Have you ever wondered where our road signs come from? Or how the symbol of a girl in a dress means “women’s bathroom” around the world? Our world is surrounded by visual cues, and while the written language is useful, there are some things that cannot be replaced by words alone. Signs and symbols displayed with text, or in place of, have been around for ages, but there is one venue when these symbols take center stage alongside the people they’re meant for—the Olympics.
Setting the Stage
The Olympics, widely considered the grandest international stage, needed to transcend the barriers of communication. Perhaps the perfect example of where modern written language fails, illustrations to help communicate were first seen in 1948 at the London games. These illustrations were the first of their kind on display at such a large event and proved their mettle—they showed up as a mainstay in 1964.
In 1964, the Tokyo Olympics introduced the now iconic pictograms that have seen 24 iterations since their inception. Isotopes for swimming, gymnastics, and cycling alongside lesser known sports such as fencing and the decathlon appeared on flags, brochures and tickets, and successfully herded almost 100 different nationalities to the event they wished to see. The Japanese were the first to create an entire cohesive system of isotopes to mitigate the international language barrier—and they did so in a wildly successful manner. Their pictograms have become something of an institution and are still widely regarded as relevant and timeless examples of excellent visual communication.
The Olympics now have over 200 different countries competing, and iconography has only grown since it’s adoption for the 1964 Tokyo games.
From Tokyo’s straight forward, clean aesthetic came Mexico City’s slightly more whimsical (for the time) pictograms with splashes of color belying the heritage of the location. Munich’s 1972 iteration pulled back to a geometric representation and added to the set by incorporating general communication isotopes for transportation and information services to help direct spectators and contestants alike.
Fast forward to 1992 and Barcelona’s pictograms introduce a curvier, more emotive experience and were used in subsequent years because of their wide popularity. Since that time there have been a wide variety of styles each developing and pushing how far an icon can go in communicating information. Sydney’s carefree pictograms split sports into disciplines (eg. Cycling’s three disciplines: road, track, mountain bike), a trend that has continued forward into following games.
People now eagerly await the new pictogram and visual branding of a new Olympics much like they wait for the location of the upcoming games themselves. The visual language is met with glowing reviews or harsh criticism and the publicity that accompanies the unveiling is any company’s dream. The announcement of a new venue city starts the clock ticking for the unveiling of the new system that will help shepherd participants and spectators alike much better than the written word ever could proving that where the word falls short, visual communication will always pick up the slack.
Test your knowledge: Can you identify the following signs? (scroll for answers)
1. Aerials 2. Canoeing Flatwater 3. Short Track Speed Skating 4. Merge
Official Report 1992, Vol. III, page 326)
© 1992 COOB’92, S.A., Plaça de la Font Màgica, s/n, 08038 Barcelona