How two Canadian designers salvaged a century of Olympic logos

The two-man Vancouver design studio Hulse & Durrell is mining the IOC archives for a new line of Olympic-themed merchandise

Why Design Matters

Ben Hulse, left, and Greg Durrell

Ben Hulse, left, and Greg Durrell examined 25,000 artifacts to standardize 120 years of Olympic design. (All Images Courtesy Hulse & Durrell)

Ben Hulse and Greg Durrell had little idea what they were getting themselves into two years ago when they accepted a commission from the International Olympic Committee to curate and codify the designs of past Olympic Games. The partners at Hulse & Durrell had worked together as part of the in-house design team for the Vancouver 2010 Games but, soon after the closing ceremonies, the brand they’d spent years developing effectively ceased to exist. They kept wondering, as Durrell puts it, “Why can’t you buy a polo shirt with the Olympic rings on it?”

As it happened, people within the International Olympic Committee were thinking along the same lines. The IOC, which ultimately holds the rights for past Games, knew there was likely a global market for decades’ worth of Olympic-themed merchandise. Yet the Lausanne, Switzerland–based organization had only a half-formed idea of how it might unlock the latent value of its own archival materials.

So Hulse & Durrell was hired to compile, digitize and edit all the emblems, pictograms, mascots and colour palettes from past Olympic Games into a catalogue of brand marks that could eventually be licensed and emblazoned on everything from clothing to coffee mugs.

The challenge was that the IOC’s digital archive was itself incomplete: it had only a rudimentary collection of historical materials—and some of those materials, especially older, pre-digital samples, contained errors. Roman numerals were cut off at the edge of the frame, fonts were inconsistent and colour gradients had inexplicably crept into the artwork. So the task grew to include sourcing vintage race bibs from collectors to confirm logo details, and deciding which of the many available shades of red would become the official hue used for modern reproductions of Japan’s rising sun emblem from the Tokyo 1968 Games. In many cases for the earliest Games, typefaces had been hand-painted and were never standardized.

The pair could have just used the best materials on hand, but “we took this job really seriously,” Hulse says. It turned into a labour of love to get the Olympics’ design history right and to get it standardized for all time. The pair estimates they examined 25,000 different items in search of the elements worth keeping and reproducing.

“When you go through this work, you see the evolution of art and design over 120 years—the different styles, the different techniques,” Durrell says. The designers have their favourites: The Munich 1972, Tokyo 1964 and Los Angeles 1984 Games stand out. Tokyo and Munich, in particular, coincided with the graphic design profession’s coming of age, Hulse notes, when some now-universally recognized visual shorthands came into being, such as the men’s and women’s symbols on bathroom doors. But even the less noteworthy periods taught them something. Hulse likens the process to his past career as a musician: “When you cover a song you come to dissect it and understand why it was a hit even if you don’t like it. There was a similar process here.”

The pair’s work now forms the basis for what has been branded the Olympic Heritage Collection: a library of retro imagery just waiting to be deployed on everything from skateboards to teacups. The collection is now in the complex phase of being licensed across the IOC’s various national territories. The only place you can buy retro-styled Olympic gear so far is China—and royalty arrangements currently forbid their export. “It’s weird,” Durrell says. “We designed the line and we can’t even see it.”

A world of merchandise

The purpose of Hulse & Durrell’s project was ultimately to enable the International Olympic Committee to produce branded merchandise spanning every modern Olympic Games. The Olympic Heritage collection is not yet for sale, but renderings show some of the products that may eventually be available:

Bag with logo of Cortina 1956 Olympics

A bag for the Cortina 1956 Olympics.

Shoe with Barcelona 1992 Olympics imagery on it

Sneakers with imagery from the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

T-shirt with Montreal 1976 Olympics imagery

A T-shirt with imagery from the Montreal 1976 Olympics.

Notebooks with logos from the 1932 Los Angeles, Grenoble 1968 and Sarajevo 1984 Olympics.

Notebooks with logos from the 1932 Los Angeles, Greoble 1968 and Sarajevo 1984 Games.

Colour guard

Original Olympic artwork in digital form only started appearing in the 1990s. Prior to that, colours often varied considerably from piece to piece. One of the tasks Hulse & Durrell took on was to digitally standardize the colour palettes from each Games, such as Montreal 1976, Tokyo 1964 and Los Angeles 1984.

Montreal 1976 Olympics materials

Hulse & Durrell needed to standardize colour schemes for pre-digital Games.

Toko 1964 Olympics logo

Logo of the Tokyo 1964 Olympics, regarded today as a modern classic. Hulse & Durrell standardized the colour scheme.

Los Angeles 1984 logo

Logo of the Los Angeles 1984 Olympics.

Correcting history

Some of the digital artwork the IOC had on file included errors, such as this emblem from the 1924 Games in Paris. The previous incorrect version (top) has been restored to a more authentic version (bottom) for the Olympic Heritage Collection.

Here’s what changed:  The Roman numerals had been cut off in the process of scanning, resulting in the logo actually misnumbering the 1924 games; some logo elements had been clumsily recreated with digital tools, erasing the hand-crafted feel; and some characters did not match the hand-painted typeface. By sleuthing through other artifacts of the era, Hulse and Durrell corrected the marks for posterity. “The scope of the project ballooned when we found discrepancies,” Durrell says.

Comparison of previous version of the Paris 1924 Olympics logo with Hulse & Durrell’s properly restored version.

Archival material from the Berlin 1936 Olympics.

Archival material from the Berlin 1936 Olympics.

Long live the brand

Each Olympic Games has a brand that appears on myriad products available up until the closing ceremonies, then ceases to exist. Working with the IOC, Hulse and Durrell found a way to resurrect that lost design history, so that marks from the Olympic Heritage Collection can be licensed to appear on new products. Artwork from some Olympic Games, such as Munich 1972 (below), is considered to be a landmark example of 20th-century graphic design.

A poster for the Munich 1972 Olympics

A poster for the Munich 1972 Olympics