We asked an Olympic design expert to name the 5 best logos ever

Olympic Heritage Collection designer Greg Durrell picks the five best logos to ever come out of the Games.

Winning gold isn't the only way to make Olympic history. These designs are game-changers.

Ben Hulse (left) and Greg Durrell (right) are three years into creating a comprehensive bible of Olympic Design. Their Vancouver design firm, Hulse & Durrell, was tapped by the IOC to create the Olympic Heritage Collection. (Hulse & Durrell)

The Olympics aren't exclusively for hockey players and sprinters and swimmers. For designers, creating the "look of the Games" — basically every visual element from the medals and mascot to the logo and street signs — is a chance to make history, and few understand the thrill of that opportunity like Vancouver design firm Hulse & Durrell.

When the company's co-founders Ben Hulse and Greg Durrell first met, they were working on the design team for the 2010 Winter Olympics — and as Durrell tells CBC Arts, the job itself was like a dream come true, being someone who's "super passionate" about design and sports and history.

"I'm not going to be an athlete, I'm not going to be on the ice with Sidney Crosby or on a mountain flying down on skis," says Durrell, who dropped out of OCAD to join the project in Vancouver. "But as a designer? This is my opportunity to contribute on an Olympic level."

Olympic matches aren't just for boxers. Hulse & Durrell review archival materials from Montreal 1976. (Hulse & Durrell)

But you don't have to be a true patriot or a sports fiend to think of the Olympics as the ideal gig. As a creative challenge, it's unique.

"It's an incredible opportunity to speak to a specific time and a specific place," Durrell explains. Other brand designs are built to last — at least through an era. "The thing about Olympic design is it's meant to exist in Munich 1972, or Los Angeles 1984, or Rio 2016," he says, and for the last three years, Hulse & Durrell have been poring over — and perfecting — those time capsules of design, working on a special assignment for the International Olympic Committee.

It's called the Olympic Heritage Collection, and the project is building a comprehensive design bible of the Games' 120-year history.

Oh hai, Amik the beaver. A mock-up of a Montreal 1976 T-shirt for the Olympic Heritage Collection. (Hulse & Durrell)
Companies could license designs in the Olympic Heritage Collection like the Munich '72 mascot Waldi and put them on sneakers, or coffee mugs... or skateboards. (Hulse & Durrell)
Barcelona 1992 sneakers? A mock-up from the Olympic Heritage Collection. (Hulse & Durrell)

"Ben and I are probably two of the three most knowledgeable people about Olympic design on the planet," says Durrell with a laugh. (The third, Markus Osterwalder, owns a collection of Olympic memorabilia so vast that the designers travelled to Switzerland to study it.) And when you've dedicated as much time researching and re-creating a century of Olympic history as they have, you see how certain design choices can echo through time.

The pictograms we see every day — on washroom doors or road signs? As Durrell points out, their origin story begins at the Tokyo 1964 Summer Olympics. Mascots? Every edition of the Games has one, but the tradition is relatively new — the concept began when the Munich 1972 team introduced the world to Waldi, the minimalist dachschund.

The symbols developed for Tokyo 1964 were hugely influential, says Greg Durrell. "They influenced a few other major events that happened afterwards, and now these pictograms are everywhere around us. We interact with them every day." (Hulse & Durrell)

With Rio 2016 around the corner, CBC Arts asked Durrell to share his thoughts on Olympic logos. They're the design element we all remember — or that we're supposed to remember, if designers nail the job. Because according to Durrell, a great logo — for the Olympics or otherwise — must be "simple, bold and memorable."

"If you close your eyes and think of the Rio logo, which is only a few weeks away and we're seeing it all the time, you can probably get a general sense of the shape," he says.

But which Olympic logos are burned in his brain forever? Which are the best, and which are the game-changers? Here are his Top 5 examples.

Montreal 1976

The 1976 Montreal Olympics produced so many iconic examples of Canadian design, but Durrell has a personal reason for singling out Georges Huel's logo. "Personally, I really like that identity and it had a really big impact on me," says Durrell, who first encountered images from the Games when he was "maybe 17, 18" and living in Montreal for a year. At the time, he was already passionate about design — "I knew I wanted to work in the field by the time I was like 14" — but something about the Montreal 1976 program inspired him to delve into Olympic history.

"It was cool because it was a host city from my own country," the Toronto native remembers. "I was really digging into all this work, and coincidentally it was the same time Vancouver won the rights to host the games, so when all these factors came together it was like, man, how cool would it be to be able to contribute to my country [as a designer]?"

Mexico 1968

Like the logo for Montreal 1976 — and the all the others on this list — Durrell cites Mexico 1968 as a gorgeous example of a great logo. Clean and straightforward — and still very of its swinging time — it has "those qualities of being bold, memorable and powerful and easy to apply on a wide range of materials." And what a range it is. At the Olympics, your logo's got to make an impact on everything, "everything from a pin to a plane to a train ... right down to a meal voucher."

Sarajevo 1984

Another example of a bold and modern logo — but in Durrell's opinion, it's also kind of a wild card. "I feel like that one doesn't get enough love, it doesn't get its time in the sun."

Munich 1972

"It's pretty much regarded as the best designed Games," Durrell says of Munich 1972, and that includes its "really beautiful" abstract logo. Like the others on the list, it represents an approach that's all but disappeared from Olympic logo design, a trend that began around 25 years ago, as the imagery moved away from elegant and simple forms. "While we were doing the research for the Olympic Heritage Collection," says Durrell, "it became very clear in the '90s that as soon as [designers] get a computer, things just go crazy. There's more colour, more texture, more elaborate shapes, more effects … I think we're slowly starting to come off that a little bit, but it's everywhere."

Los Angeles 1984

A logo is just the beginning when it comes to Olympic design, and L.A.1984 is a great example of that fact. "What was interesting about L.A.," says Durrell, "is L.A. kind of changed the game in terms of thinking about these events much more than just a logo or mascot or series of pictograms. L.A. was the first to really develop a cohesive look of the Games program that you saw wrap the city streets, wrap the venues, that wrapped the field of play. They were the first ones to really nail the environmental graphics. It's interesting because every single Games since then has kind of followed suit."

The Rio 2016 Olympic Games begin August 5 on CBC. Follow them on CBC Sports.


Leah Collins

Senior Writer

Since 2015, Leah Collins has been senior writer at CBC Arts, covering Canadian visual art and digital culture in addition to producing CBC Arts’ weekly newsletter (Hi, Art!), which was nominated for a Digital Publishing Award in 2021. A graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University's journalism school (formerly Ryerson), Leah covered music and celebrity for Postmedia before arriving at CBC.