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Ugly duckling grows up
by Chris Arning| London, UK
Monday, 20 August 2012
tags: art & design, culture, europe, making sense, semiotics
Charles Peirce the forefather of semiotics once wrote: “Symbols grow… They come into development out of other signs, particularly from icons… A symbol, once in being, spreads among the peoples. In use and in experience its meaning grows.”(From C.S. Peirce, Collected Papers, published in Danesi and Perron, 2003, p. 64)
Peirce identified an icon as a sign “which refers to the Object that it denotes merely by virtue of characters of its own, and which it possesses, just the same, whether any such Object actually exists or not” (ibid, p.52). This is actually an uncannily accurate description of the 2012 logo prior to the Olympic Games. When it was launched it was a sketchy emoticon or empty cipher, voided of significance, and only negative meanings were viciously stuffed into it by cruel commentators. It became a proxy for sloppy failure in a soon to be Broken Britain. It is fair to say that circumstances have somewhat changed and this botched gestalt has grown into more gracious acclaim.
A true symbol in the Peircean sense involves meaning becoming engendered in a general mind or community of enquirers over time through habit. In one revealing passage, Peirce talks about a symbol as “the making of a contract or convention… that is, a signal agreed upon…because it serves as a badge or shibboleth”. This is particularly true of branded logos as they are condensations of meaning that need to communicate to a massive constituency. I believe this has been the case with the 2012 Olympic emblem. I would argue significantly rehabilitated in those two fateful weeks in July / August 2012. So what has changed the contract about this sign?
What changed of course is that we have just had 2 weeks of a soft power injection into the UK through the good natured competition in London – and a whole host of meanings and images have become associated with the Games which Jacques Rogge declared as ‘glorious’. Whatever you may say about the substance of the signs, this Olympics was exceedingly well branded. The emblem formed the back drop to swimming medal ceremonies, was on the scoring screens in the Excel Arena in the centre of Basketball arenas and boxing rings, on the floor of the gymnastics mat and even on the protective girdles of Taekwondo fighters. Everywhere athletes struggled, triumphed, choked, celebrated, commiserated it said, this is London 2012. Most impressively, it really came to life in material form. It was engraved on the side of the Olympic torch and the cauldron at Tower Bridge, embossed on medal podiums during victory ceremonies and in bevelled splendour on the back of the medals too.
Back in 2007 I wrote a piece in Admap to the effect that the 2012 logo was a brave departure from previous Olympic logos in terms of using metaphor rather than cultural chauvinism, but the vague motif of jaggedness and electricity had no context in which to live and grow in people’s minds. It was slated. London Design Museum founder and pundit Stephen Bayley described it as 'a puerile mess, an artistic flop, and commercial scandal'. Others compared it to Lisa Simpson performing fellatio. Then there was a scandal with Iran accusing the logo of spelling Zion, threatening a boycott. It was roundly ridiculed online and became the logo all people loved to hate.
I wrote: “To many the logo feels maladroit and sloppily put together. It is certainly true that the lurid colours made it an easy target for criticism”. The response of London and LOCOG was measured. Ken Livingstone indeed predicted it would ‘grow on us’.
Now that there is some substance to London’s stewardship of the Olympic flame (a very well organized Games, with no negative incidents, mostly packed stadia and some World Records), what looked cack-handed, cheap and tenuous back in 2006 now looks positively transgressive, highly differentiated, a token of British eccentricity.
The 4 Ms logos from the modern era: Mexico 1968, Munich 1972, Montreal 1976, and Moscow 1980 may look more polished, but London 2012 is joyfully idiosyncratic. Its design peculiarties (foregrounding the Olympiad year and making it the primary motif engulfing the Olympic rings within, using an urban design idiom rather than indigenous folk art) are now more forgivable. The emblem also seems to mesh quite nicely with the spirit of the Games: from the way LOCOG cheekily tweaked IOC protocols and deployed self-effacing humour both in the opening and closing ceremonies, Thomas Heatherwick’s inventive flame, through the festive bonhomie of the volunteers, the carnival atmosphere during events and the use of chivvying music in interludes. The Games of the XXXth Olympiad in London have had a fun, exuberant feel to them. The rambunctious defiance of the logo seems somehow fitting; and not unworthy as a mnemonic of this Games that defied skepticism with phlegmatic unfussiness. Even if it is a somewhat arbitrary sign it now captures those memories. The Team GB Lion has superseded it in populism but that's another story.
It is true that the logo did not make an appearance in the ceremonies as it has done in many previous ceremonies. One would have thought that the technical capability of diode effects available in the Olympic stadium would have been sufficient to bring the logo alive. Danny Boyle clearly found it surplus to the story he was telling and LOCOG did not insist. However, it has found its presence into the Olympic spirit in other ways. You could see it scrawled on restaurant boards and on walls as well as on merchandise of all types that people were sporting with pride. It has been adopted affectionately almost in spite of itself as an awkward emblem because it has come to represent verve and a successful cultural moment. Lampooned and satirized it may still be but it never represent failure of vision, sloppiness or seen as lacking originality.
If there is something I do admire about being British it is about being a good sport and not taking oneself too seriously. This plucky, unpromising logo now basks in the reflected glory of the last fortnight of British success and international plaudits and it has accreted connotations to match. A true example of how signs can outgrow even unpromising beginnings through cultural re-appraisal. I wonder if Peirce would like it?
© Chris Arning 2012