PyeongChang 2018 Olympic iden­tity: A depress­ing design crime

PyeongChang 2018 Olympic identity: A depressing design crime

Korea, the Repub­lic of Korea to be exact, is a pecu­liar place at the best of times. Des­ti­na­tion of choice for plas­tic surgery, to ogle pin-​up female golfers tak­ing a swing at being super­mod­els, and a basket-​case North­ern her­mit state replete with mad dic­ta­tor. Korea’s notable recent achieve­ments have been chae­bol heir appar­ents with nut-​rage, and a trib­ute birdy-​song to a pop­u­lar fash­ion dis­trict of Seoul being the first to pass one bil­lion views on youtube.

In all seri­ous­ness, Korea today has strug­gled to posi­tion itself (again) as a global eco­nomic player in Asia Pacific with Japan and Taiwan’s relent­less appeal, and the man­u­fac­tur­ing cen­tre of the world to its west and north. All Gov­ern­ments view the Olympics as a golden egg for eco­nomic and cul­tural ben­e­fit: the world’s media hones in on the host country’s char­ac­ter and achieve­ments, and expec­ta­tions of home-​grown ath­letes pro­duce waves of national pride. In May 2013, the offi­cial iden­tity of the 2018 PyeongChang Win­ter Olympics was revealed. Now, with the open­ing cer­e­mony only two years away, can Korea pull the event off suc­cess­fully, and what will the last­ing legacy of their Olympic iden­tity be?

Square and star

Inspired by Hangul, the alpha­bet of the pho­netic Korean lan­guage, the PyeongChang Olympic iden­tity is an abstract motif of the host city. ‘ㅍ’ (‘P’) is the first con­so­nant of the first syl­la­ble ‘Pyeong’, and the ‘ㅊ’(‘Ch’) is the first con­so­nant of the sec­ond syl­la­ble ‘Chang’, depicted as a star. PyeongChang’s orga­niz­ing com­mit­tee expresses this as: “symboliz[ing] the open square where the cel­e­bra­tion of ath­letes and win­ter sports will take place….” with “the nat­ural envi­ron­ment of snow and ice, and the stel­lar achieve­ments of the ath­letes — the stars of the Games.” The colours rep­re­sent the five Olympic rings, and as a happy coin­ci­dence rep­re­sent the five tra­di­tional colours of Korea.

The design is attrib­uted to Ha Jong-​joo, who, accord­ing to the com­mit­tee is said to have done “cor­po­rate iden­tity designs” for “major global cor­po­ra­tions”. To me, it imme­di­ately strikes as the work of an intern. Per­haps it is. Exten­sive research did not reveal who Ha Jong-​joo is or evi­dence of the major global cor­po­ra­tions men­tioned. If this is the best Korea can offer in graphic design it will enter the pan­theon of appalling Olympic logos — with Lon­don as head boy.

Hangul alpha­bet

Dat­ing from the 15th cen­tury, Hangul (한글) is the Korean alpha­bet. Han (한) trans­lates as “great” in archaic Korean, while geul (글) is the native Korean word for “script”. Hangul was adopted in offi­cial doc­u­ments for the first time in 1894. Dur­ing Japan’s impe­r­ial rule (19101945) Japan­ese became the offi­cial lan­guage, how­ever, Hangul was taught in the Korean-​established schools and Korean was writ­ten in a mixed Hanja (the Korean name for Chi­nese char­ac­ters — Hanzi [漢字] in Chi­nese) and Hangul script, where most adjec­tives were writ­ten in Hanja while gram­mat­i­cal forms were writ­ten in Hangul.

For design­ers com­pos­ing Korean in InDe­sign, Hangul is part of the Part of Chi­nese, Japan­ese, Korean (CJK) char­ac­ter set which ships with the asso­ci­ated oper­at­ing sys­tem lan­guage. Eng­lish lan­guage design­ers can only access the CJK char­ac­ter sets using the third party World Tools plu­gin which is used for Har­bour Times Chi­nese typesetting.


The Tra­di­tional Korean Colour Spec­trum is called ‘Obangsaek’ (오방색) which trans­late as the five direc­tional col­ours and five ele­ments of tra­di­tional Korean culture.

Design by committee

As the poorer sib­ling of the Inter­na­tional Olympic Com­mit­tee the Win­ter Olympics have given design­ers a legacy of appalling logos over the years, with the excep­tion of Sap­poro in 1972 and Sochi in 2012. Olympic logo design is a thank­less task. End­less pre­sen­ta­tions to gov­ern­ment stake­hold­ers and cor­po­rate spon­sors dilute the guts of any cre­ative expres­sion and so there is some sym­pa­thy with the design team. How­ever, there is too much arro­gance in this design. The designer/​Koreans assume the world will under­stand the essence of their logo’s rather clumsy cul­tural ref­er­ences. It is too bor­ing. Too Korean.

PyeongChang’s Can­di­date City logo was much stronger: friendly and informed. Why was this design change approved? The vast major­ity of can­di­date cities change the iden­tity once they have won the games, and invari­ably the designs become worse for it. It is fair to assume this is due to stake­holder involve­ment. Unfor­tu­nately, Design is rarely the win­ner of the Olympics.

Korea is des­per­ately try­ing to avoid being viewed as the poorer ver­sion of Japan (cul­tur­ally) and China (eco­nom­i­cally). It still has to abide to the South Korea Sta­tus of Forces Agree­ment (SOFA) agree­ment and put up with the 27,000 US mil­i­tary per­son­nel sta­tioned there. GDP Growth Rate in South Korea reached an all time high of 6.80 per­cent in the first quar­ter of 1988 coin­cid­ing with the hugely suc­cess­ful Sum­mer Olympics in Seoul which put Korea firmly on the global eco­nomic stage. In a coun­try that has a national aver­age snow­fall of just 30cm per year it will be hard for PyeongChang to super­sede Seoul’s suc­cess 30 years pre­vi­ously. With this Win­ter Olympic iden­tity they are not going to make great inroads in sell­ing ‘Brand Korea’.