Decoding the Hidden Meanings of Olympic Symbols

The sports showcased in an Olympiad rarely change, but the pictograms depicting them do. The symbols, designed to instantly communicate the essence of a sport, are in some ways quite literal. Cycling features a bicycle, equestrian a pony, basketball, well, a basketball. Yet designers invariably infuse these illustrations with elements that reflect the culture of the host city.

Many of the pictograms you assure are designed to represent the country or city where the Olympics are happen, says Joel Grear of Malcolm Grear Designers, who generated the pictograms of the 1996 Summertime Games in Atlanta. You see this in the wispy curves of the pictograms in Rio, which bring to mind the Brazilian scenery. Sydney’s use of boomerangs in 2000 is another obvious instance. Famed designer Lance Wyman depicted from pre-Hispanic glyphs when designing the beautiful pictograms of the 1968 Summer Game in Mexico City. In every lawsuit, the images told you as much about the event as the place it was occurring.

Of course, the first job of an Olympic pictogram is to communicate what’s happening. A bad icon presumes you know what you’re looking at. Agood one offer justenough visual handholding to ensure the message is clear. The goal is for it to be instantly recognizable, Grear says. That doesn’t always happen, leaving people wondering if they aren’t playing Pictionary trying to discern the meaning of two wheels, a human sort, and three squiggly lines.( Spoiler: It’s a triathlon .)

The International Olympic Committee could avoid ambiguity by standardizing the pictograms. After all, the clearest route to illustrate tennis will always be with a racquet. This almosthappened with the Montreal Olympicsin 1976, when officials simply applied a red tint to the iconography from Munich’s Summer Games in 1972. But in a world where branding is everything, recycling pictograms doesn’t fly. Its part of a broader brand identity system so it needs to feel coherent with all the other elements, tells Gary Holt, who cofoundedSomeOne, the London studio that worked onLondon’s pictogramsfour years ago. Thedesign brief SomeOne received dictated that the icons be both simple and culturally relevant. When you first look at the brief, those two things seem almost opposite, he says.

The evolution of ten Olympic event pictographs from 1964 to presentInternational Olympic Committee

As a outcome, many Olympic pictogramdesigns are highly stylized. All of Sydney’s icons feature at least one boomerang. Beijing’s are calligraphic. Meanwhile, designers like Grearbelieve the pictograms should emphasize athleticism overculture.He takes issue, for example, with Rio’s symbols.It seems like all of these spaghetti-figures are not respectful of the athletes, Grear says.

Grear, for his part, based the Atlanta pictographs on figures fond on Greek amphoras. He recalls sending gestural draws to Atlanta and receiving Polaroids of athletes standing against a white wall proving the correct form. The studio wanted to use a slam-dunk to signify basketball, but at that time, women didnt dunk, so it had to become the dribbler, he tells. SomeOne, too, utilized reference imagery of athletes when creating the icons for the London Game. Even though they were made out of angular lines, the latter are mapped on top of photographs of individuals, Holt says.

Mexico City eschewedbodies altogether, illustrating events primarily through sporting equipment. The stick figure icons were sometimes confusing when the sports were similar, Wyman tells. Our approach worked well in different ways, the pictograms were bold and worked well on signs from a distance or small on printed material.

Lance Wyman’s graphics for the 1968 Mexico City Game were a bold departure. The colouring and shapes were based on pre-Hispanic glyphs.International Olympic Committee

Compared to those in Wyman’s graphics, the athletics depicted in Rio’s pictograms can be difficult to tell apart. Handball is distinguished from basketball by a single curving line thatrepresents the hoop. At a glance, you could confuse diving for trampoline. Of course, a poorly designed street intersecting or public restroom sign could lead to a dangerous or awkward situation. The stakes aren’t quite so high in the Olympics–so long as they don’t mess up gymnastics.

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