From concepts to creation: the intricacy of a successful sports logo

rio 2016

A good sports logo provides a rallying point for sponsors and fans, and has the power to open up new commercial opportunities. But get it wrong and you could face an embarrassing backlash. Ben Cronin from our editorial partner SportBusiness International asks some of the world's leading designers how to manage the creative process.

The average rights-holder could be forgiven for approaching the creation of a new logo or the prospect of redesigning a team badge or crest with fairly mixed feelings. On the one hand, they might feel a degree of scepticism when the design community imbues an extravagant squiggle or an ostentatious blob of colour with the almost mystical power to inspire future athletes and heal the rifts of the world. On the other, they might be aware that nothing has the potential to alienate fans and bring out the self-appointed marketing specialists on social media like a badly-handled rebrand. Regardless of the design speak and whatever your feelings about just how much importance should be attached to a simple emblem, it should be acknowledged that a sports logo means something to sport's two most important stakeholders: the fans and the sponsors. And creating an identity that meets the needs of these two groups can be a delicate business. The fans "It is now commonplace for rights-holders — and particularly football clubs — to consult fans before undergoing changes to their badges, most recently seen with [English Premier League club] Manchester City," says Tom Whiteside, senior account manager with the Synergy sponsorship agency. "Get it wrong and you can face backlash — just ask the fans of Cardiff City."

As Whiteside suggests, Manchester City conducted a consultation of its fans before deciding on whether the club's badge should evolve, and if so, how. But the accusation levied at second-tier Championship football club Cardiff City's Malaysian owner, Vincent Tan, was that he was more interested in the club's commercial development when he proposed changing the team's colours from blue to red and replacing the club's bluebird crest with a red dragon. Riding roughshod over the wishes of the fans, he argued that the colour red was viewed as being a more dynamic and attractive colour in Asia when it came to marketing the team and growing its fan base. Evidence of how successful his initiative was can be found in the fact that the team now plays in blue again, after fans signed a petition against the move and refused to wear the new team colours.


The sponsors

Although this might be seen to show the folly of putting business before the needs of the fans, Whiteside warns against ignoring them completely. “Whilst I don’t think that commercial imperatives should drive the agenda in terms of design for rights-holder logos, you cannot lose sight of the fact that sponsors will be using them as part of composite logos and across their various touchpoints,” he says. “Sponsors can play a key role in raising the profile of a rights-holder, so it is important to consider the impact of impractical or unattractive design, or the imposition of draconian brand guidelines.”

Whiteside points to the relatively new logo for Major League Soccer (MLS) as an example of the way rights-holders are increasingly adding degrees of flexibility into their logos to appeal to both fans and sponsors. “By integrating interchangeable colours into the logo, they are opening it up for clubs, sponsors and even fans to incorporate their own content,” he says.

The template for this flexible approach was the controversial logo for the London 2012 Olympics, according to Richard Markell, marketing manager with creative agency Designwerk. Although he thinks the logo tried too hard to be different, he liked its adaptability.

“The bright colour palette and supporting graphic language worked well in several media,” he says.

These days such an approach is fairly commonplace – so much so that the marketing team for the Rio Olympics runs visual identity workshops with each of its sponsors so they can incorporate the Rio branding into their own campaigns.

“Whenever we have a new sponsor here in the team, we invite their marketing team, their PR agents, their communication agents to do a workshop,” explains Beth Lula, brand director for the Rio Olympic organising committee. “I think that we are one of the first Olympic organising committees where sponsors are using our look of the Games and our emblems as much as they have been used here.”

Markell, however, warns that it is possible to get too close to the sponsors. He thinks events or sports properties with a title sponsorship can prove to be one of the more difficult briefs in the design world.

“Having to incorporate a sponsor’s logo into what becomes a mark combining two logos, known as a ‘composite logo’, can be a challenge for any designer, as the integrity of a single iconic mark is often impossible to achieve,” he says. “There is a balance to be struck between the relative sizes of each logo. The sponsor may request a larger percentage of space for their logo in a final design, but this can be counter- productive, as fans could perceive this as hijacking their brand.”

Intellectual property

Of equal concern is the thought that another designer might accuse a brand of stealing their intellectual property. The recent plagiarism dispute surrounding the logo for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics proves that the process for designing a logo also has legal implications. In an embarrassing development for the local organising committee, Kenjiro Sano, the designer of the original logo, requested that it be withdrawn after he was accused of copying the stylised ‘T’ with a red dot from the poster for a theatre in Liège in Belgium.

Sano has the sympathy of Fred Gelli, creative director of Brazilian design consultancy Tátil, which created the less controversial and more warmly received logo for the Rio 2016 Olympics. But he also thinks the story contains an important lesson for rights-holders and designers when they come to create a new identity.

“I don’t think that he copied the logo,” he says. “It would have been a stupid strategy to copy something in this opportunity. The problem for me is that he decided to create something so generic, so basic, at a time when so many logos are being created every day. This was the first mistake – to not find something really proprietorial with some elements that could guarantee the originality.”

Gelli has seen first-hand how the IOC employs some of the leading legal authorities and conducts exhaustive due diligence to check the creative copyright of every new logo associated with the Games, so he was surprised to see it caught out by the Tokyo logo scandal. He thinks a more likely explanation for the scrapping of the logo was the fact that it did not enjoy the support of the Japanese public.

“With our logo they spent more than two and a half months doing a huge [amount of] research about creative copyright around the world,” he says. “It was a huge process with most of the important lawyers in copyright in the world.

“The logo of the Belgian theatre was not registered, but after the news around the world, the IOC didn’t fight for the [Tokyo] logo. I think if [the designer] had [had] the support of the Japanese people, perhaps they would have fought for him.”

Local energy

Gelli feels that a connection with local values and an ability to tap into the ‘energy’ of fans is vital if a logo is to succeed. For this reason, he thinks his Rio-based agency had a distinct advantage when it entered into a competition with 139 other design agencies to design the city’s Olympic logo.

“I run every morning on Ipanema beach, I know this city really well, I know the people, I know the energy we have here and this is the raw material that we used in our project,” he says. “When you really don’t know this, when your connection with some place is just the clichés or the things you can find on Google, you are losing something abstract.”

To reinforce his argument, the designer describes how he was inspired to draw the logo after he viewed the outline of Sugerloaf Mountain when he was swimming off the coast of the city.

“All of the shapes of the mountains of Rio de Janeiro are inside of the logo; all of the curves of the logo come from the curves of the mountains,” he says.

More literally, by showing a group of people holding hands, Gelli thinks the logo also channels the inclusivity and warmth of the ‘Cariocas’, or inhabitants of Rio – something that was stipulated in the design brief. It is also the first ever 3D logo to grace the Olympics.

He explains that this was inspired by the fact that 3D films, 3D television and 3D printers were in vogue when he and his team were designing the emblem in 2010.

Such lateral thinking impressed the judging commission tasked with selecting the winning design and has also brought commercial advantages to the Rio organising committee.

“We have designed 14 different lines of licensee products and having a sculpture, a 3D emblem, helped us to develop different products and merchandise,” Lula says.

“For Games time, we’re going to have a small sculpture of our emblem that’s going to be a huge success and will give sponsors something to offer as a souvenir to their clients – it’s like a piece of art. Everybody wants to have something like that.”

Gelli has applied the same creativity to the logo for the Paralympic Games, which he was invited to design after the design committee unanimously voted for his 3D Olympic logo. This Paralympic logo also marks another first for the Olympics in that it provides a multi-sensory sound, vibration and light experience that deaf, blind and physically impaired people can interact with.


Getting back to more mundane practicalities, the IOC also appears to have learned from previous logo mistakes. The guidelines for the Rio logo included stipulations that the name of the host city could not be miniaturised and incorporated inside the logo, as was the case with the London 2012 logo.

“Sometimes you need to print the logo on something as small as a pen or pencil,” Gelli says. “When they reduced the symbol to fit it on a pencil, ‘London’ disappeared.”

Lula has similar practical concerns about the new logo for Tokyo 2020.

“I like that one – I think it is very classic and at the same time it’s very modern,” she says. “But I’m curious to know how they will develop all the other products and the look of the Games, because they don’t have a very colourful emblem – it’s a more monochromatic emblem and for the Games we need colour, especially when they are going to do the decoration for the venues.”

Asked if there are any features that the best sports logos have in common, Whiteside also argues the case for flexibility.

“The best sports logos need to be flexible in that they need to look good across different contexts from official team kit right down to email signatures,” he says. “In the fragmented and heavily digital media landscape that we now live in, this becomes even more critical. How will it look as a mobile app, what will a Twitter profile look like, how does it translate onto digital perimeter boards?”

He adds that simplicity is a key feature of the best sports logos and warns that it is all too easy to try and communicate too much, and to overthink things.

When asked the same question, Markell is suitably succinct. “Simplicity, versatility, memorability, longevity,” he says, providing rights-holders with a useful checklist for a process which has the potential to be much more complex than it might first appear.

This article was originally published by our editorial partner, Sport Business International.

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