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Brand Union discusses the merits and pitfalls of the design process behind the Tokyo 2020 Olympics logo

Last week, the winning logo design for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics was unveiled. The process was a long and difficult one, with initial designs scrapped over a plagiarism row and the competition re-opened for public submissions. Here, design and branding agency Brand Union’s Worldwide CEO Toby Southgate gives his thoughts on the process.

The recent scandal surrounding the originality of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics logo design has resurfaced an age-old debate in the design world: is anything truly original? Well, anyone who touches creative industries knows the answer isn’t a simple yes or no. One person’s inspiration is another person’s direction. An influence can be a reference. A reference can be a rip-off.

Why is it, though, that these debates become particularly aggressive when they are centered around major sporting events? Wolff Olins’ work on the 2012 London Olympics was battered and pilloried when it was launched (Lisa Simpson giving a blowjob, anyone?). The Commonwealth Games in Glasgow suffered some of the same criticisms.

The whole mess is confounded when people who struggle to make effective decisions – committees organising big sporting events, perhaps – decide to take the easy way out and assign the task of decision making to “research.” Or worse, to the magical, politically helpful, though generally misinformed and poorly briefed general public. Some people like to call this “crowdsourcing.” I could argue that works well for unilateral or independent decisions – “How do you fancy investing in my vegan pop-up burger truck?”. The use of crowdsourcing for global initiatives is a dismal failure and can only be a source of negativity or controversy, if it’s used to make decisions rather than inform them. Few great ideas have ever come from group thinking, least of all creative ones.

That’s the critical factor in any kind of creative research, and it’s why Dan Wieden’s founding principles at Wieden+Kennedy are so rigidly enforced. Consumer testing doesn’t improve creative concepts. As Steve Jobs put it, “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” Or, rewind 100 years and ask Henry Ford. Better still, don’t ask him anything, just accept that his logic would have found a friend in Jobs a century later: “If I’d have asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

The creative industries are a powerhouse and that power is restricted as soon as you start trying to segment it into silos. Illustration, graphics, advertising, film, sculpture, architecture, identity…the root of all these disciplines is design, in its very broadest sense. Designers use creative thinking to solve problems. Problems for businesses, people, institutions and the world. Boiled down to those first principles, we shouldn’t wang on about plagiarism or protection – we should open up, sit back, and applaud. I still believe in our industry’s commitment to great ideas – that’s our job, pure and simple. And a great idea can change the world.