Interview: London 2012 Olympic mascots' creator discusses their design

After the furor surrounding Wolff Olins logo for the 2012 Olympics, any piece of art or design linked to the event is destined to come in for a great amount of scrutiny and a fair amount of stick. Iris Design's recently revealed mascots have faired better than most, receiving a generally warm response from their target audience of 5-15 year olds -- and only gentle mocking from the newspapers, who preferred to 'borrow' parodies from than to overtly criticize.

We sat down with Grant Hunter, creative director of the firm behind the designs, Iris London, to find out more about how the characters were conceived and designed.

The mascots -- Wenlock for the Olympics (above left) and Mandeville for the Paralympics (above right) -- were the result of an lengthy design process beginning with the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG) and ending with feedback from focus groups around the UK. Based on characters from a story by children’s author Michael Morpurgo - and with names based on the locations of precursors to the modern Olympics and Paralympics -- the mascots were designed to, says Hunter, "excite and inspire young people and ultimately encourage them to get involved in sport."

The initial concept for the character designs was a streamlined, aerodynamic form that would be naturally sporty. They would need to be iconic: instantly recognisable, tapping into the heritage of London and the rest of the UK, and representative of the values of the Olympic and Paralympic movements. That's a lot to cram into two characters, especially as the designs had to be easily customisable so that different costumes and accessories could be added to them for specific circumstances, such as the Union Jack Flag (below) for events linked to Team GB.

"It was important that we had some instantly recognisable features which clearly communicate that this is a London 2012 mascot," says Hunter. He notes that, for example, "the headlight – based on a London icon of the taxi hire light - and the camera lens eye were cornerstones of the design right from the start."

As well as symbols of London, the team drew on a wide range of artistic influences. The reflective skin may represent the characters as what Hunter calls a "mirror to the nation", but he also notes that they draw on the sculptures of Anish Kapor and Jeff Koons. The sense of motion to the characters references Brancusi and the Futurism movement, while designing Mandeville's sleek body was based on examples of the best car design. The lead designer on the project, Oskah, is a big fan of designer toys, and tapped into its use of customisable character templates.

Despite their flexibility as characters, both Wenlock and Mandeville needed to have distinct, separate identities. The most obvious difference is in the shape of the head, the shape being a clear distinguishing feature that doesn't affect their ability to be customised. The front view of the Wenlock's head is inspired by the shape of the Olympic Stadium's roof. It's three points represent the three medal podium places. However, not all the differences are that direct.

"The Olympic form reflects the friendship and unity of the Olympic Games," says Hunter, "so Wenlock’s form is slightly softer than Mandeville's."

For Mandeville, it would have been easy for Iris to focus on disability rather than ability, but they've successfully avoided such stereotypes. Mandeville’s head features three prongs that represent the three agitos of the Paralympic emblem, but otherwise there's nothing that, at first glance, would make you point to this character as representing the Paralympics rather than the Olympics.

"Mandeville is more streamlined than Wenlock," says Hunter, "the form has been sculpted as if the mascot has been in an automotive designer’s wind tunnel."

The two mascots have appeared in print, online, in an animated video by Crystal Digital (above) -- and are available as a range of badges, stickers, posters and apparel. Customized versions for events and, inevitably, tied to celebrities will appear in run up to the main event.

Asked about the how the mascots were received in the mainstream press, Hunter says that "as with any major piece of work that will have a global audience, you know you can’t please everyone. People will have an opinion, and rightly so ... [but] it’s great that they have been well received by our most important audience – young people."

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