How a Grad Helped Design the Olympics

By VFS Web Team, on March 23, 2010

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Maybe you missed it. That's okay. There was a lot going on.
But if you did notice, you'll know what we mean when we say that the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver were a triumph of branding.
An entire metro area was transformed. For weeks, Vancouver and Whistler became the world's Olympic Cities. Sure, there were the cars and temporary signage that you'd expect. But the brand was everywhere else - every light standard, every fence, and on building facades throughout the downtown core. Even on the boards at GM Place (aka Canada Hockey Place), normally laden with advertising.
If you were here, you understand how ubiquitous the Vancouver 2010 brand was. If you weren't, you probably saw it: in every photo of a triumphant athlete and every shot of a jubilant crowd singing 'O Canada' (or 'The Star Spangled Banner' or 'Ja, vi elsker').
And Shawn Parkinson was right in the middle of that brand's design - from the overall graphic identity to the unforgettable design of the Olympic torch.
He graduated from VFSDigital Design in late 2002, worked with a group of fellow grads, freelanced, and eventually landed an art director position at Koolhaus Design. And in 2006, he signed on with the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games, otherwise known as VANOC.

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Shawn with the 2010 torches, which he helped design. Photo: Ben Hulse

He was born in Ontario, but raised in Alberta. And for a Calgary boy who experienced the '88 Olympics firsthand, it was a natural fit.
"When I was a wee lad, I loved flags," he says. "When asked what I wanted for a present it was a flag. I had dozens of flags and spent hours memorizing where each was from."
"I was greatly influenced by the '88 Olympics, watching many achieve their dreams and try to do their best."
Which is a good mindset to have when you're about to take on the monumental task of creating and deploying a brand like Vancouver 2010.
How did you first come to be involved in the Vancouver 2010 Games?
Shawn: In 2006, I met the man who would hire me, Leo Obstbaum, and told him that my dream job was to work on the design of an Olympic Games. He saw my passion for the project and how I spoke highly of Calgary '88 and what it did for the city. He asked me to apply to be a designer with VANOC. I quickly got together my portfolio over a weekend and sent it to Leo. He hired me soon after and I started in September 2006. I am very thankful for the opportunity that Leo gave me and very lucky to learn from him and be around his creative energy for three years.
[Editor's note: Leo Obstbaum, Vancouver 2010's indefatigable Design Director, passed away in August 2009. He's remembered in this loving tribute by Vancouver designer Mark Busse.]
You were working on the design side of the Olympics for almost four years. What were you responsible for?
Shawn: Our team are the champions of the Vancouver 2010 brand. This included large pieces like emblems, the graphic identity including pictograms, Torch Relay emblem and graphic identity, motto, Cultural Olympiad emblem and graphic identity, mascots, medals and torches, all the way down to brochures, postcards, spectator guides, maps, and lapel pins.
Just about everything. It's exhausting to list them.
We all had specific projects that we led but we were all involved in every project in some way. The projects that I was involved in the most along the way were the graphic identity, Cultural Olympiad emblem and identity, Torch Relay emblems and identity, the torch design, and medal design.
[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"2569","attributes":{"class":"media-image alignright size-full wp-image-10351","typeof":"foaf:Image","style":"","width":"220","height":"220","alt":""}}]]What can you tell us about the team assembled to make all of this happen? Was the setup at all comparable to any of your earlier design experiences, or was this new territory?
Shawn: We are a diverse and close team from across Canada with backgrounds ranging from CHUM TV to Ikea to the Canucks to indie rockers... This was new territory for all of us. I think the diverse talents of the team assembled by Leo and our level of teamwork was what led to our success. We didn't mind passing projects to each other and incorporating other designers' ideas in what we were working on. Great creative benefits from collaboration and we took that to heart early on. We wanted our work to be the best it possibly could be and checked our egos at the door.
For many of us in Vancouver, the sheer scope of the design and branding work that went into the Olympics didn't come into focus until late January or so. Sure, we saw the logos and the mascots... but then the brand became ubiquitous. It's awe-inspiring. What's the challenge involved, as a designer, in handling this kind of scope?

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The brand adorns the GE Ice Plaza - the Robson Square Skating Rink. Photo: Danny Chan

Shawn: Going into the project, we knew that the Olympic games are often regarded as the largest branding program in the world. We learned that the graphic identity has to be extremely scalable and flexible to be applied to the many applications because of past games. Because all the venues are clean - free of advertising - there's an amazing opportunity for "set-decorating" and telling a story to the world. When a photo is captured of the games, it should be clear that a) this is an Olympic games, and b) where and when these games are. Every piece is an opportunity to tell our story to the world. We made our graphic identity easy to dial up or down based on the application.
Beyond those "obvious" elements like logos and mascots, why is such a ubiquitous brand necessary for an Olympic Games, in your view? What do you say to the person who thinks it's overkill?
Shawn: Many say that an Olympic Games is the biggest branding exercise a city, province, nation can go through. This is our chance to tell Vancouver, B.C., and Canada's story about who we are now and who we want to be. In the words of Sydney's Director of Look: "You don't throw the world's biggest party without getting dressed up for it."
Out of everything you worked on, which ones were particularly challenging or interesting to take on, as a designer? Does anything stand out to you as being something you're especially proud of on a personal level?
Shawn: The design and development of the graphic identity - the look of the games - makes me really proud. It was amazing to have that collaborative experience. Working with 7 other designers, who I all consider friends now, for months on end in a creative and collaborative environment. Painting, drawing, sculpting, remixing... it was fantastic! We can all see ourselves and our work is in the Vancouver 2010 graphic identity.
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I also found designing the Olympic and Paralympic torch a very rewarding experience, because it was so different from what I usually get to work on. We were flying around the country, but not able to tell anyone why because it was such a closely guarded secret. We were working with Bombardier on a team including people who usually work designing planes and trains! I got to learn about manufacturing and materials and the challenges they presented while working on a Canadian icon that would unite the country leading up to the Games. You just can't buy that kind of experience.
Each Olympics has its own brand. But did the brands of past games influence this Vancouver brand at all? Is there an Olympic visual language at play?
Shawn: We learned from past games, looking at what worked well and what didn't work in the past. There is an amazing transfer of knowledge that happens to make sure that every Olympic Games is learning from their predecessors. Many of us were students of Olympic design, and brought our thoughts into the mix. Some of us came with a fresh perspective, and that was also great for us to break from convention. We pretty much just followed the brief and kept pushing the boundaries as far as possible to show what Canadian design is capable of.

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Banners for the Cultural Olympiad were on display throughout the city. Photo: Danny Chan

How did it feel when the games finally got underway and you could see your handiwork in the way it was meant to be seen?
Shawn: It was a truly amazing feeling to see our work out in the public domain like that and how the citizens of Vancouver and Canada embraced the Games. It's not often that one's work culminates in a huge nation-changing event that everyone is watching like that. I will treasure that experience forever.
Have you seen or heard anybody reacting to or interacting with the brand in a way you didn't expect?
Shawn: I've heard stories from people who loved the graphics so much that they are attempting to steal banners, fence fabric, and anything they can get their hands on! I guess that's the ultimate form of flattery, when young and old alike want to steal your work?
What's next for you? What kinds of challenges are you looking for?
Shawn: My wife and I are expecting our first baby in a few weeks and I'm really focusing on that right now.
Professionally, I'd love to work on corporate branding projects, really pushing what brand-led innovation can do. I think that I'll be turning my attention to the web much more, as that was the spark for me to start off in design. I don't know if that's going to be working with a company in-house or with an agency. Whatever shape that takes, I'm so excited for what the future holds.
Thanks, Shawn! To find out more about Shawn and his work, visit his site at Interested in exploring the many sides of the Vancouver 2010 brand? has lots to check out.

Photo credit (top and where noted): Danny Chan