Reflecting back on the Olympics & the summer of 2012

With only hours to go until the start of the Rugby World Cup, I for one look forward to the excitement that a tournament of this nature brings to a country. It’s with a tinge of jealousy that I look on and see a number of my ex colleagues from LOCOG deliver another amazing event – good luck to you all!

There really is no comparison to being involved with the organisation of massive sporting events like the Olympics or a World Cup. The lessons learned are highly valuable; they’ve been extremely useful to me, whilst delivering a number of successful wayfinding schemes at CCD. I’d like to share my wayfinding story from the London 2012 Games.

olympics, london

2012 Olympic Park

“There will never be another summer like 2012” is oft repeated.  In one year, the UK celebrated 200 years since Charles Dickens’ birth, 60 years of Queen Elizabeth II.  And then there were the London Olympics and Paralympics.

The construction of the Olympic Park was one of the most ambitious projects seen in the UK for many years.  Not only was the scale impressive, but so too was the speed at which it had to be completed.  And with the eyes of the world on the UK, there was no room for error.  With so much to be organised, it is no wonder that one week at LOCOG felt like one year at your average company. There was little time to dwell on ideas, decisions were made quickly and confidently, and any mistakes rectified even more quickly. With an immovable deadline there really was no choice.

One of the many great successes of the Games was the wayfinding. Many people confuse wayfinding with signage, but in fact wayfinding is the strategy to help people navigate in, through and out of a space or building – signage is only one part of the solution.  To illustrate that, one of the most popular features of the Park were the volunteers perched on umpire chairs, cheerfully sending people in the right direction.  That’s wayfinding… although to be fair, it wouldn’t be realistic to have that solution in most other places.

London 2012’s all-inclusive system was predominantly reliant on static signage and mapping. The signage met all the required standards for legibility and accessibility, but for the system to be fully inclusive the team needed to tie the journey together. This started with the information on tickets and spectator guides, which married up with the transport planner on the London 2012 website, and the last mile signage system developed in conjunction with TfL. Finally, the journey was complete with signage to each venue. It was the close relationship between the departments and agencies that provided the information to create a complete journey, that gave a system that got spectators from their home to their seat and back again. This joined up thinking has widespread applicability.

Creating a sign family that clearly embodied the London 2012 brand identity was a key objective. The shape and angles for each sign were created from “the burst of energy”, which stemmed from the 2012 logo. This became the core foundation for the sign family design and the overall brand identity. Giving the sign family a clear association with the 2012 brand enhanced its presence and overall recognition, which were important factors in the performance of the wayfinding scheme.  Perhaps surprisingly, London 2012 was the first Olympic and Paralympic Games to integrate look & feel with the signage design.

In most ways the wayfinding system was similar to many other wayfinding projects. But with the Olympics, there was the additional challenge of moving very large crowds in short spaces of time.  Absorbing information from the venue teams, in particular venue operations and venue management was key to the success of the design, sign placement and information planning. The lesson is the importance of the wayfinding team to work closely with the operational aspects of the spaces it is working with.

Part of LOCOG’s pledge was “zero landfill” and this meant strict compliance to sustainability standards. As a designer it’s easy to get carried away with the look and size of a product, with little thought to the materials, cost and manufacturing process. At LOCOG the materials came first and the design second. Creating products that used sustainable stock sheet sizes and readily available manufacturing techniques was a key decision. This often meant a few compromises had to be made for graphic layout and type sizes, but the end deliverable was sustainable and within budget. Working with manufacturers by having early engagement in the design process saved money and was a far better use of resources and time.

For such a large event product and design flexibility were key to the success of the wayfinding system. Being able to use one product in a variety of situations was not only practical but also cost effective. For example, crossing points were also used for load zones (bus/car stops) and accreditation boards were also used for lift directories. A further example of flexibility was the change over between the Olympics and Paralympics. One example were the freestanding totems, known as “shards” within LOCOG, which had two interchangeable faces that could be removed, spun round and then re-inserted. This meant a single product could be left in situ and used for both events: it’s this system that allowed for a smooth transition. This kind of flexibility within a signage system could be beneficial for any environment, especially one with on-going changes and development.

Working on a global sporting event like the Olympic and Paralympic Games was both challenging and highly educational. The approach and lessons are quite transferable to projects big or small. Careful consideration for front-end research, planning and strategy as well as early consultation with manufacturers and relevant experts manifests in a better design that meets the needs of each end user.  Early consideration of wayfinding at the masterplanning stage delivers substantial benefits, as does ensuring that the wayfinding works along the operational aspects of any scheme. The Olympic legacy may not be just a greater enjoyment of sport for the UK population, but a much better understanding of how wayfinding contributes to the overall spectator experience.

Chris is Head of Wayfinding at CCD.

chris girling


Chris Girling

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