Wayfinding systems that guide people through physical environments

How do you help direct and guide an international audience that is coming to find their way around a venue without using written language?

At an event like the Olympic Games, communication and language barriers are almost unavoidable. But using pictograms to represent each event and common services, help break down those barriers.

The first Olympic pictograms were used during the Tokyo Olympiad in 1964, when the organizers realized that few of the people visiting would be able to understand any Japanese. The organizers posted the pictograms on train lines and stops to provide visitors with information systems to help guide their way around the city, also known as wayfinding.

Pictograms used at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, from the book, “The Games of the XVIII Olympiad Tokyo 1964 — The Official Report of the Organizing Committee.” The image in the foreground indicates restrooms for women, while the one in the background is a of a drinking fountain.

In 1968 the games were hosted by Mexico City. They were the first Games ever hosted in a Latin American country, and an opportunity to show the world that they were a metropolis worthy of hosting this huge international affair.

Mexico City needed to show that it was not only exciting but also safe and easy to navigate, so the organizers held an international competition to find a designer who could create a logo and visual identity to tie everything together.

The look had to be cosmopolitan and contemporary, but also distinctly Mexican.

The American graphic designer Lance Wyman, won the competition and the Olympic Committee Chairman Pedro Ramírez Vázquez presented him with a simple brief: “Create an image showing that the games are in Mexico that isn’t an image of a Mexican wearing a sombrero sleeping under a cactus.”

Together they decided to interpret pictograms differently. Moving away from the stick figures, they developed the idea of focusing on a part of the human body or a piece of equipment and doing it in a way that looked more like Mexican pop-art.

Lance Wyman’s graphic design for the 1968 Mexico Olympics identity is widely celebrated as a pinnacle of wayfinding, environmental and branding design.

Mexico City 1968 Summer Olympiad, visual identity and pictograms

That same year the 1968 Grenoble Winter Olympics pictograms were designed by Roger Excoffon, where the optical wizardry using scanlines, suggest the element of speed.

Grenoble 1968 Winter Olympiad pictograms

Four years later, in Munich 1972, Otl Aicher designed what has come to be known as the classic Olympic pictograms that influenced many other Games. They are elegant, economic, functional and fittingly German in their clarity.

The icon system was designed on a tight grid but still manages to look dynamic. Each icon is made from basic shapes and the ideal amount of detail to get the message across.

1972 Munich Summer Olympiad pictograms

The 1984 Olympics were hosted in Los Angeles, and the firm Sussman Prejza created a colorful graphic spectacle using hot graphic colors, iconic geometries, and ephemeral materials. The visual language was reminiscent of the 80s trendsetter of the time, MTV.

1984 Summer Olympics Los Angeles signage and decoration for the venue

The Lillehammer 1994 pictograms were inspired by rock carvings typical of Norwegian culture, and underline Norway’s attachment to nature and
to their roots, though they may have been more distracting than helpful as signs. However, the design awakening led by the Lillehammer Games introduced cultural heritage into the pictograms and inspired the Athens Games, who incorporated ancient Greek vases, and the Sydney Games, who threw in at least one boomerang in each design.

The pictograms of Albertville 1992 and Nagano 1998 are comparable to unhelpful smudges and blobs. What really is that Luge from Nagano an icon of?

From left: 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympiad, 1992 Albertville Winter Olympiad, 1998 Nagano Winter Olympiad

In Atlanta 1996 the apparently nude and detailed pictograms seemed awkward and did not tell a story about culture or heritage.

Sydney’s Games in 2000 were criticized by aborigines who were furious over the use of their culture and art to sell the Sydney Olympics. Shared imagery is an essential design element when creating icons and pictograms, but appropriating someone’s culture is not, and Sydney could have done better.

From left: 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympiad, 2000 Sydney Summer Olympiad

Vancouver’s 2010 pictograms look like generic stock illustrations or logos for your nearest sporting goods store, and the London 2012 pictograms take a misguided step at creating a primitive and simplistic design which ends up looking overly articulated and complex.

From left: 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympiad and 2012 London Summer Olympiad simplified icons used for signage and illustrative icons used for branding

Still, two pictographic schemes take can their place at the winner’s podium:

Beijing, in 2008, combined inspiration from inscriptions found on ancient Chinese objects with simplified modern graphics, making them both unique and recognizable.

Athens, in 2004, created functional pictograms which were both primitive and modern with humorous undertones drawing inspiration from Greek history and art.

2008 Beijing Summer Olympiad and 2004 Athens Summer Olympiad

The sports in the Olympiad rarely change, but the pictograms depicting them do. Symbols need to communicate the essence of a sport instantly. So is there a need for designers to infuse these illustrations with elements that reflect the culture of the host city?

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