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Commentary

A Fruitful Discomfort: The Face of the 2012 Olympics

Hrant Papazian on August 17, 2012

The visual identity of the London Games was uncomfortable, like a shattered stained-glass window. But iconoclasm does have its fans; and the more ways we can look at something, and look through something, the better off we are.

The stated intent of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) was to focus on youth; naturally this extended to the visual identity system, the centerpiece being the logo, which has received little love. The logo’s severe angularity does not mesh with the reality that for virtually everybody (except the parents of athletes) the Olympics constitute a pleasant vacation, or a comfy staycation – they’re not about stress or tension. Television “censorship” attests to this clearly, and this clash might be what puts people off.

To me the logo looks like how middle-aged men (coincidentally my own demographic) tend to feel about teenagers: uncomfortable. The logo also makes me think of the 1980s ski boots I once bought via Craigslist. And the Opening Ceremonies also betrayed the reality of who consumes the Olympics, of who the customer is – and it’s not young people. Looking at it that way, the logo just might be perfect. And adherents of the maxim “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” require no justification beyond the fact that the logo is indeed highly memorable.

2012Headline by Gareth Hague, the official typeface of the 2012 Olympic Games.

What is also memorable is Gareth Hague’s typeface for the London Olympics, 2012Headline. Besides being fervently discussed – and ridiculed – in typographic circles, it was also featured in the mainstream media, both at home and abroad. Unlike the logo however 2012Headline is quite difficult to wrap one’s head around. If you look at it as a formal outgrowth of the logo it just might make perfect sense. But if you look deeper, if you consider its genesis, it feels very different: uncomfortable. Fortunately it has one superb redeeming quality, one that’s highly relevant to the enclave of typeface design…

The logo of the London Olympics is based closely on Hague’s Klute typeface of 1997, a unique design that draws ideas from blackletter and graffiti. And in the context of the Olympics it’s possible to imagine the influence of Ancient Greek lettering on 2012Headline. The inherited visual language of the Olympics also seems to be what caused the “O” and “o” to be circular (inspired by the venerable five-ring symbol), a direct formal contradiction with every other glyph in the font. Hague reveals that the circular “o” was supposed to be an alternate; he had provided the expected angular “o” as the primary form.

It’s easy to agree that using the circular “o” was a confused, bad decision. I figured to see if that’s really true, so I decided to make an angular “o” glyph based on how I interpreted the font’s “internal consistency”. The first one I made didn’t have very happy proportions, so I decided to bend the rules and make a different one, which I found less jarring.

This one I subbed into the logo and was pleasantly surprised to conclude that opting for the circular “o” was a good decision after all – it seems to add a nice softness, whereas the angular one might just make the whole too mechanical. Olympic Games logos come and go, but apparently the rings are forever!

The Redeeming Quality

Although 2012Headline was designed after the logo was approved by LOCOG (so was presumably constrained to being a follower and not a leader) according to Hague himself the only thing the two typefaces share is a general angular spikiness; no blackletter, no graffiti, no Greek. But people will see what they see – the designer is never around to tell them what to think. What I myself see most prominently – something shared by Klute and 2012Headline but virtually no other design – is what motivated me to write this article: it might be a better way to make an italic.

Italic has long been a personal sore spot – to me a sort of drive-by shotgun wedding. Roman and italic might be able to tolerate each other after all these years, but pairing them up was still a bad joke. Now, if they can indeed tolerate each other, why worry? It’s a bit like the search for an energy alternative to fossil fuels, with its tinge of desperation. But to some it does seem like an alternative is the only way forward, or at the very least a break from the despotism of cursiveness being at the heart of emphasis in running text. The unduly reviled slanted roman has had its champions and svengalis, but even if I for one believe that can be an answer, it cannot be the only answer. And one answer might just be rotation, which is essentially what makes 2012Headline (and Klute) so special.

Gareth Hague might not have invented the idea. The passing of time has only cemented Frederic Goudy’s “the old fellows stole all our best ideas” and this is probably no exception. One can easily imagine the ATF boys making rotated glyphs a century ago with a quick adjustment of the pantograph – they certainly did everything else with it. Also, neither Klute nor 2012Headline can serve for emphasis since they have no roman. Rotation as a means of emphasis – dubbed “rotalic” – seems to have first been floated by Filip Tydén, but that was a decade after Klute. Also, virtually all rotalic fonts have been created via brute mechanical rotation, and thus deserve the derision they typically engender. This is clearly not the case with 2012Headline – it’s been designed with intent. So Hague deserves credit for applying the idea quite early with Klute, and maturing it before anybody else with 2012Headline.

Jackson Cavanaugh plays with an italic from his Harriet Series.

As with any novelty, rotalic’s potential for ridicule is great; people like to have fun. This is the sort of ridicule reserved for things that can be consciously evaluated by everybody: display fonts. The magic of text face design kicks in when novelties are applied so subtly as to escape general rejection… although there is no escape from rejection by some fellow type designers. We are now seeing a trickle of rotalic fonts including one that elevates the style to a fully respectable level: TypeTogether’s Eskapade.

Perhaps unsure what to do with the unusual orientation of 2012Headline, Olympics designers often resorted to a rotated baseline.

For many people however letters that seem to be falling over are… uncomfortable. So much so that many applications of 2012Headline – including high-profile ones – have resorted to rotating lines of type counter-clockwise, effectively eliminating the slant, even though the result is an often awkward “uphill” line of type. Then there’s Hubert Jocham’s Keks: older than 2012Headline but more recent than Klute, it seems to vie for the same sort of angularity, but critically without the “discomfort” of rotation. In a way Keks is to 2012Headline what Excoffon’s Chambord is to Peignot: they share a style, but the former avoids the latter’s iconoclasm (Cassandre’s design was nothing less than an effort at alphabet reform), resulting in something easier to sell. In fact it’s nice to imagine a retrofit of 2012Headline that would serve as an italic for Keks (similar to the genesis of Triplex Italic), which might become a first in terms of having a roman and an italic that are equally slanted!

It’s not possible to see 2012Headline as a text face, or even as an italic for a text face. But anybody who can see in it something that will enrich typeface design, that will perhaps propel a new generation of italics, is better off. To quote from a poster made by Hague promoting Klute: “It’s not what this is that’s important, it’s what it could or might be”. This is nicely parallel to a founding principle of the Olympics: “The most important thing is not to win but to take part.” Let’s not worry merely about making sellable fonts – let’s see where 2012Headline can take us.

Hrant Papazian is an Armenian native of Lebanon; his perspective on written communication was formed at the crossroads of three competing visual cultures. He now lives in Los Angeles. A recipient of type design awards from Critique magazine, Granshan and Creative Review, Hrant has delivered numerous presentations at international typographic conferences from Boston to Bangkok.

21 Comments

  1. Bojkowski says:

    I really liked it, so not everyone had mixed feelings about it. And that’s all I’m saying on the matter. :)

  2. I’m not so sure Hague’s typeface is blazing a new and useful trail for italics, but I do think it’s noteworthy that this is a prominent use of monoline, angular, jagged, nearly curveless letterforms that have no intention (so far as I can tell) of lending a “primitive” flavor to the message. Rescuing this kind of letter from that tired stereotypical application seems worthy of attention to me.

  3. bshaykin says:

    It’s always reminded me a bit of Nillennium, which doesn’t seem to be available anymore…

  4. 2012 type’s main success – it identifies the London Olympics, uniquely, from magazine layout to track lanes.

    — Gareth Hague via Twitter.

  5. Ryan Maelhorn says:

    To me it really doesn’t feel like it’s leaning, the way an italic does. There’s something about it that feels cantilevered, balanced. It feels like its standing perfectly upright to me. But I’m probably just crazy.

    I think it has something to do with the lowest “horizontal” strokes of the letters. The rotalic bottom stroke angles down from left to right, while an italic keeps a perfectly level line. 2012Headline looks much like the rotalic from above the bottom stroke upwards, but the bottom stroke itself is angled contradictorily. This is what I mean by “cantilevered.” I think this might be what makes me view the design as somehow sitting upright, not leaning.

    Interesting idea pairing up Keks and 2012Headline also.

  6. 1) Anyone who’s had to get creative work approved by a client should be greatly impressed that Mr. Hague, and the other members of the design team, were able to get such adventurous work approved at all.

    LOCOG likewise deserves credit for voting for design with its wallet. And with its reputation — any adventurous design, especially that of a major public event, is certain to have detractors. Duh. LOCOG went ahead with it anyhow. Hooray.

    How else will design evolve, if not through fruitful collaborations between designers and clients? How else, if not through work that takes risks? If everything at the Olympics had been in Frutiger, I imagine that the same people would be complaining that the design was too boring and conservative.

    2) I’d like to think that type and typography, like other forms of design, can be the subject of a meaningful critical vocabulary. But too often, that vocabulary seems limited to second-guessing and nitpickery, aka You’re Doing It Wrong.

    For instance: “It’s easy to agree that using the circular “o” was a confused, bad decision.” Is it? If a critic wants to make the case that the design of the certain glyph was sufficiently consequential that we should scrutinize it, and then state the criteria for evaluating that decision, and then conclude that it was in fact a bad decision — fine. But presenting it as a self-evident conclusion is an unearned shortcut.

    Moreover, if you think typography operates in a broader context than just shapes on a flat surface, then the scope of critical thinking about typography should be similarly broad.

    3) We get some of that here. But we also get a certain ratification of the existing public narrative about the Olympics design: that it’s “uncomfortable,” that it deserved “little love,” that it doesn’t “mesh with reality,” that it “puts people off.”

    Why is it obvious that these vague assessments are accurate? Or if they are accurate, why is it obvious that they weren’t part of the intended effect of the work? (See first point re: inevitability of detractors.)

    Most of all I strongly disagree with the underlying implication of this ratification, which is that the highest calling of design in the public sphere is to be comfortable, to be loved, to mesh with reality, to put people at ease. As if designers were selling artisanal potato chips, or beagle puppies. Designers and critics who propagate that view are just helping relegate design to the territory of the comfortable. If someone wants that for their own career, fine. But you needn’t spoil things for those of us who’d rather not look back at a portfolio full of Frutiger.

  7. Matthew’s case in point:

    The Crime of Typographic Homogeny in Action at Heathrow

  8. John Hudson says:

    I see the Olympic font as mostly italic in structure, especially the lowercase, but as a result of interpreting normally curved strokes as straight diagonals it introduces a topography of unconventional angles. The really novel aspect of the design is the application of these angles across letters that do not share conventional structural similarities with those in which they originate, which at once makes the design distinctive while giving it strong internal consistency. So, for example, the structure of the uppercase C works as a construction of an open-sided counter shape expressed as a minimal number of straight strokes: you can imagine a conventional italic C superimposed on it and the forms reflecting each other. But then Hague has taken this form and applied it also to the uppercase E, and has echo’d the same diagonals in a different way in the uppercase Z. The modular repetition of the angles gives consistency to the design. I think only a very few of the letters could be described as ‘rotalic’, e.g. the lowecase s, and in my analysis they’re that way because of an approach to representing curves as minimal numbers of straight lines and angles, not due to rotation per se.

  9. Cheshire says:

    I agree with Matthew’s point #1 (not that I disagree with the other points, but #1 spoke to me more). I still can’t stand the logo, but the typeface has grown on me some. I do like the circular “o”; to me it pulls the typeface back from the brink just enough to make it compelling. The connection to the rings gives the typeface an identity that is at once contemporary but still respectful of the history of the games.

    But more than that, I think the typeface should also be viewed through the prism of the spirit of the Olympics itself. Regardless of why spectators go to the Olympics, I think those of us who watch it are keen to see people stretch the boundaries of what the human body and spirit can do. Through that lens, a rule-breaking typeface makes sense. That said, when a competitor at the Olympics breaks records or at least does something extraordinary, I imagine that most everyone would agree that it’s an amazing achievement. For a typeface, as for any work of art, I doubt you’ll ever have such a consensus. But at least perhaps most of us can commend Hague and LOCOG for taking such a big leap, much as we admire any Olympian for taking physical risks, whatever the outcome may be.

  10. NB says:

    After going to the Olympic Park and seeing all the branding and design come together… I absolutely love the font. It’s one of the most interesting fonts I’ve seen in a long time and it’s definitely iconic now.

  11. Slinkypop says:

    It has taken me a month to work out that the word on the flags along the cycle route in Dorking was Surrey! Admittedly I dont travel this road very often, but come on!

  12. Iggy Hammick says:

    Totally agree on the ‘O’, really stood out for me. The bottom one above would have worked better for me. Still, I thought the font did well. Olympic branding Was everywhere in Stratford, even saw it on Olympic vehicle hubcaps!?

  13. I didn’t like the type. It thought it looked like it was made with masking tape.

  14. Bendy says:

    Interesting, funny. When the 2012 typeface was first made public a year or two ago I really didn’t like it, but a designer friend told me that I shouldn’t judge a 2012 typeface according to what I thought at the end of 2010 as nobody knew what fashions were going to be doing two years down the line, and there was time for people to get used to the identity.

    Since then I have got used to it, and I don’t hate it nearly as much. Maybe I can see more thinking behind it now. I could be crediting Hague with more in-depth ideas than actually went into the project, but I can see Constructivist and even Vorticist elements in the typeforms, which to me are not bad associations for the UK Olympics. I think it’s important to have that dialogue with past design movements and aesthetics, to generate new momentum for the 21st century. On balance, although I find the typeface vaguely annoying, I find it quite inspiring and admirable too — it’s really quite arresting and unexpected.

  15. erik spiekermann says:

    Just proves the point I’ve been making for years: a good brand needs nothing more than a colour and a typeface. Even a bad typeface works, as long as it’s recognizable. I don’t like the London Olympic font and it certainly will not become a classic that people will use outside of this event, but it worked. It worked on its own, without the colour, and magenta also worked on its own to identify the London Olympics.

  16. Emmet says:

    Great article and love the discussions below. I agree with Erik in that I didn’t really like the font but it did its job very well.

  17. Darcy says:

    Interesting article. The first time I saw it in use, I thought they had laid down masking tape for the words (like it was a temporary solution) but then found out it wasn’t masking or duct tape.

    And it was really weird how others took to slanting the font.

  18. Fulvio Raggio says:

    Really the worst look of the Games I’ve ever seen.
    Colors, typefaces, look and logos.
    Cannot suffer it!

  19. a r b o says:

    Liking 2012Headline is only a matter of looking at it with an open mind. That’s easy for me to say because I love oddball designs and stuff that skewers convention and conventional design as well as design conventions (not to be confused with “cons”).

    The circular o is the best choice of structure compared to parallelogram o structures, which goes somewhat against the grain and diagonal rule(s) / dynamics. I tried an alternative to Hrant’s with upper and lower “horizontals” reversed, running upwards from left to right. It still looked wrong.

    Over a period of the next ten years a major progression (I won’t call it a trend) in graphic and visual design will be throwing out the very idea of convention and conventionality. Design that rewards us with unexpected qualities will make consistency seem like a used-up, dried-up thing of the past with little in the way of untapped surprises.

    Every so often somebody does something strange that happens to also be very appealing, and this act revivifies a discipline. Gareth Hague is one such innovator.

    Incidentally, angled stem / stroke ends are nothing new. I put them into every “italic” (slanted) fonts I make and so do lots of other fontmakers. True, these are analogous to pen-drawn forms. But they are useful, and humans tend to retain whatever is useful (utility).

  20. […] Rotated italic is called ‘rotalic’, and it can look nice when it’s properly designed. Example of crafted rotalics include Gemma by Rob Keller, Eskapade Fraktur by Alisa Nowak, and the 2012Headline, the London Olympic typeface by Gareth Hague.* […]

  21. […] faceted display type drawn around the same time. Alias’s design for Wolff Olins’s 2012 Olympics identity looks crude, breakable, ephemeral by comparison. Brooklyn (the typeface) has […]

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