Easy to knock, hard to do
Olympics Pictograms & Branding

Designer Devin Fennell takes a look at the history of Olympic branding.

Let's start with a gross generalisation. Graphic designers aren't generally known to be rabid sports fanatics are they? But few topics get us riled up like Olympics branding.

With the new format of Winter and Summer Olympics alternating every two years, we get a chance to bare our teeth and critique the efforts of those chosen few designers who have the chance to brand the world's greatest amateur sporting event. Screeds of blogs, essays and diatribes have been written about the merits of the pictogram systems of each Olympic event, and the brand created to capture the unique spirit of the host location.

There's always a functional need as well; the Olympics bring together athletes from (at last count) 87 countries, and an effective communication system that crosses the language barriers is absolutely essential. So who gets it right and who gets it wrong?

While many argue that the first pictograms were put forward for the '36 Olympics in Berlin, most attribute Tokyo '64 with pioneering the first systematically designed set of pictograms representing all sports and athletes. The logo itself was a pretty solid effort too, typical early 60's simplicity and strong graphic presence.  Masasa Katzumie and Yoshiro Yamashita created this clean, functional set that set the tone for many of the successful efforts to follow.

Mexico 68 gave a nod to the resurgent Pop Art trend and psychedelic feel of the times with the Art History textbook classic logo. The pictograms added colour but didn't really advance the art form. Munich's system in '72 was a different story. While the '72 Olympic event logo was optically engaging, it struggled to convey much about Munich or Austria. The pictograms however were a roaring success. So powerful was the distillation of information to its purest form that Montreal '76 just happily used them again and they formed the basis for many systems to follow.

As a proud Canadian it would be a crime to miss mentioning the Montreal '76 event logo. The combination of Olympic rings with stylised Maple leaf captured a classic 70's design style and has enjoyed a resurgence on branded retro sporting gear in Canada and the US in recent years. I'd kill for a track suit.

Few bright spots appear over the next 20-30 years. Moscow's effort was functional but rather forgettable in my opinion. Keith Bright and Associates' 1984 pictograms for Los Angeles were a symphony of liberally applied 80's bright colours, but the forms felt awkward and clunky after the smoother outlines of Moscow. Atlanta was an incredibly awkward affair, and though the Athens set found favour among many critics, I find it a bit too primitive and lost in the past.

Sydney's pictograms seem hijacked by the desperate need to reflect their rich aboriginal history at the expense of effectively communicating the events. How many times can you incorporate a boomerang? Really?

Beijing's recent branding and pictograms feel far more uniform, accurately representational of the spirit of place, and communicate well, with style. A great comparison of traditional characters and the Olympic pictograms can be found in the repository.

Which brings us to today: Vancouver 2010. Though the games themselves were hugely successful (despite a tragic start on the luge track), the design system and branding left me wanting. Another tragedy occurred with the sudden death of Leo Ostbaum, the event's Design Director. While his medal designs were stunning, the graphics themselves seemed overworked and forced.

And then there's London 2012. I'm not convinced just yet. It feels like a purely stylistic response at the moment, but time will tell whether the branding will gain favour and capture the spirit of the era and the event. Few sporting designs have caused as much controversy in recent times. Check it out!

Wolff Olins has a great track record and I've always been a fan of their work, so let’s give them the benefit of the doubt for now and see where this goes. I'll be watching closely.


SEE MORE: Steven Heller's handy animated look at the history of pictograms.