Semiotics of Olympic Logos: The Meaning-Making Process

by Mariane Cara and Ashley Mauritzen

The Rio Summer Olympic Games will take place in August 2016. The Games are a spectacle surrounded by strong symbolism, from their powerful governing ethos to strict built-in structures. The Olympic flame and five rings are iconic nonverbal cues that carry a strong relationship with the Games and their meaning-making process. When we see them, we know the Games are at hand. Yet the power of Olympic visual communications goes much further.

Every Edition Logo brings something new, subtly altering the essence of the Olympics through its chronological and spatial context.

Summer editions since 2000

Summer editions since 2000

Understanding these contexts constitutes two major strands of commercial semiotic thought. The chronological focuses on the aesthetics of zeitgeist (signaling a diachronic perspective) whilst the spatial centers on the differences between cultures and their representations (endorsing the power of synchrony). In order to demonstrate these two related contexts to RWConnect readers, two semioticians have analysed two different Summer Edition Logos for this article: London 2012 and Rio 2016.

From a semiotic perspective, these logos present a very distinct set of meanings, each with their own particular signifiers (colors, shapes, dimensions…), specific narratives and dissimilar cultural meanings. For the purposes of comparing and contrasting contexts, British semiotician Ashley Mauritzen has focused on London 2012 and Brazilian practitioner Mariane Cara has analysed Rio 2016.

London 2012

Created by design firm Wolf Olins, the logo for the London Olympics 2012 prove extremely divisive. Both widely maligned and passionately defended, it makes a strong case for the challenges and rewards inherent in dramatic national rebranding. Because whilst its detractors may have chosen to focus on the logo’s passing resemblance to a carnal exchange between Bart and Lisa Simpson, the real controversy stems from its bold semiotic statement of a new progressive British national identity for a global age.


London Olympics logo variations

London Olympics logo variations

The logo palette couldn’t stand in starker contrast to the traditional authoritarian navy, red and white of the Union Jack. Electric pink was the most widely used inflection – a bold post-gendered statement. Other versions signify an upbeat (orange) and contemporary (cyan) outlook. The existence of several options constitutes a celebration of variety and choice.

An abundance of rectilinear shapes pointedly confounds the rural idyll more commonly associated with England’s ‘green and pleasant lands’. Their dynamic relationship with each other cues the haphazard layout of the urban landscape, and their sharp edges resemble leading edge British architectural design. There is a sense of aerial perspective, cueing both the skyscrapers that dominate the contemporary city and its breadth of outlook.

Urban inspirations

Urban inspirations

The urban connotations of the logo are further compounded by the vertical arrangement of the numbers 20 and 12, which bears a close resemblance to the tags that abound in street art.

Street Art inspirations

Street Art inspirations

The energy of this subversive art form is also channeled into the logo through the use of yellow borders. The implied techiness of this ‘electric’ radiance is further compounded by the presence of a dot. When placed at the center of a phrase, it clearly signifies the language of the Internet, positioning the logo as a vital destination (or ‘address’) in the digital age.


The London 2012 logo constitutes a bold statement of intent by a country keen to forge a new post-empire identity for itself. It is a deliberate repudiation of the values more commonly associated with Britishness – calm, order and maintenance of the status quo. Britain may be nationalistic but it is fresh-faced nationalism with a twist, as the images below show:

Contemporary Britain – and London in particular – is keen to promote itself as a hotbed of creativity. The colour, asymmetry and fierce originality of the logo bear striking resemblance to some of the outfits that have featured recently at the notoriously edgy London Fashion Week:

The urban connotations of the logo neatly coincide with the foregrounding of the city of London as a globally relevant 21st century city and vibrant identity marker. Technological innovation, creativity, youth, spectacle and multiculturalism are the core values of this urban metropolis – values that this logo expresses in abundance.

The result of this heaving hotbed of signifiers, of course, is a certain indexical unreadability to which we can attribute the logo’s controversy. In short, it’s not immediately clear what it means. It is, however, in this very haziness that we find its most important message. Because this logo (in keeping with the central proclamation of the grand opening ceremony) ‘is for everybody’ – in precisely the same way contemporary Britain is. And, in order to be so, it needs to be open to endless creative interpretation and reinterpretation, whatever the risks.

Rio 2016

The Rio’2016 logo created by Tactil Design de Ideias was well received by public opinion but also carries a feeling of déjà vu because of the similarities with the three graces in Botticelli’s painting Primavera (1482), The Three Graces from Raphael (1504-1505), La Danse from Henri Matisse (1910) and also Telluride Foundation logo and Salvador Carnival 2004 logo.

In fact, a figure of three (or five) people together in an embrace is exhaustedly seen in a large variety of visual representations. One of the reasons is the political correctness, which personifies the celebration of collectiveness, harmony and participation, without gender, social status or hierarchy. These points are very desirable in an Olympic logo, but by the other hand, they are very common, with a lack of originality.


The set of codes in this logo starts with the main colors: yellow, blue and green, which reproduce the colors of Brazilian flag and repeat three of the five colors from the Olympic Rings. The symbolic meanings of those colors could be many, but to Brazilians the most common are: yellow means energy, blue is the easygoing way of life, and green goes to the natural environment.

Sequentially, the Design team decides to construct the logo based on curves, creating an organic figure. In this respect, it is important to note that Brazilian shapes are frequently curvilinear per se, being a land of voluptuous outlines and complex contours. To cite few of them, we see plenty of curves in the architectural work from Oscar Niemeyer, and in the sculptures from Tomie Ohtake. And if we follow the direction of the prosaic world, we will face the arched movements in the pavement of Copacabana’s sidewalk.

In Brazil, we are so accustomed with curves, even our most famous rhythm (samba) demands a lot of curvy movements, and to do it right, every single dancer must to perform in a flexible way, constantly.

Crosswise this bending path, the logo exhibits some shades and lights coming from the glossy treatment of the 3D representation. This tridimensional appearance tells something about the concept of movement. In every corner of this logo we can see a new shape, which also reveals the Brazilian multifaceted way of life. To be concise in this regard, our culture is all about curves and flexibility. For us, nothing is static and unchangeable.

Finishing this section, the last signifier of this logo is the typography, which was designed as a handwriting style, in a more humanised shape, which represents the concept of craftsmanship.


In Rio’2016 logo the narratives are presented in many layers. The first is the stylisation of the human figure in a neutered sprite of three people altogether. This unit brings a social layer, showing everyone participating in this celebration, and is really closed to the Olympics Creed.

The concept of unity also speaks a lot about Brazilian culture. Usually, Brazilians work better in teams. In Sports, our most recognisable modalities are collective, as Football and Volleyball and, in daily life, some of our popular aphorisms have the collectiveness as pillar. For example: “A união faz a força” (the unity makes the power) or “juntos chegaremos lá” (together we will get there).

The embrace also represents a joyful circle dancing (Ciranda in our language), and is commonly related to the wellbeing feelings. The Cirandas are excessively represented in Brazilian´s Naif Art and are widely seen all across the country.

Naif Paintings from Aracy, Antônio Porteiro and Adriano Dias.

Naif Paintings from Aracy, Antônio Porteiro and Adriano Dias.


Following the narratives, the organic shapes of this logo make some relevant references, as the representation of the Sugarloaf Mountain, showing the unique topography of Rio; the mimics of a heart shape, maintaining the allusion to the emotional side of our culture; the mention to the Olympic Rings; and the last, but not the least, the word Rio between the human figures.

Screen Shot 2015-09-08 at 11.17.43

With respect to the chronological/spatial contexts, Rio’2016 is much more a spatial logo than a chronological one, being created to display the cultural signifiers and the synchronic narratives, without specifying any historical period.

This is an intense logo, which brings a diverse system of meanings, with a strong relationship to what we call Indexicality. Semiotically speaking, indexicality means the set of representations which points to something, in this case it indicates the closer relationship between the image and the Brazilian culture.

With so many indexical references, this logo will never be accused of meaningless. It is meaningful and brings familiarity with the Carioca’s Spirit.

Key takeaways:

This article provides a very quick example of how a semiotic approach can be applied to research related to visual communications and cultural analysis. We could have gone deeper and written a lot more.

Semiotics proves a powerful means of unveiling the web of meanings inherent in visual communication, by finding relevant signifiers and strong narratives. When it comes to cultural analysis, the application of semiotic methods provides an important means of understanding context, thereby avoiding misperception and misuse in different markets.

In keeping with this, it is important for market researchers to establish a network of semioticians across different countries, in order that they can use their particular cultural understanding to develop a more refined understanding of different contexts.


Mariane Cara is Commercial Semiotician at Comunicara based in Brazil. She can be reached on Twitter via @MarianeCara.

Ashley Mauritzen is a freelance semiotician and cultural analyst based in the East End of London. She can be reached on Twitter via @mauritzmash.