On July 24, 2015, Tokyo released their official 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games logo. The mark, created by the office of well-known designer Kenjiro Sano was unveiled to tepid even negative reviews. While many seemed to liked it, many more decried it as stale and lifeless, not becoming of the spirit of the Olympic Games.

Logo unveiling

Almost immediately, charges of plagiarism were levied against the Tokyo Games organizing committee and Sano’s office. Belgian designer Olivier Debie accused Sano of copying a graphic mark he created for the Théatre de Liège in 2011, and later took legal action to block the International Olympic Committee (IOC) from using the design. 

Tokyo 2020 Logo - Theatre de Liege Logo.jpg

I do not know whether Sano does, as has been alleged, have a history of plagiarizing ideas, or if, as was insinuated in a rather bigoted post, that plagiarism is tacitly condoned in Japan. However, while plagiarism and trademark violations are real issues globally, I am very much inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to Sano in this case and assume that his work was the product of original thinking, or at the very least the result of an earnest iterative creative process.

Why? For one thing, I have found myself in a similar situation once before, albeit not on such a global stage. One of three marks we presented to a client was subsequently found to bear a strong resemblance to an icon used by a then defunct division of a global company. It is upsetting and it can leave one dumbfounded. Our designs were all the product of original thinking and all three had strong rationales supporting them. In a word, this was work we could proudly stand behind, as is everything we do, but in spite of our due diligence, we failed to detect this potential conflict (emphasis on “potential”), so we withdrew the submission from consideration.

 Secondly, it should be no surprise to anyone that with the proliferation of new brands worldwide – with millions of new designs created every year, and with easy access to the de facto database of brand imagery that is the World Wide Web – one is bound to find similarities between trade marks originating from every corner of the globe.

In this context, one must also consider that designing a logo is at its core a reductionist act. It follows a synthesis process whereby a designer’s aim is to distil down to their essence the core values inherent in the brand for which the resulting visual identity signature will stand. The process will often entail the simplification of forms and images down to their simplest expression: a sun becomes a circle, or takes the place of an “O” in a wordmark; two side-by-side triangles depict a mountain and read as an “M”, …you get the picture.

 While we would like to think that creativity knows no boundaries, designers are routinely constrained by the very real limitations of two-dimensional geometry. Beyond the most basic shapes like circles, triangles and squares, alternatives get progressively more esoteric and unwieldy. Even when combined with other tools of the visual language such as colour, space, contrast, patterns, symmetry, etc., one is bound to bump into limitations sooner of later. Let’s also consider the fact that for the thousands of typefaces and font designs available to graphic artists, our modern Latin alphabet still only has 26 characters.

What this means is simply this: two designers, working for vastly dissimilar client organizations in entirely unrelated sectors and in different parts of the world, may follow very different strategic and creative paths yet still end up in very similar places creatively. A quick look at some examples will bear this out.

We must accept the fact that the sheer proliferation of brand icons around the world has made it more challenging for brand designers to guarantee clients creative work that is heretofore singularly and thoroughly original. This problem is most strongly felt with icon-based marks. Just consider these juxtapositions of the Olympic rings and the Audi rings; Gucci’s and Channel’s overlapping initials; Sun Microsystems’ and Columbia Sportswear’s weave-pattern badges, among other high profile examples.

Heavy reliance on simple geometry has become problematic. When designing an identity mark, a potential solution may be to show a bias toward wordmarks, where the personality and uniqueness of the image may be found within the treatment of the trade name itself. But as we know, this isn’t necessarily an option in many situations such as in the case of an Olympic Games logo.

If Sano was intent on plagiarizing any image, which I highly doubt, he might have done better than to start with the Théatre de Liège mark. In my view, neither mark is remarkable for its design originality, but I would say that on the surface, the staid aesthetic of the base graphic is more appropriate for a theatre than for a global celebratory event such as the Olympic Games. But that is neither here nor there.

The Tokyo 2020 Games Committee had been supportive of the logo until they felt the controversy would not go away and was beginning to hurt the reputation of the city. Before they could pull the logo however, Sano himself made the decision to retract his submission earlier this month, judging it difficult to let this situation stand, and in order to protect his staff and family from persistent attacks over this controversy. Not professing any particular liking for the mark created by Sano, I think it is an unfortunate conclusion to this story.