My four-year-old could do better

Back in 2007—when 2012 seemed like a LIFETIME away—Wolff Olins revealed its much-despised London 2012 Olympics logo. At the time, I was the editor of the design blog UnBeige, where I wrote upwards of a dozen blog posts on the identity, including roundups of what the critics were saying. I also posted my own thoughts:

You know, after looking at it so much today, it almost feels like an old friend. An old friend who used to be really big back in the ’80s until he started doing a lot of blow and hanging out behind this pub in Brixton wearing the same hot pink jumpsuit from the ’80s instead now it’s covered in razors and broken glass and you accidentally make eye contact and he starts reaching out towards you screaming “Please, please! Just a few pence! I don’t got no one else! I ain’t got nowhere else to go!”

Because the outcry came not only from designers, but from the general public as well, and was widely published and shared online, the London 2012 logo fracas was a turning point for graphic design. The word “logo” was on the cover of the Sun, for goodness sake. Wow, we said. People actually care about logos! People care about design!

Of course, it didn’t really turn out that way. What emerged, instead, was Graphic Design Criticism as a Spectator Sport, the topic of Michael Bierut’s story today on Design Observer:

The basic starting point of Graphic Design Criticism as a Spectator Sport is “I could have done better.” And of course you could! But simply having the idea is not enough. Crafting a beautiful solution is not enough. Doing a dramatic presentation is not enough. Convincing all your peers is not enough. Even if you’ve done all that, you still have to go through the hard work of selling it to the client. And like any business situation of any complexity whatsoever, that process may be smothered in politics, handicapped with exigencies, and beset with factors with have nothing to do with design excellence. You know, real life. Creating a beautiful design turns out to be just the first step in a long and perilous process with no guarantee of success. Or, as Christopher Simmons put it more succinctly, “Design is a process, not a product.”

(Can I quickly say that I love seeing two new Michael Bierut pieces up on Design Observer in one week? It really is like 2007 again!)

Michael describes how the growing trend of Graphic Design Criticism as a Spectator Sport exploded a few weeks ago with the announcement of a rebranding for the University of California system. It was quickly apparent that people didn’t like it. Just looking at the UC logo tag on Tumblr provides an excellent survey of the public sentiment. Here’s one of my favorites:

I also like this one:

Being the world’s most immature design critic—this is a person who conducted a very serious Q&A with that short-lived new Gap logo—I actually really enjoy when people do this kind of stuff. It’s a clever, shorthand way to show your opinion. (And who doesn’t love a good potato Jesus reference?)

But then my friend Christopher Simmons (quoted in Michael’s passage above) pointed me towards the passionate piece he wrote which included one very important point: almost everyone had it wrong. The “fading C in the bucket” was not replacing the seal, as so many people believed, but rather was only one element of a new wordmark updating a tired old type treatment. Brand New had it right:

But even while every mainstream media outlet did almost zero reporting, slapping the seal next to the new logo and linking to the also-incorrect petition, few design outlets were trying to set the record straight. Roman Mars uncovered what was perhaps the most interesting detail on an episode of his excellent radio show, 99% Invisible, which focused on the logo fracas. He revealed that not only was the logo revealed OVER A YEAR AGO, it traveled to all the campuses as part of a road show. AND NO ONE SAID A WORD.

So what happened? Michael points to an issue that’s been troubling me. Even as the “public awareness” of design is at an all-time high, there are fewer and fewer strong critical voices surveying the graphic design field. Blogs are more interested in posting sick renderings than providing a destination for passionate discourse. Plus, last week, he notes, F+W Media announced that the design magazine Print—one of the few design magazines in print—is being moved back to Ohio from its offices in New York.  That’s a death knell if I’ve ever heard one. (Update: Not saying that Ohio=death knell—I’m from St. Louis!—but it the move sounds like F+W isn’t committed to the staff or the 73-year-old publication.)

The truth is, I used to be a graphic design critic, too, until everyone else became one. Why post my opinion when there’s already a snarky fake Twitter account for the new logo, over 5,000 proposed alternates (some by actual four-year-olds), and three single-serving websites poking holes in the design? But if I’ve learned anything from watching this unfold over the last few weeks, it’s that I had a role to play in this conversation that I didn’t fulfill.

And you do, too. Instead of simply posting the best UC logo-potato Jesus mashup to your Facebook page or RTing a boring petition, take some time to put together a blog post of your thoughts. Create your own visual dissection of a logo you hate. Record a podcast. Just remember to include an explanation why that uses real words. They don’t even have to be big words. They just have to add up to longer than 140 characters.

Instead of just posting what everyone else is posting, create some original content that makes someone else think critically about the issue at hand. Taking a page from Anil Dash here: create the link that you want everyone else to be passing around.

Even if you’re wrong. Yeah, that London 2012 logo? I absolutely loved it when I saw it in person last year.

Image credits: Clicking any photo links back to its original source.

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  • felix sockwell

    you loved it? for reals? please tell me thats a joke :)

  • Alissa

    I did! It looked really awesome in all its iterations plastered all over London. For reals.

  • Carolina A. Miranda

    Okay, I’m no design genius, and while I’m not in love with the C in the bucket (or cross section of a nut sack), I can see why the designers would want to strip away all kindsa texty, detailed bits. The old seal is not the sort of thing that works well as a Twitter avatar, or the myriad thumb-nailed-sized ways in which we now look at everything…. Certainly a consideration in the stripped-down design, no?

  • T. Budnik

    “…is being moved back to Ohio from its offices in New York. That’s a death knell if I’ve ever heard one.” Are you really dinging Ohio (and Cincinnati where F+W is located)? We can’t be any worse than amateur design critics!

  • Alissa

    Not at all! I’m a Midwesterner here, remember. And HOW is made in Ohio! I feel like this is indicative pattern of F+W… they said they were keeping I.D. alive and now it’s a portfolio website, and now they’ve axed all of Print’s current staff and are “relocating” the mag to Ohio. It just doesn’t bode well.

  • Alissa

    Exactly, are they going to use the seal as a logo? No way. Listen to the 99% Invisible show if you haven’t already. Good stuff in there.

    Also, “cross section of a nut sack” is EXACTLY the kind of criticism I want to read.