How a small London design firm ended up designing the iconic 2012 Olympic Torch

London designer Jay Osgerby was in a cab heading to a lunchtime business meeting on July 6th 2005 and something on the radio caught his attention.

“There was an announcement that London had won the bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games,” the designer says. “My immediate thought was, We have to do the torch.”

For Osgerby and his business partner Edward Barber, designing the torch–perhaps the most iconic symbol of the Games–would be a historic opportunity that could define their small, namesake design firm’s legacy. “At that moment in the taxi, I knew the torch would be our chance to represent our country in the design world,” says Osgerby. “There aren’t many things in your career or in life that let you do that.”

Five years later, Barber Osgerby beat out just over a thousand others to become the official 2012 Olympic torch designer. Winning the contest, however, would test the limits of the firm’s creativity, grit, and adaptability.

Where did it all start?
The duo founded London-based Barber Osgerby in 1994, after working together as students at the Royal College of Art. The firm first caught the design-world’s eye in 1997, after it created a modern coffee table called the Loop. Furniture specialts Isokon mass-produced the table gaining huge exposure for Barber Osgerby.

Over the next few years, the firm won more recognition. It won several “best design” awards at industry events like the International Contemporary Furniture Fair. Today, the company has 15 employees and dozens of acclaimed designs for products, furniture, and interiors in its portfolio.

But its biggest design challenge to date came in early 2010. Five years after London won the Olympics bid, the London Organising Committee and Design Council finally announced the torch-designing competition. To apply, British design firms had to send in “expressions of interest”–or a profession of why the firm should be considered.

“We are a 20-year-old company,” says Osgerby. “Edward and myself are 42 years old, but in the design world, we are very young. We were up against large firms that had been around for 50-plus years. We knew that we would be perceived as somewhat of a risky choice.”

The firm, which typically designs furniture and interior spaces and has a growing architecture branch called Universal Design Studio, had never designed anything like the torch. But the founders saw this as a personal mission. In the application, they expressed a sincere, childhood love for the Olympic Games–and how much they would like to represent London to the world. “Since I was a boy, I’ve always been in awe of the Olympics,” Osgerby says. “It’s something that both Edward and I are very passionate about.”

Over the next few months, competition officials narrowed the entrants down to 80, then 20, then five.

“We made the final five, and we were called in for a half-day ‘immersion session’ with the Olympic officials, who gave us background about the Games,” Osgerby says. “At the end of the day, we were finally given specific requirements for the torch, and 10 days to actually design the thing and create a pitch presentation for the LOC and Design Council.”

The Challenge
The requirements for the torch were quite complex: First, the design had to reproduced to produce 8,000 torches, not just one. Among other criteria, each had to survive the 70-day, 8,000 mile Torch Relay across the U.K., be light enough to be carried by runners of all strengths, and withstand whatever the diverse conditions a British summer might throw at it.

“We wanted 8,000 perforations in the torch, to symbolize the 8,000 people who would carry it,” he says. “Once we landed on that idea, we knew it was right. It was like a lightening bolt. We actually had no concept of what the torch would look like up until then, even though we had literally known about the competition for years.”

In the 10 days that followed, the company was thrown into unfamiliar territory: a fast and furious creative process that involved everyone at the company, in all departments. (In the design world, firms rarely compete for projects in a quick-turnaround pitch presentation format; they are typically chosen based on their portfolio of work.)

Given the circumstances, you would think that someone might have cracked under the pressure. Or maybe a small disagreement might have temporarily delayed the sprint toward the deadline. Not on this team. Osgerby says the direction was clear, and the team worked toward a single vision.

The Pitch
The firm was the first to present to the LOC and Design Council, and Osgerby says the team felt good about its chances. Its torch design was certainly flashier than those in years past: The entire torch is gold-plated aluminum alloy, with a triangular shape that gives it a sleek, minimalist aesthetic.

Over the next few weeks, the council called the firm several times, interviewing the founders on a number of topics including their backgrounds as well as personal feelings about the Olympics.

“Finally, after weeks of this vetting, we were told someone was coming to visit us,” Osgerby recalls. “We knew they wouldn’t blow us out over the phone, so we thought that we were out.

“The official comes in,” he continues. “We’re all sitting in a row on the couch and in chairs. He starts, ‘It was a good effort, but I’m sorry to tell you…’ My heart sank. Then he says, ‘You’ve won the bid!’ We all jumped about 7 feet in the air. I just couldn’t believe we pulled this total X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent thing.”

Since the design was unveiled to the public in June 2011, it has received rave reviews. It won the coveted London Design Museum’s Design of the Year award. In terms of business, the firm has once again caught the eye of the design world and seen a flood of potential new clients.

“Some might feel a bigger, more experienced firm may have done better work,” says Osgerby. “But I think often the best projects come from the naïveté of the approach. We’re not experts at everything. We were just nimble, passionate, and had a lot more to lose.”


Paul Jones

Editor of Business Matters, the UKs largest business magazine, and head of Capital Business Media's automotive division working for clients such as Aston Martin and Infiniti.

Editor of Business Matters, the UKs largest business magazine, and head of Capital Business Media's automotive division working for clients such as Aston Martin and Infiniti.