On the occasion of the London 2012 Olympics, VirusFonts release Olympukes 2012 – a new set of pictograms for the London games. In 2004, VirusFonts originally took on the Olympic pictograms – the ultimate designer’s commission – but with a witty subversion. Rather than of expressing ‘inspirational’ human endeavour, the Virus pictograms acknowledged the complex contradictions of the modern Olympics. The occasion of the London 2012 games gives Barnbrook an opportunity to revisit this concept, not only because VirusFonts is based in London but also much has changed globally in the last eight years. An interview with Jonathan Barnbrook.
The 2012 games come at a time of great economic and political uncertainty. Since 2008 the global economic system has lurched from one crisis to the next; Greece – the host of the 2004 games – now sits at the epicentre of a crumbling Eurozone. Ironically, the last time London hosted the Olympics, they were nicknamed the Austerity Games. Sixty-four years later, we find ourselves back in an era of austere cuts which serves to highlight the absurd expense of the 2012 games. Another aspect of the Olympics that is back for 2012 is the unfettered commercialism – if you think the games are about sport alone, think again. In Beijing we took it for granted that a dictatorial one-party state would suppress human rights in order to deliver the perfect games. What was a little more unexpected is the excessive security measures due to be employed by a supposedly liberal democracy. But then again, in a country with an estimated 1.8 million CCTV cameras, maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised.
Where the 2004 Olympukes celebrated the general greed, manipulation and skulduggery in the Olympics, the 2012 version looks more specifically at complaints, controversies and accusations levelled at the London games and associated events. Countless hours went into researching accurate and thought-provoking stories, presented in pictogram form.
What made you decide to come back to the Olympukes project after 8 years?
Jonathan Barnbrook | “Because it was in London, where I live, a place I love. So the issues we discussed in the first Olympukes are even more keenly felt by us because it affects us so directly. There are so many issues surrounding the Olympics – about what has happened to the communities where the games are being held, the draconian restrictions because of every atom of it has been defined by sponsorship, and as a graphic designer the missed chance of the logo and the ignoring of the wealth of talent in graphic design for commissions such as the Olympic posters. The original idea of Olympukes was prompted by the almost religious treatment of the Olympic pictograms by designers. There was a time when it was one of the top jobs in design, where it was felt it could unify the human spirit. Now rather than being at the forefront of design in interpretation and concept it has become a cynical marketing exercise. I also think the idea of speaking to all nations a bit of a redundant concept. The world has fragmented; we now celebrate difference. Our idea of the pictogram as a transparent vehicle for communicating and idea also feels rather dated, the classic pictograms are loaded with western assumptions about the structure of society from the role gender to the material objects people own. This project clearly uses these to formulate an opinion which I think is a least more honest.”
How did you select which topics to create icons for?
Jonathan Barnbrook | “It’s a combination of things, but really they had to be something unique to London but also it was getting a balance between ironic comments, serious issues and a bit of childish humour. We don’t want to be endlessly cynical, it’s better when you comment to make people smile as well to show you have a sense of humour about life. I hope this makes it a very human project, not a cool designery one.”
“It was a lot of work and also a serious exercise in pictogram design. We did want to try and communicate the concepts clearly so many things were redrawn, concepts refined to make a better comments.”
Who designed the Olympukes icons?
Jonathan Barnbrook | “They were done by three members of the studio, and we all discussed – me, Jonathan Abbott and Marwan Kaabour. As with any design project it’s only through interaction between people that you can develop a solution to a problem. The original Olympukes was designed by me and a previous member of the studio, Marcus Leis Allion.”
Do you feel that type design as a form of artistic expression can play a role in social commentary and political activism?
Jonathan Barnbrook | “That’s not a simple question to answer, and I always feel it’s better to let your actions speak for themselves rather than to endlessly elaborate. I have to say I am a bit tired of designers arguing whether type design/typography has any effect or is a valid form of expression because the non-designers, the activists are using graphic design as a necessary tool in everyday life in protest without getting uptight about it. I don’t engage so much in these kinds of debates any more because the level of discussion is usually very low in design; primarily based on people complaining but not matching these complaints by their own actions, or not having the imagination to believe they can change anything.”
With the recent crack-down on retired London graffiti artists, don’t you worry about another overreaction from the powers that be?
Jonathan Barnbrook | “Not to us, no. I try and think in a pure way about these kind of projects and not censor, because as we all know when you start to censor yourself for fear of what might happen to you, then the people who are trying to stop what you do have already won.”
Olympukes 2012 can be downloaded from the FontShop Free Fonts page in dark and light weights in the multi-platform OpenType format, and is free for private and non-commercial use.
Please note: Virus is in no way affiliated or have received any endorsement from the International Olympic Committee, the organising committees of the Olympic Games or any national Olympic committee.