The History of the Olympic Pictograms: How Designers Hurdled the Language Barrier
Of all the instances in which graphic communication is necessary to transcend language barriers, the Olympic Games are, if not the most important, probably the most visible. We take the little icons of swimmers and sprinters as a given aspect of Olympic design, but the pictograms were a mid-20th Century invention—first employed, in fact, the last time London hosted the games, in 1948 (some pictographic gestures were made at the 1936 Berlin games, though their mark on international memory has been permitted to fade because of their association with Third Reich ideology).
The 1948 London pictograms were not a system of communication so much as a series of illustrations depicting each of the competitive sports, as well as the arts competition, which existed from 1912 to 1952 and included architecture, literature, music, painting and sculpture. In 1964, the Tokyo games took pictogram design to the next level by creating a complete system of typography, colors and symbols that would be applied across Olympic communications platforms.
In a paper on the history of Olympic design and national history, Jilly Traganou, an associate professor at The New School, writes:
Since Japan had not adopted the principles of the International Traﬃc Signs, introduced at the United Nations Geneva conference in 1949 and accepted by most European countries, the Olympics were regarded by graphic designers as an opportunity to establish a more uniﬁed and internationally legible symbolic language across the country. It was along these lines, searching for universally understood visual languages, that pictograms (ekotoba, in Japanese, a word used prior to the design of pictograms) were for the ﬁrst time designed for the Olympic Games, embodying at the same time [founder of the International Olympic Committee] Baron deCoubertinʼs aspirations of universalism…A major task of the Japanese design team of the 1960s was to de-traditionalize Japanese visual languages by subscribing to the abstract, non-iconic principles of the modern movement, found also to be more appropriate for expressing the new corporate identities of postwar Japan.
The Japanese pictogram system was conceived by a team of designers led by Katsumi Masaru and inspired in part by design language development that was taking place in Vienna, masterminded by Otto Neurath and Gerd Arntz. Neurath and Arntz are known for the creation of isotype, an early (and still completely current) infographic form.