Pictograms have been a part of Olympic design since they were first formally introduced at Tokyo ’64 – although they were employed by the IOC before that and have been a part of human communication since human beings have existed.
The stylised figures are designed to communicate information to all languages and cultures simply and unambiguously. They have to work at all sizes and in negative. In the connected 21st century they may be less vital to worldwide Olympic communication, but they are still a cornerstone of Olympic design, and often as a specific cultural expression too.
Here’s the Winter set for Sochi, just in case you don’t know what I’m talking about:
The Sochi set is based on the pictograms for the Moscow 1980 Summer Games. Come with me, and let’s have a look what designers worldwide for the Summer Games have come up with for the world’s oldest sport.
The first systematically designed set of pictograms for both sports and services was created for the Tokyo Games in 1964 by Masasa Katzumie and Yoshiro Yamashita, although there wasn’t an archery competition that year. This guy is a bit heavy-set for an archer, kind of Oh shaped, but no athlete comes across as very elegant in this set. Full marks for a quiver though, the last design that would bother. Not sure what’s attached to his hand though.
There wasn’t an archery competition this year; the ‘target face’ below is for the shooting competition. Shame, because Mexico ’68 remains my favourite overall Olympic design by some distance.
MUNICH 1972 and MONTREAL 1976
The pictograms designed by Otl Aicher for the Munich games were re-used four years later, and the full set is considered a design classic, endlessly copied and hugely influential on all that came after. Best of all, the archery competition was reintroduced after a 52 year absence. Unlike all the other little guys, we have someone shooting from behind. The head shouldn’t be at that angle, and the legs are waaah, but hey. It gives the impression of full draw, of effort. Of movement.
Nikolai Belkow won the competition held amongst students at Moscow art colleges to design the full set. Big stance, and rear elbow at some sort of realistic angle. The alignment is strong and relaxed. The flatter, rectangular shapes used that year added dynamism. Damn, this one is good. Also gave rise to a frankly covetable pin:
LOS ANGELES 1984
Not much to write home about here. Does the job, I suppose. Designed by Keith Bright, this was the first Games where a specific design brief has been handed down along with the full set, which is worth a read:
- Clear communication; pictograms, by themselves, should be recognizable by people of other nations.
- Consistency; the pictograms should be identifiable as a set, through uniform treatment of scale, style and subject.
- Legibility and practicality; they should be highly visible, easy to reproduce in any scale and in positive or negative form.
- Flexibility; the pictograms should not be dependent upon a border and should work equally well in a positive or negative form.
- Design distinction; the pictograms should avoid stylistic fads or a commercial appearance and should imply to a worldwide audience that Los Angeles has a sophisticated, creative culture.
- Compatibility; they should be attractive when used with their Los Angeles Olympic design elements and typestyles.
Via 1stmuse.com, here is some detail on how designs like these evolve: “In creating the new pictograms, exploratory sketches examined the use of partial figures, realistic figure images and speed lines combined with the figures. It was concluded that partial figures and realistic figures were difficult to decipher and movement associated with the figures made them too busy and impaired legibility. A simple figure composed of 10 fundamental body parts worked well: a circle for the head, an oval for the torso and eight simple parts representing the arms and legs. This modular figure, when placed against a grid pattern, could be recreated in any desired position, effectively portraying any Olympic event.”
Full set here. Not much of an improvement on LA. I suppose the elbow is ‘better’. Once again, the designers used a standardised geometric pattern for the head, torso and limbs, with a slightly curious ’empty’ torso. This had excellent clarity and economy, especially in negative. But the retreads on 1972 were getting a bit tired. Luckily, four years later…
For the Barcelona Games they brought back in pictogram hero Otl Aicher. He based his work on the great logo design of Josep. M. Trias and its representation of the human body in three parts, with a broad brush stroke. This thing moves. It’s like someone dancing while drawing a bow. Great job. Full set here.
This archer is actually pretty good, poised firm, with his short bow and strong ‘open’ stance, but it’s a bit of a mixed year otherwise:
The canoe kayak looks like a trouser press, the handball looks like basketball, the wrestling like pat-a-cake and the judo like one of those Rorschach inkblots. Must try harder!
Again strongly based on the main Games logo, every single one of the full set of pictograms incorporates at least one boomerang. Was this really necessary? It obviously became a bit of a personal design challenge at points. Mr. Archer looks a bit heavy in the lower regions. Either that, or he’s wearing MC Hammer trousers. Full marks for the nods to an actual recurve bow, and the colour.
The Creative Repository states this: “The Athens… pictograms were inspired by three elements of ancient Greek civilization. The simplicity of the human form is inspired by the Cycladic figurines. The artistic expression of the pictogram derives from the black-figure vases, where solid black shapes represent the human body and a single line defines the detailing of the form.” I say Mr. Archer lacks a bit of energy. Meh. Full set here.
The design team based the pictograms on an ancient Chinese script. Full set here. Immensely simple, joyful, and communicative. First class. This also marked the first year that a full set of pictograms was designed for the Paralympics, with similar grace and economy:
The year the world turned purple. Well, we finally have an ‘Olympic’ recurve bow, with a sight (set to about the right place!) and a stabiliser. Terrible technique though, leaning back – either that or the perspective is a bit unclear. The riser does look a lot like a classic chunky Hoyt Gold Medalist or very similar:
…which suggests that the designers were looking at some very old pictures when they blocked it out.
I’m generally ambivalent about all the London 2012 design. The much-maligned logo grew on me a lot, although the font they used never did. A full set of London 2012 pictograms and lots more stuff here. (If you haven’t yet read my reviews of the three archery sessions I attended, you could do that here, here and here.)
Full set here. “The pictograms are set within pebble shapes, “which are a characteristic of Rio 2016’s visual language, support the designs and alter their shape according to the athletes’ different movements.” Righto. I’m guessing the designers were finally looking at some arrow-leaving-the-bow-shots when they conceptualised this, a product of the high-speed digital photography age. I do love the taekwondo one, more than the slightly un-dynamic archery designs:
The Tokyo pictograms, created by a team led by Japanese designer Masaaki Hiromura, were finally unveiled on 12 March 2019, and the bare-bones archery one is looking strong .The draw with the anchor point ‘below’ the head just possibly might be giving a nod to kyudo, the traditional Japanese archery martial art.
The traditional feel extends to the simple arc shape of the bow, although a kyudo bow is asymmetrical. It looks more like a longbow. Actually, it looks most like a PVC pipe bow than anything else. (It should be noted, if you scroll back up, that only a tiny handful of designs have depicted a recurve bow).
It communicates the sport well, although archery is lucky in that it has a single universal symbolic image to depict – several other Olympic sports, such as wrestling and modern pentathlon, struggle to be squeezed into a tiny square.
This is the Paralympic pictogram:
The full set is below:
On first impressions, I don’t think Hiromura has delivered a classic set for the ages. It’s kind of a hybrid, taking the basic body part vector building blocks of Aicher et al (see above) and tries to impart in them a bit of grace and movement. There’s a focus on the athletes more than the sports these days, and a set like Mexico ’68 (still, in my opinion, the greatest complete piece of Olympic design ever) wouldn’t get through a committee.
The Tokyo set is also kind of a ‘greatest hits’ of Olympic pictograms. Many seem to nod back to previous sets, especially Atlanta ’96, which appears to have been the inspiration for several, including, perhaps, our square-on archer.
The taekwondo one seems to be borrowed from Rio (scroll up). However, he has come up with a few originals. I really like several of them: baseball and table tennis especially. And full marks for a blank-slate attempt at skateboarding. But modern pentathlon and triathlon? They look like something you’d wipe off a kitchen surface.
As a complete set, it is a little conservative. You feel it could show a little more personality, a little more of the host nation. And the design exercise can add a little colour and joie de vivre to the meet – this brilliant and fun Jelly Babies set from the last Youth Olympic Games proves it.
But after the debacle of the logo a couple of years back, it is clear that the LOCOG design committee in Japan are taking no chances.
Pictograms are a major undertaking these days, particularly as each one now has to be approved by each sporting federation. The Tokyo ones apparently took two years from start to finish. As well as the individual sports, pictograms are produced for all sorts of ancillary Games services – some more successfully than others. Designers in the internet age now come up with their own sets which they hope will go viral. You may enjoy this video by Steven Heller, too.