to learn and grow. I must admit, most of the time, I find narratives explaining the logo to be boring and not persuasive, but a logo for the Olympics just has to be explained, so I picked some of the parts of the official statement, which you can read on the Organising Committee 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.

Ok, it is more-less the standard explanation, but I am not really convinced. Black colour representing diversity, because it is the combination of all colors? C’mon Committee :) I know I would at least come up with a better explanation than that (and I am not very good with excuses). Are there any better ways to represent unity? I think so. Lets be honest and say it is a stylized letter T and the black column is a stem. This would explain the not-so-dynamic nature of the logo itself and my guess is that it’s the main reason why the approach to the motion graphics is more sporty and full of life.

The letter T itself can be discussed further – it has a retro feel than it is even emphasized by the gold and silver colors (and where did the bronze go?). If it is meant to represent tomorrow, a point can be made only if the premise is that future is retro. Something I can live with, but I don’t think the public can be fooled. There is a lot, I and I mean really a lot to draw inspiration from when looking at Japanese calligraphy and typography spanning way back into history. One of the leading technology an most progressive cultures deserves a lot better than Times-New-Roman-resembling font at its core.

The combination of the elements is interesting, although I was left with an uneasy feeling when I first saw the logo. The feeling, as I later figured out, came from the unorthodox treatments of the objects touching each other at just one point. They seem loosely glued together, like the red circle is going to fall off if you look at it for too long. While searching for a justification of such treatment, my assumption was that, well, it was meant to form a circle from the negative space to give it a more iconic look and keep the elements more unified. I find such a treatment more as a crutch, than a wanted solution and it brings me to the silver element on the bottom right. What is that? Ok, it is a part of the space forming the circle, but does it have any other justification that brings more value to the logo and the visual identity of the most watched sports event? It definitely helps form an L, which I first perceived as part of the TOL acronym (one I imagined in my head for Tokyo OLympics), but there is no mention I could find about that. Seems I was wrong. It’s just a grey shape representing itself.

On the bright side, the next element, a red circle is definitely a decent representation of a beating heart and a direct association to Japanese flag. No mistake there.

The Paralympics logo is much more to my taste and understanding of what a good design should be. I already ranted about the colors and the form, so I won’t go through it all over again. There is a huge difference in the feel of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games logo. The middle column is white and thus more open and positive. Instead of splitting the form, the big circular shape now serves as a much more cohesive element. I wouldn’t see and make the connection with the equals (=) sign in a million years (and I am supposed to be a designer that makes these things out in a split of a second).

The type treatment is pretty standard considering the subject, with some extra playfulness coming from the treatment of serifs and wave-like shapes in the numbers. It is strong and open at the same time, although the combo with the visual representation makes it kind of conservative. It is OK, but nothing more than that. Maybe the type in this case actually serves its purpose well; it is, after all, readable and clear, so it leaves no space for confusion or misinterpretation.

The misinterpretation part of the story, actually more of a controversy regarding plagiarism, started when someone did a bit of research and found this:

tokyo logo controversy plagiarismYes, the logo portrayed on the left is definitely very similar to the Tokyo 2020 logo. But, there are a few more things one needs to understand before making any kind of allegations. There are so many examples of subconscious copying that they can’t even be counted and I am inclined to think that a huge organization like Olympics Organising Committee wouldn’t support plagiarism as well as that any established designer would never steal (at least not intentionally). The more interesting part of the whole plagiarism controversy is actually that the same thinking pattern could and probably did happen.
It can mean that either:

a) logo is not too original and innovative, since there are more similar existing examples, or
b) Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games logo is an ingenious solution which made 2 designers in different parts of the world come up with (almost) identical solutions and had their Eureka moment at the realization that the finished piece is just what they were after.

Either way, plagiarism is something that is always open to interpretation. Combining existing elements to come up with new solutions is a practice as old as human kind itself. Where is the limit between copying and making something new? These are all the questions that can’t be easily answered in one blog article, but one thing is for sure: Before we criticize or judge any logo design, we should at least try and grasp the amount of work and knowledge that is put into making that logo and go above and beyond in finding explanations and meaning. It is easy to say something is pretty or ugly, but understanding why it is like that is a completely different story that takes effort and demands respect for the work of the creative people. After all, when logo is selected and “finished”, it is actually only in its infancy. The application of the visual identity across various media outlets, and emotional connection with the public (call it branding if you will) is something that grows and develops over time. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Neither was Tokyo.