Matt Herring’s vibrant and lively cover for The Sun’s Olympic supplement epitomises what we Brits are hoping for from the Olympics. We can’t promise a summer of sun (though having said that, so far, so good) but after four years of preparation, it seems London is just about ready to offer up an exciting Olympic Games, bursting out of the capital with events and celebrations planned up and down the nation.

Sounds far too optimistic to be British, right? Nowhere near self-deprecating enough? Maybe it’s the belated arrival of the summer, or our recent sporting successes or even just good old-fashion patriotism post-Jubilee, but we’re somehow reluctant to shake-off that lingering thought that 2012 could just be our year.

Matt's illustration for The Sun's Olympic supplement

Not only can Britain boast great rising sport stars but also esteemed artists. With a 16-year long career and having created over 2,500 pieces of work, Herring was certainly the man for the job. He began working as a commercial illustrator in 1996 producing silkscreen prints and has had experience with almost every kind of publication, in his own words, “from fashion-orientated magazines, through to news and current affairs titles”. Herring has been working on his designs in his London studio right in the heart of the Olympic preparations, surrounded by the hype and anticipation of the Games.

All his experience – as well as having no art editor making all the decisions at The Sun – meant that Herring had near-total creative freedom on the cover, told to simply stick to his style and given the word ‘busy’ as inspiration, “I was given about 90 athlete pictures – it's rare to be given such fantastic material to work with”. Herring uses a combination of found and self-generated graphic material to create his illustrations and works on a piece often for only a day or two, but a larger project like a cover can take up to a week.

The fact that cyclist Mark Cavendish is front-and-centre of the eye-catching design is just a happy coincidence, after Bradley Wiggins won the Tour De France, leaving Britain in the Olympic mood and quietly confident (let’s not forget about the connection between cycling Team Sky and The Sun but as we’ve so far been on a positive note we’ll let that one slide quietly by). Herring says, “I chose this particular shot for its symmetry. The strength in this type of image is in the construction and balance… A central focal point with elements bursting out. Without the centre piece the image falls apart and often becomes just wallpaper, the structure was everything.”

Packed with sporting excellence

Filling almost the entire page with images and colour, every time you look at the cover, you spot a new reference to sport or Britain. That’s what Herring wanted, “I originally I wanted to include every sport from the games, either represented by an athlete or an object. I think I managed about 80%. It was important to push the UK and especially the London aspect of the games.”

Matt's initial positional comp

To create the image, Herring was given all the original sports photography in full colour, then generated the other elements of the piece and edited certain components. The buzz-word ‘busy’ originally made Herring slightly hesitant, “My initial concern was the number of elements the client wanted me to use. To create an image with such a variety of elements is a massive challenge, the piece needed a strong structure and a focal point around which to 'hang' all the other elements. Playing with scale and perspective allowed me use this number of elements effectively.”

There’s certainly a lot going on in the cover but somehow it isn’t overwhelming. Although the colours in the digital image are intense, they lose about 30 per cent of their depth when going to print on newspaper, so that instantly brings more subtlety to the image. Herring thinks, “A restrictive colour palette is always key to bringing together an image with a high number of elements” and demonstrates this by giving all the athletes high contrast black and white skin tones, “The eye would struggle to cope with 20+ characters with different skin tones within one image. The simplification of colours palette and skin tones has a harmonising effect.”

“The artwork needed to embody the spirit and excitement of the games, a real celebration piece!” Not only has Herring worked on designs for the Olympics but also the Jubilee this year which he enjoyed, “my Jubilee image for Time Out (below) was a recent favourite... a nod to the Sex pistols cover image”. See, Matt Herring is feeling the Brit-pride too.

Update 27/7/12. When this story was first published, Matt's initial comp was shown instead of the final artwork. We regret the error.