Olympic Design: Canada’s Emblems

SI.com has enlisted the help of the bloggers behind Canadian Design Resource to author a series of posts on the design spirit of their country’s three Olympic Games: Montreal 1976, Calgary 1988, and Vancouver 2010. Today, CDR’s Michael Erdmann and Todd Falkowsky take a look at Canada’s Olympic emblems:

Once a city wins its bid to host the Games, the design and planning begin in earnest. Typically, the official emblem or logo mark is one of the first designs to be finalized and becomes central to all the marketing and development that follows. With such a critical role, these logos are expected to satisfy an overwhelming laundry list of requirements: representing the unique culture of the host city and the entire country, capturing the spirit of the Olympic Games, and functioning as a logo across a broad range of applications, (from tiny postage stamps to stadium scale billboards); and, perhaps most importantly, having the ability to to sell swag. While virtually no emblem could accomplish all of this (after all, it took more than 30 years for Canadians to design a flag that would represent the whole country), for better or worse, each has become an icon of the Games.

Montreal 1976 (Games of the XXI Olympiad) Emblem
Georges Huel, 1972

Montreal Logo

© COJO 76

The Montreal ‘76 logo is an icon of Canadian design and a rare, but compelling example of political nepotism gone right. Unlike many Olympic logos, the Montreal emblem was not the product of open competition. Instead, Montreal’s Mayor Jean Drapeau awarded the job to his friend Georges Huel, an accomplished designer in his own right.

Huel’s deceptively simple design consists of three symbolic elements: the Olympic rings, a running track (top cener), and an M (think handwriting, not type) for Montreal. The M is also a graphic representation of an Olympic podium. The less-is-more styling of this logo set the tone for the entire Montreal ‘76 identity.

Calgary 1988 (XV Olympic Winter Games) Emblem


Like the Montreal Olympic Logo, Calgary’s Winter Olympic Logo is composed of abstract letter-forms pared down to a bold symmetrical design. A series of interlocking Cs (for Canada and Calgary) form a pentagon-shaped snowflake, and a stem at the base of the snowflake implies a second form — the maple leaf.

Vancouver 2010 (XXI Olympic Winter Games) Emblem
Elena Rivera MacGregor & Gonzalo Alatorre, 2005


Ilaanaq, Canada’s current Olympic logo, has generated a whirlwind of controversy, with some describing it as a culturally insensitive train-wreck and others as a consumer-friendly marketing boom. The debate centers on the appropriation of the Inukshuk, a form with deep cultural resonance in the arctic, but little relevance to Vancouver or British Columbia (though the designers note that Inukshuks have been adopted by people across Canada, and an Inukshuk from Expo 86 has become an icon of Vancouver’s English Bay). Notably, the official Vancouver 2010 colors and graphics — designed by VANOC well after the logo’s selection — have little connection to the official logo and in contrast to past Olympics, the symbol is used sparingly in most Vancouver souvenirs.

(Coming up tomorrow from Canadian Design Resource: The Official Posters of Canada’s Olympic Games)

  • Published On Feb. 15, 2010 by lukewinn

    1. David Tuttle

      The Olympics have been synonymous with good design for many, many years. While this year’s logo leaves a bit to be desired, they certainly could have done worse. The abstract patterns and waves that have been plastered over the dasher boards and media centers make for a strong statement. Very contemporary.

      The days of crisp, monolithic marks (see Montreal ‘76) are probably gone, but like many other cultural phenomena, it will all come full circle again. Nice post.

    2. Doug

      Driving through the Canadian Maritime provinces you often see Inukshuks, these images of men’ along the side of the road, often in remote places. It is becoming a real Canadian cultural icon. I think it is a great design for the Vancouver Olympics especially since they have encouraged so much participation from the native peoples in the games ceremonies. I think this design is much more appropriate than the two lane highway with sharp turns that Lake Placid used in their emblem.

    3. Jean Smith

      I was 20 when the games were held in my home town of Montreal in 1976. I remember some cynics commenting that the “M” in the logo also stood for “Money”.

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