The Olympic Logo Design Competition: A Definite No-No

vanoc1Blitz Magazine, June 2004

In mid-May, I switched on the TV news and found my art director, Matt Warburton, surrounded by reporters and looking seriously miffed. Why?  Warburton, Past-President of the Graphic Designers of Canada (GDC), was at a news conference hosted by the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Committee (VANOC) and was perturbed by its announcement that it was holding a competition for its logo design.

Warburton is unequivocal. “This is demeaning to the profession. A logo is part of an integrated marketing and branding strategy—not a piece of art that you can stick on everything. You can’t treat graphic design and logo creation as an art contest. This is like a cattle call. It’s not sound business practice and it’s asking designers to waste of thousands of hours and dollars on a lottery.”

The Olympic Emblem Design Competition is, according to its web site, “in the spirit of Olympic competition”, and open to “anyone with the talent and discipline to pursue their dreams.” Only Canadians need enter—students of graphic design, and those working in the design field. The judges have not yet been named; VANOC says that the winning logo will be chosen by a group of Canadian and international professionals. The prize is $25,000.00 plus two tickets to the 2010 opening ceremonies. Once the logo is chosen, an RFP will be issued.

VANOC’s Executive Director for Communications, Jane Burnes (perhaps the most hostile PR person I’ve ever spoken with), says it’s “unfortunate” that the GDC “hijacked the news conference” and defends VANOC’s contest, claiming that such competitions are Olympic tradition.

“Athens, Torino and Beijing all did the same thing, but they held international competitions. We’ve limited our competition to Canadians. This is a level playing field and the best and brightest idea will win. We see it as a great opportunity for the design industry in Canada. The competition is in keeping with IOC guidelines, and GDC guidelines. It’s too bad the GDC doesn’t agree.”

The GDC’s position is that its “members may compete for projects of a general, community or public interest if they are of a non-profit nature.”

VANOC is, in the eyes of the law, a not-for-profit organization. In fact, there is no more well-oiled money-making machine than the Olympic Games and, given that BC taxpayers are not inclined to foot the bill, the staff of the 2010 games will be working very hard to make sure that the BC games make a profit. And it had better be substantial or whatever political party is in power is 2011 is going to have a helluva headache. ‘Bottom line is, the GDC doesn’t view VANOC’s as a non-profit organization. The two sides have now agreed to disagree. The GDC is not supporting or endorsing VANOC’s competition, but it is not prohibiting its members from competing.

While Burnes claims that several designers are “embarrassed by the GDC’s behaviour”, a look at the letters on the GDC website indicates that it’s VANOC who should be embarrassed. Letters from across Canada, as well as from Seattle, San Diego, Chicago and Mexico City, condemn VANOC’s competition as “tacky”, “amateurish”, “insulting”, “counter to the fundamentals of business,” “inexcusable”, “unacceptable”, “unprofessional”, “potentially economically harmful”, “exploitative” and “unethical”. Respondents believe that the contest can “lead to copyright infringement, negative competitive practices” and “devalue the profession.” One writer is “Incredulous at the not-for-profit claim and at the idea that designers should consider it an honour to work for free.” Another wants to know if every service contract for the 2010 Olympics will be determined by the same type of competition, including legal and financial services, PR and advertising, architecture and construction. What about staffing?

As one designer put it: “The IOC believes that emblem competition open to the public is a good way to generate Olympic spirit, unity and participation. The general public should participate—maybe with t-shirt, mascot or pin design, but not in creating an essential piece of communication that will be licensed to the world. The best designers and marketing analysts should be consulted and paid for their time.”

The VANOC website says that it believes that Canadian designers are the best in the world. If that’s true, Warburton says that: “VANOC should be an intelligent client. It should issue an RFP. Do its research. Identify which firms are most able. Brief them thoroughly regarding the logo’s requirements and applications. Arrive at a short list. Then pay them for the concept work.”

When you take all of the above into consideration, this contest appears to be a colossal blunder. Because, while ad agencies may be able to devote some time to the logo competition without losing money, most of Canada’s best designers are not at agencies. They’re on their own or have their own firms. Because they’re the best, they’re busy—too busy to waste time and money on spec work.

We all know that this is true. I know it’s true from my own experience. Over the years, I’ve written countless ads, minutely detailed proposals—even marketing plans, on spec. Inexplicably, I once got roped into writing an award-winning annual report for $500. Now I know better. I don’t have to do anything on spec. And I won’t.

Neither, I suspect, will those who have what it takes to create the perfect logo for the Vancouver 2010 Olympics. For proof, look at the number of entries to the last three logo competitions. These were international competitions, open to every designer in the world. The Beijing competition received 1,985 entries, the Torino competition 1,400, the Athens competition 690. Now that’s embarrassing.