Q&A: Ben Hulse, graphic designer

On designing Canada’s new Olympic team logo, remembering ’88 and opening for Nickelback.


July 3, 2012, 6:30 p.m.,
East Vancouver, B.C.
(Photo: Clinton Hussey)

When Canada’s athletes enter London’s Olympic Stadium this summer, they’ll bear a new emblem. It’s part of a total rebranding of the Canadian Olympic team, the first top-to-bottom rethink in the team’s 100-year history, led by Vancouver designer Ben Hulse. The new team identity—including retro-inspired logo, signature typeface and a colourful maple leaf mosaic—was recently named one of the top rebrands of 2011 by Fast Company. (The new look was unveiled last summer, though London will be its public debut.) It marks a career high for Hulse, who started out designing album covers in the ’90s before joining the design team for the Vancouver 2010 Olympics. Since then, Hulse has struck out on his own, launching the Still Brandworks agency with two of his collaborators from the Team Canada project, Adam Bognar and Andrew Simpson. Yet he still finds time to bang the drums in Run the Red Light, the rock band he founded with his brother Toby in the late ’90s. He tells managing editor Graham F. Scott about the winding road from opening for Nickelback to hanging your work in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.

Born: 06/16/79
Year the maple leaf first appeared in Canadian Olympic Team iconography: 1908
Number of colours in Hulse’s maple leaf mosaic: 28
Kilometres logged on Canadian roads while touring with Run the Red Light: 150,000
Oddest application of the new maple leaf mosaic: A life-size moose sculpture

Why rebrand the Canadian Olympic team now?

There was obviously some momentum built around the Vancouver 2010 Games. Also the fact that over the team’s 100-year history the style and the aesthetic had never really been reconsidered from the top down. It had been growing very organically—everything was a little bit broken, a little too diversified.

Where do you even start rethinking something with that much history attached to it?

We started at the library, and by talking to Olympic historians, which I didn’t know actually existed up until then. We approached it very carefully, because it can be really easy to just create something new without carefully looking at what’s come before. At the same time, you can take something from the past and just throw it into today’s world and it may not fit, or feel too dusty, or too derivative. So our approach was to find pieces of history that had a level of timelessness to them.

Does rebranding a public institution like the Canadian Olympic team differ greatly from rethinking a private corporate logo?

The most obvious difference is that there aren’t too many companies that have this kind of history. I do think you approach it differently because, at the risk of sounding overconfident, you’re kind of helping to build the identity of a nation.

How many concepts did you go through to get to this final product?

There were hundreds, if not thousands of different explorations. The Canadian Olympic team mark, which is the maple leaf with the Olympic rings below and the oval around it, was actually a mark that existed in the archives. The original had the maple leaf with the flame, and the cauldron and the rings. There was a lot being communicated, and ultimately we wanted to boil it down. The first thing we did was delete the flame and the cauldron. We found a version of the maple leaf with its full stem—which seems like the obvious solution, but was something we hadn’t tried. It was just a clear winner by far. The challenge, of course, was convincing ourselves, and the committee, that such a simple solution was the right one.

How far away from this look did you get before you circled back? Did it get really crazy-looking?

Yeah, we definitely experimented with a very wide range of styles. We looked at creating an entirely new aesthetic that was potentially more progressive. And we looked into the art of heraldry, creating a coat of arms for the team. Like a shield with stripes and squares, with animals or mythical creatures on either side, bears or unicorns or whatever. As part of the creative process, you’ll flesh out all these things, but ultimately that’s the advantage of having a team of people to keep each other in check. We came back to the brief every time to ask: Is it timeless, is it iconic, is it accomplishing what we need it to? Also, will it embroider well at a couple centimetres tall?

You worked on the design team for the Vancouver 2010 Games. What was the highlight for you?

The chance to be a part of the torch program was pretty awesome for me. I remember in the lead-up to the Calgary ’88 Olympics, my brother and sister and I held our own mini torch relay with our little Petro-Canada candles. For Vancouver, I was design lead on the entire identity for the torch, so I designed the emblem, and all the supporting materials—all the vehicles and banners that followed the torch as they ran and drove and flew it across the country. I was on the art direction team for the torch itself, as well, so that was a pretty big highlight. I also had the fortune of designing the official poster, which is now part of an exhibit put on by the Victoria & Albert Museum in England. For a former Brit, that’s pretty amazing.

Your background is in music. How did you gravitate to design?

I’ve always had two passions: design and music. I did a B.Sc in interactive arts at Simon Fraser University, but I did that two years on, two years off, and then two years on. In the two years off, I was touring with my band. This was the late ’90s: Big Wreck, Tea Party, Bif Naked, we would often open for these bands. I don’t know whether I should admit to it or not, but we played a bunch of shows with Nickelback when they were getting going. When I recount what’s happened over the years, it’s crazy just how intertwined design and music has been for me.

Any brands out there you’d love to get your hands on and redo?

I haven’t done a record cover in a long time. It’d be pretty rad to do one for Justice, the French electronic band. Not too long ago I approached Tesla, the San Francisco company that makes electric sports cars. I’m interested in technology that will contribute to lightening our footprint on the world, and one of those I see with potential is obviously a low- to no-emitting vehicle. I’ve been keeping my eye on Tesla for the last year or two. I think their brand is good but has some room for improvement.

Will you be in London to see the new team identity introduced?

I’d love to be a spectator this time, but I don’t have any plans to go over. It kind of pains me, but I’m up to my ears in work at the moment. But I’m happy to watch it on TV.