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“My name is Leo Obstbaum, and I am a dreamer.” Remembering Vancouver 2010’s Design Director

Leo Obstbaum, Design Director for VANOC 2010 Olympics

My friend and colleague Leo Obstbaum, the creative mastermind behind the designs of the Vancouver Olympic Games, died suddenly in his home of natural causes in the early hours of Friday, August 21st. He left behind his beautiful wife Monice and young daughter Dakota. He was just 40 years old—the same age as I am.

Leo and I spoken numerous times that week and even had plans to meet that day after work to catch up over drinks and discuss a presentation he’d been preparing about his work on the Olympics. It was a talk he hoped to refine and present during Icograda Design Week Vancouver next spring. I’ll never forget hearing the tragic news and trying to come to terms with the fact that my friend was suddenly gone. It really shook me up. As devastated as I felt, I couldn’t imagine the feeling of loss his family was enduring.

Leo working with his team during 2010 identity system development

“My name is Leo Obstbaum, and I am a dreamer.” is how Leo used to introduce himself at every meeting in his role as Design Director for the Vancouver 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games. Whether he was meeting a new merchandise licensee, or embarking on a collaboration to design the torch, he was a dreamer. He saw endless possibilities in everything and everyone he encountered. Leo moved halfway around the world to live in a city he loved dearly, giving up a lucrative business in Spain to pursue his dream of leading a design team on an international event so important to so many. Unlike many of us, he fulfilled his dream.

Leo was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, but spent most of his life in Barcelona, Spain, where he studied business communications and identity design at  ICOMI (Instituto de Comunicacion Integral). In 1990, he founded his multidisciplinary design studio specializing in fashion, music, and film design. Whether he was designing an exquisitely elegant issue of a skateboard magazine, developing striking packaging for a new music project, or creating an arresting, futuristic film installation for Barcelona Fashion Week, Leo was in his element whenever he was able to stretch his imagination and that of others.

The combination of Leo’s enormous passion and the speed with which he worked produced a long list of spectacular creations, big and small. Just a few of his highlight projects include the wardrobe design (comprising 300 costumes)  for the multimedia opera Don Quixote in Barcelona (by theatre company La Fura dels Baus), the graphic identity for the film Son de Mar (by renowned director Bigas Luna), and the wardrobe design for the Barcelona Olympic Games 10th Year Anniversary. A collaboration with composer Miguel Marín resulted in a personal video art project called Beyond Identity, which was featured at the Sónar Music Festival (Barcelona), in Paris and the Lovebytes Festival in Sheffield (UK). Examples of Leo’s designs can be viewed at his website www.obstbaumstudio.com.

Examples of Leo's earlier work, including film, environmental, and costume design

I have many vivid memories of my friend Leo from the few short years I knew him. We first met online in 2005, then in person as he assumed the role of VANOC Design Director. He, Ali Gardner, me, and then GDC/BC President Yves Rouselle met for coffee to discuss how we could work together to support the design efforts of the VANOC design team. Leo was so excited to dig in, build a world-class team and fulfill his dream of leading the design of an Olympic games. He clearly had a vision and I was instantly charmed by his passion.

Leo was an inspiring and creative mentor to many young designers whose lives he changed forever. Over the last few years Leo helped GDC a number of times, sometimes volunteering to review portfolios at student events. In fact, at one such event, called POGO, in 2008, both Leo and I were rather impressed by one young design graduate. We chatted excitedly about her portfolio and potential, and I immediately offered her a part-time job at my design firm. She lasted about two weeks before Leo called and offered her a position at VANOC. Ever since, I’ve teased Leo for stealing my talent, but of course I couldn’t stand in the way of such a unique opportunity.

VANOC Brand Director, Ali Gardner, and Leo Obstbaum reveal 2010 identity system

VANOC colleagues described Leo—short for “Leonardo”—as a modern-day Da Vinci, constantly designing in a wide range of media and industries, and always learning and mastering new creative frontiers as a result of his boundless energy, curiosity and intellectual agility. It is a testament to his talent that he was so often the designer of choice for other creative stars and artists; however, Leo also remained loyal to many of his first clients, including a pizza parlour for whom Leo designed flyers between designing album covers and fashion shows. He also had a soft spot in his heart for designing wedding invitations and baby announcements for family and friends. Leo never viewed himself as the international design superstar he was quickly becoming.

Leo moved to Vancouver from Barcelona with his wife and daughter in 2005, nine years after spending his honeymoon here with his Canadian wife Monice, who grew up on Vancouver Island. He instantly fell in love with the region, the country and its values, and as he said in his cover letter to Vancouver 2010 Organizing Committee (VANOC) in 2006, “I wanted to give [my daughter Dakota] the chance to grow up in Canada”.

After a short stint as a Lead Designer with Vancouver-based interactive agency Invoke Media, Leo was selected as a candidate for the position of Design Director with VANOC. “Even in the short time we had him on our team,” says Invoke President Ryan Holmes, “we knew Leo was destined for greatness.”

“In his first VANOC interview,” says Brand and Creative Services VP Ali Gardiner, “Leo’s passion and warmth were unmistakable. Beyond the undeniable experience and talent that he brought to the table, it was also clear that Leo brought an infectious enthusiasm and love of working with others that would make him the perfect fit within the Vancouver 2010 team and extended family.” Against all odds, and beating all Canadian hopefuls, Leo’s lifelong dream of designing for an Olympic Games was coming true.

Official posters for 2010 Winter Olympics and Paralympics

Official posters for 2010 Winter Olympics and Paralympics

Leo was a perfect choice for the position. As a designer, he had it all. His imagination and creativity was unparalleled. His mind was always going; he saw inspiration in everything. Once, he came back to the office after a doctor’s appointment and told colleagues that he had just read the hunting section of an outdoor equipment catalogue and had an idea for designing some Vancouver 2010 camo-print for the Olympic licensing program.

Leo was well known to have eureka moments everywhere, all the time. His VANOC team mates received a steady stream of emails, phone calls and “interruptions” at all hours of the day and night, whenever he wanted to share his latest discovery or idea. He took hundreds of pictures everywhere he went, from Saltspring Island to Beijing, and they were definitely the pictures of a born designer. From the wrapper of his sandwich to the pictogram on the bathroom door, to the title graphics of the airplane movie, he absorbed ideas—for the present or future—wherever he went.

2010 Winter Olypmics official mascots, Sumi, Quatchi, and Miga

Leo often said “God is in the details”, and he lived by that mantra no matter what the project. His files could be blown up to the size of a skyscraper, and you wouldn’t find one extra space or errant node. He educated himself on all aspects of a project, taking painstaking care to align the design and production processes, which allowed him to deliver world-class creative on a tight budget and extreme timelines. Whether it was incorporating the Vancouver 2010 emblem into a tattoo on the mascot Quatchi’s arm, or suggesting a maple leaf shape for the air intake hole of the torch, Leo found a way to take something that was 95% great, and make it perfect.

Leo and colleague working hard on perfecting the mascot plush toys

Leo’s colleagues described him as the ultimate problem solver. He was stubborn and clever enough to turn the boldest of visions into reality, or overcome the biggest of challenges in record time. He was an incredible team player, never wanting to let anyone down, never thinking himself above anything. The words “No,” “I can’t,” and “It’s not my problem,” were not in his vocabulary. This generosity of spirit resulted in many late nights on his computer, responding to an emergency request with the same conscientiousness and creativity whether it was a t-shirt label or an Olympic medal (Obstbaum’s designs for which have yet to be publicly revealed).

Leo and VANOC designer Shawn Parkinson reveal Olympic torches

Another one of Leo’s many gifts was his ability to find talent. Although he could have single-handedly done an exceptional job of any of the Vancouver 2010 projects, his desire to achieve the best possible design for our Games resulted in many great collaborations—both within VANOC and externally. He didn’t seek to be alone in the spotlight. He sought the magic of combining the ideas and talents of many to showcase the best of today’s Canada.

This was Leo’s ultimate vision – to celebrate all that he admired about Canada and the Olympic ideals through unique and inspiring Vancouver 2010 design. He wanted to capture Canada’s magnificent land, its cultural diversity, its progressive social attitudes, its artistry, its youthfulness, its “coolness”, and even more, its warmth.

Various merchandise branded with 2010 Olympics identity

In his first interview with VANOC, Leo described his mark of success in this endeavor. He said he would know our job was done if grandparents and grandchildren alike were wearing Vancouver 2010 t-shirts by the end of the Games. For those who knew Leo, this dream will undoubtedly come true, like so many of his wild and beautiful dreams.

Leo was a good friend who, on several occasions, helped me through hard times with his encouraging words and helpful advice. The last time I saw him in person he asked me how things were going with me—a typical question for this caring friend who commonly put interest in others before himself. After a rather mopey response about the economy and its impact on business and fears about the future, Leo responded with “You know I love you, right?” A bit stunned, I nodded of course. “Then suck it up!” he sternly said in his adorable Spanish accent. “You think things are easy for me? For everyone who looks up to you and I as leaders in our industry? You have an obligation to work harder and show us how we can all overcome these circumstances. You cannot fail.” I was speechless. But he was right. And in classic Leo fashion, he had reminded me of an important lesson about the dangers of wallowing in self pity. I’ll never forget that conversation.

Leo Obstbaum on location with aboriginal athlete Leah Sulyma

Leo Obstbaum may have come to us from Argentina via Spain, but he was a wonderful Canadian. Although he was notoriously humble, as a communication designer Leo was a world-class talent whose passion and verve will not soon be forgotten. His legacy will be felt for a long time in Canada, so as a tribute to his contributions to the country he loved and the design community he served and inspired, The Society of Graphic Designers of Canada is pleased to announce that Leo is being awarded a posthumous Professional Membership into GDC. We are also renaming the Judges’ Award for Graphex 2010 to the “Leo Obstbaum Award of Excellence”.

It didn’t surprise me much that the media quickly reported Leo’s shocking death, with stories in numerous newspapers and on websites around the world. Leo was admired and respected by those who knew him, as was demonstrated by the hundreds who attended his funeral and remembrance celebration. But perhaps the most poignant description of Leo comes from one of his colleagues at VANOC, designer Ben Hulse:

“The brightest of eyes. The biggest of smiles. The warmest handshake. The proudest father. The cool hunter. The king of design. The king of the party. But most of all a dreamer. He helped each of us realize a dream, and how fortunate that the biggest dreamer realized so many of his. He remains an unstoppable inspiration to all of us. Leo, you are an icon. You will be missed dearly, but through us your dreams live on.”

Leo Obstbaum MGDC (posthumous), 1969–2009 R.I.P.

If you’d like to read more about the background, inspiration and development of the 2010 Olympics identity system in Leo Obstbaum’s own words, Shift Magazine interviewed him for an article shortly before his death. There are also interviews with Leo on the Vancouver 2010 website, as well as a touching video called Remembering Leo Obstbaum put together by Leo’s colleagues and played at his tribute in the packed VANOC atrium.

More images from the various designs Leo helped create follow below, showing the complexity and variety of solutions he and his team created over the last couple years. He will greatly be missed.

Various sports highlighted in 2010 Olympics identity system

Original set of 2010 Olympics pictograms

Infographic system to be used during 2010 Olympics

Sample of branded 2010 Olympic flags and signs throughout Vancouver

Aircraft livery for 2010 Olympics

[Many thanks to VANOC, Ali Gardiner and Leo's widow Monice for assistance with these words and images—my deepest condolences to you all.]

“My name is Leo Obstbaum, and I am a dreamer.” Remembering Vancouver 2010’s Design Director
  1. Robert L. Peters » R.I.P. Leo Ostbaum… Says:

    [...] Busse has written a moving and beautifully illustrated tribute to Leo here, and the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada (GDC) has awarded Leo with posthumous professional [...]

  2. Remembering VANOC Design Director Leo Obsbaum | Industrial Brand Says:

    [...] Click here to read the entire article on GDC/BC’s blog. [...]

  3. Sigrid Albert Says:

    A beautiful tribute to clearly a beautiful human being. My deepest condolences to the family. I hope someone will still give that talk about Leo’s work at ICOGRADA Design Week.

  4. Margaret Ko Says:

    Hi Mark,

    Thank you for your lovely tribute.

    You perfectly captured everything that Leo was. Not just designer Leo, but Leo as a colleague, mentor, friend, and family man.

    I remember when I told you that Leo had called me up and offered me the position as production designer at Vancouver 2010. You told me to only take it if I would have the opportunity to work with Leo closely. You said he was brilliant, and that if I had the opportunity to work with him, I
    would learn a lot.

    And learn a lot, I did.

    He was constantly busy, running from meeting to meeting, so catching him wasn’t always easy, but when you did, you were rewarded. If he said he loved it, you knew you had accomplished an amazing feat, as he wasn’t one to sign off on things easily. If he wanted changes, which he almost always did, you knew that it was only because he wanted to make the project as best as it could possibly be. And how could you argue with that?

    Despite however many changes he wanted, and however many times he would scribble on your first concept with his little black pen, he never made you feel as if you had failed in any way. He would criticize in the kindest way possible, with gentle suggestions and careful questions. That was just his way.

    As you mentioned in your post, Leo put the team above everything else, continually reminding us to respect each other’s work, to collaborate closely, and to never forget that we were in this together. I remember one time he mentioned to us that he was just as proud of designing a lanyard as he was the medals. Perhaps that was a slight exaggeration, but it was a reminder that big or small, every project that we worked on was important,and whether it be two pairs of eyes, or twenty thousand that would catch a glimpse of it, we all had a contribution to make and that we all mattered.

    I don’t know if I’ll ever have another “boss” like him. Brilliant he was, with ideas oozing out of him every second, but I think what I’ll remember
    most is that his brilliance was equally matched with his infectious good humour and his unfailing generosity.

    That day at POGO, I had Leo pegged as the most intimidating of the bunch.

    Boy, was I ever wrong.

    As I sat at the table, me an insignificant, unaccomplished design grad, and looked at Leo, an immaculately dressed, full bearded, unmistakably suave European, I was shaking in my boots. But the moment he opened his mouth, I could hear the warmth in his voice, and as he smiled that unforgettable smile of his, I knew that I would be perfectly fine.

    Leo actually told me that he wasn’t planning on going to the event that day, but that you had invited him. So, I suppose in a way, I should be thanking you. Because then I would never have had the chance to meet and work with the great Leonardo Obstbaum, something for which I will always be grateful.

    Best,
    Margaret

  5. kimberly Says:

    I am a graphic designer. Last night and tonight as my friend Stephen (also a graphic designer)and I marveled at the graphics of the Olympics - we were both simply blown away. Blown away!!! Superb branding and a reflection of the environment. I am stunned on finding the news that he has gone. I am so, so sorry. I am at a loss for words.

    Job well done Leo. Job well done. You are an inspiration.
    Kimberly

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