012 Time to put selfless expertise to the test

News reports covering the controversy regarding the logo for the 2020 Olympic Games were filled with the word “design”. The word was thrown around everywhere giving the impression that this was a problem of the “design industry”. Was it really just that, a “design issue”, or maybe not? In order to explore this matter, I would like to start with the design competition, where it all began, and try to give a thorough explanation of the whole scheme of things.

It is the Games Organizing Committee that hosts the competition for selecting the official 2020 Olympic Games logo including the judging session by the panel of judges. A major advertising agency in Japan—which had been greatly supportive from the get-go, throughout the bidding activities, ultimately succeeding in bringing the Olympics to Tokyo—was  appointed for the task by the Organizing Committee, the client, in this case. A creative director, along with a team of people from the agency were assigned to the Organizing Committee and were given the responsibility of supervising the project. A person who made his career creating advertisements now found himself on the side of the competition organizer—not only that, he became the actual supervisor in charge of the project. Based on advice from a number of famous graphic designers and input from learned experts, he put together the framework for the competition, implemented the guidelines and took action accordingly. There were some experts who served on the panel to select the winning logo alongside this creative director; there were some experts who submitted entries. I learned all this from the creative director himself.

Thus, it seems like an advertising company was in charge of the whole competition; which means that basically, the skills, the methodologies and the values inherent to advertising and marketing were the driving forces behind the competition. Creating an emblem for the Olympic Games was a “public” mission. Yet somehow, as an ad agency specializing in creating advertisement, I can well imagine they might have forgotten to recognize the special considerations that were necessary in managing a “public” design competition. In the world of advertising, competitions are held on a daily basis. It is the bread and butter of the industry. Everything is competitive. Maybe they were unaware that “the art of war”, so useful in their cutthroat environment was neither applicable nor appropriate for a “public” competition. The inappropriate methodology may be better explained from the “ethical” viewpoint. But I don’t want to get into moral discussions right now.

If the creative director had had a detailed knowledge and a deep understanding of graphic design, and if he had been equipped with an eye for aesthetics, the competition may have ended in great success. The reason why I say so is because I can draw on past experience. Japan’s advertising community has produced numerous luminaries such as Hideo Mukai and Ryuichi Yamashiro, who managed to sublimate the aesthetics of graphic design into great advertisement, and whose works have been recognized and admired worldwide.

In order to assess and discuss the Olympic logo issue we must not forget that the creative director himself and other people on the team assigned from the advertisement agency, had been giving assistance and contributions in preparing the bid to host the Olympic Games for many long years. Their efforts had finally come to fruit in Tokyo’s victory. In other words, right up to the successful bid, the knowhow of the advertising agency and its expertise was put to work to its fullest, and most effectively. What I am about to say is my private view. These are the very people who contributed to the victory, so I wish that they would take responsibility and speak up; give us a coherent explanation. Maybe it is because they belong to an organization; maybe you just can’t speak out when you are part of a company. It is my sincere hope that the day will come when they can find their own voices, and speak for themselves, for the sake of their precious lives.

For the purpose of discussing expertise, I am going to cite an example, a design piece. Everyone knows that the logo and poster for the Tokyo Olympic Games held in 1964 were created by the graphic designer Yusaku Kamekura. But if we are to stick to facts, that is not entirely correct. There were actually four official posters that were published; of which two had multiple creators. The two are entitled “The Start of the Sprinters’ Dash” and “A Butterfly Swimmer”. I am pretty sure that very few people can name the co-creators of these two posters.

Of the series, the second official poster is “The Start of the Sprinters’ Dash”. It captures the moment of runners leaving the starting block, taken from the side. The third official poster is “A Butterfly Swimmer” which captures the moment as a butterfly swimmer lunges forward, almost leaping out of the water, head on. Together with Yusaku Kamekura, art director Jo Murakoshi worked on photo direction, while it was photographer Osamu Hayasaki who actually took the photographs. The posters were the combined efforts of three artists working together. The posters could not have been made by a single graphic designer and his talents, but only came to be with the added expertise called photo direction. However, we could also say that it would not have been possible for an ad creator equipped with photo direction skills to make the poster on his own. The posters capture the heat of the moment when trained athletes at the top of their game, are off to compete in a heightened mind-body state; they visualize the essence of the spirit of the Olympic in a flash of beauty. Though created way back in time, half a century ago, the posters still stand out as luminous icons of the world’s greatest sport event, radiant and glorious. It was the fusion of the highest concept of “graphic design” expressed by Yusaku Kamekura’s deep human understanding, “art direction” brought forth by Jo Murakoshi’s sensibility, and the best of “advertisement” that created this miraculous moment—the pinnacle of aesthetics, an expression of Japanese advertising design at its best at the time of the Tokyo Olympics 1964. 

The refined ideology that can be seen in the design of the logo for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, together with the cutting-edge relevance and exceptional beauty that shows up in the “Sprinters’ Dash” poster did us proud—I don’t think it is an overstatement to say that the works sent a message to the world. It showcased the high level of creativity and the high standard of aesthetics of the Japanese people. But I am sure that Mr. Kamekura, Mr. Murakoshi and Mr. Hayasaka didn’t go into production of the posters thinking about “sending the world a message about the high standard of Japanese aesthetics”. As creators, they put their pride and careers on line for a single objective; to create “for Japan” and “for the success of the Olympic Games”. Looking at the posters I can feel their simple motivation. They are in a clear state devoid of worldly thoughts—free of self-interest and greed, their consciences totally unclouded. Every time I look at the poster designs from 1964, I think about this. The Olympics requires both skills: the “power—i.e. expertise” of “graphic design” and “the power—i.e. expertise” of “advertisement”. It takes both. And of course it needs expertise free of self-interest. 

From the official posters “The Start of the Sprinters’ Dash” and “A Butterfly Swimmer” I can tell how, once upon a time, Japan’s graphic design industry honored, paid tribute to, and coexisted with “design”, “art direction and advertisement” and their respective types of expertise. That said, looking back on the present, I can’t see the beautiful codependent relationship we once had with “design” and “art direction and advertisement” anymore. Can we bring it back? Five years from now, we will be hosting the Olympic Games here in Tokyo. What we need is the beautiful codependent relationship and I believe this is a great opportunity to seek its return.

With that in mind, now is the time to pose the question, “What makes expertise?”

Keiko Hirano

Keiko Hirano:
Designer/Visioner, Executive Director of Communication Design Laboratory
Hirano served on the panel that chose the official emblem for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, which was ultimately withdrawn.