Beyond 2012 - an integrated Design Story

A design transformation

It’s July 2012. The world’s gaze is turned to one city: London, home of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Beamed to TV channels on every continent, an unlikely trio of HRH The Queen, James Bond and David Beckham star in an electrifying Opening Ceremony. The buzz on Twitter and Facebook grows 24-7 – more than any other, London’s is a Games powered by social media.

On the ground, in Stratford, East London, ticket-holders flood into the new Olympic Parkland; a real park – its paths, lawns and riverways sweeping around stadiums. On the track, Farah, Hoy, Wiggins, Weir and Ennis stake their claims for sporting immortality. Even the British sunshine rises to the occasion. It is a truly golden summer.

Stop. Rewind.

It’s July 2005. Erase the Olympic Park, the pristine parkland and clean waterways. Despite sitting just a few miles from St Paul’s Cathedral and Buckingham Palace, this is a neglected part of London.

This is where we start.

In 2005, the London Games organisers had a vision: to deliver an Olympic and Paralympic Games that would inspire a generation. But to make this happen, they needed creators, designers, architects, engineers.

The simplest solution was to think big. For a Host Nation, it is a vast challenge just to put in place the right infrastructure, assets and systems in time for a Games.

Large-scale contractors are experienced at delivering big contracts. When planning the biggest urban transformation project in Europe, they were the safest option.

But what about the smaller businesses and artisans who may not be able to build an Olympic Stadium, but could contribute towards creating something truly remarkable for the Games?

The first rule for London was to always challenge the easy option.

That didn’t mean ‘big’ was bad. Large practices are hugely important to London 2012’s design story. They helped to create some of the most iconic buildings, including the Olympic Stadium and the Aquatics Centre. But they were complemented by, and often collaborated with, a collection of smaller teams and individuals, specialists who were commissioned for their imagination, ingenuity and skill.

Enabling innovation

How do you find the very best design talent that a country has to offer? The London 2012 procurement process was carefully planned to provide a level playing field – enabling sole traders to stand alongside multinationals, and to be judged on ability alone.

When the commissioning started, a number of guiding principles emerged to create London’s unique design story.

The first was to take risks.

Sometimes there are benefits to naïvity. If you’ve never built a cycling stadium before (like the London Velodrome architects, Hopkins, for example), then you don’t know what’s possible – or what’s impossible. You’ll be thinking outside of ‘the norm’ and might just create something truly ground-breaking. This happened time and again on the Olympic Park.

The next principle was to understand where ‘design’ starts (and stops).

Perhaps the grandest part of London 2012’s design is its built environment – in particular, the huge infrastructure and stadiums in the Olympic Park. However, ‘design’ for London meant much more than concrete, steel and glass.

A joined-up design story (known as the design grid) was an essential part of creating an instantly and globally recognisable London 2012 brand.  To create not just a logo and a collection of buildings but a complete Games, where the design is able to flex and spread seamlessly from London 2012’s physical architecture through to its digital identity, its venue signage and way-finding, the staff and volunteers’ uniforms, the mascots, Olympic Torch and Cauldron, and beyond.

The London 2012 design stories are split into 5 areas for ease of navigation yet are all informed by the central design grid:

The next guiding principle was to bring the Games back to spectators.

When designing the biggest sporting spectacle on Earth, there is a risk of creating an explosive televisual event, which loses its impact on the ground. London’s designers were challenged with making the Games look and feel amazing, not only on TV screens but also for ticketholders. This meant creating intimate experiences – often bringing spectators physically closer to the action – and using the Host City itself. For example, at the Greenwich Park and Horse Guards Parade venues, the fourth side to the stadium was kept open – bringing iconic views of London right into the arena.

London’s promise to deliver ‘the greenest Games’ helped shape the next promise: to be as sustainable as possible. As well as meeting specific demands, such as ethical sourcing codes, ambitious emissions targets and the pledge to deliver zero-waste to landfill during Games-time, the designers followed the broader theme of ‘less is more’. One example is the record number of Games venues that were designed to be temporary – leaving a lighter environmental footprint and increasing opportunities for reuse. From a technical point of view, it was not the easy option. London’s designers had to wrestle with a host of challenges unknown to previous Games designers.

Overcoming these problems brought designers closer together. Often used to working in relative isolation, for London 2012, the UK’s best engineers, artists and architects instead worked together on a scale never previously witnessed. Throughout the stories on this site, you will find many examples of successful design collaboration – an approach that has resulted in imaginative and often ground-breaking solutions.

Beyond 2012

At the heart of all this is legacy – the final guiding principle – leaving something behind that is valued by future generations. And yet, beyond the physical legacy of the Games – in particular in the newly reopened Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, there is also a wider legacy for the design industry.

Challenged to find truly sustainable, spectator-centred and pioneering ways to deliver Europe’s largest urban transformation and the world’s biggest sporting spectacle, Britain’s designers have stepped up – in some cases helping develop new standards and ways of working. Long after summer 2012, this will continue to raise the bar – not just for the many designers involved in the Games but for the entire British design industry.

From a sketch to a stadium. An idea to a brand. Unpick the London 2012 Games and you reveal a series of golden threads, each leading back to a different design story. We hope you enjoy exploring these stories of London 2012 and feel inspired by the transformational power of design.

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The stories behind London 2012