Iconic Olympicsby Tamara Nyholt on 03/08/2012
There are likely few circumstances that expose graphic design to a global audience with such pervasiveness as the Olympics. The opportunity to produce design work that will be exposed to most nations in the world is truly a golden chalice for many designers and agencies. Far from being merely a logo these days, the Olympic identity in contemporary guise encapsulates a breadth of communication and navigational graphics and quite significantly, icons or pictograms. The importance of effective non-verbal communication to a world-wide event, attended and viewed on television by individuals from 204 countries speaking over 55 languages, is enormous.
Pictograms were first introduced in the 1936 Berlin Olympics and have been an official part of the games since Tokyo in 1964. These original icons not only contained icons of the individual events but also important general navigational symbols that helped guide international visitors.
The catalog of symbols created by Masaru Katzumie and Yoshiro Yamashita were dynamic, evocative and succinct – an auspicious start to what has become an essential element of the games.
Many of us in the creative sector are familiar with Mexico’s iconic 1968 Olympic identity with it’s concentric curves and uppercase type but perhaps fewer know the icons from the games. These collaborative designs referenced the original Tokyo graphics but took them a step further, simplifying and stylizing amidst a vibrant palette of Mexican colours.
In 1972 Munich saw another evolution in Olympic icons. Otl Aicher, design director for the games, moved from the curves and vivid colours of the Mexicans to an angular system based on grids and geometry. Aicher’s work is still considered by many the epoch of pictogram design and a number of future games used icons heavily influenced by these originals if not reproducing them exactly. The pervasiveness of his genius is still evident in the ‘floating head’ figures on restroom doors and pedestrian crossings worldwide.
The 1992 Barcelona games moved from the angular coolness of the German symbols to an organic, almost calligraphic execution of the now-familiar icons.
Sydney created a system of energetic boomerang-people for the 2000 games and Beijing channelled echoes of Keith Haring in the stick figures of 2008.
The 2010 Vancouver Olympics and London 2012 games moved away from the stylized executions of the past (either slick or faux primitive) to more clearly articulated representational figures. In spite of this (or perhaps because of it), neither one has been rated as particularly ‘memorable’. Although many of Vancouver’s communication graphics for the 2010 games were successful, the pictogram system has been likened to clip-art and been appraised as being too fussy to have the clarity of an effective navigational device. London’s chiseled figures (like it’s ‘internet generation’ logo) feel somehow unresolved.
The creative drive to put a unique stamp on this important element of the iconic Olympic games has seen stunning successes but also rather forgettable failures. And perhaps that’s for the best – after all, who wants to own up to the ‘streaks’ of Albertville in 1992 or the ‘blobs’ of Nagano in 1998?