History of Olympic Pictograms overcoming the language barrier

Pictograms for the 1968 Mexico Olympics, designed by Lance Wyman (image: Virtual Olympic Games Museum)


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.


Keep reading: Smithsonian – The History of the Olympic Pictograms: How Designers Hurdled the Language Barrier

You might be a futurist if…

You find the now so yawn…what’ll be hot in a few months from now meh…transporters and nanobots and the singularity can’t get here soon enough.

In all seriousness (not that I was joking in the previous paragraph), I think futurists, and futurism, scare a lot of people. And it’s not because futurism challenges deeply held precepts of traditionalists.

No, I think it’s because people can barely handle their current reality, let alone the idea of ones in the future. Of course you’re going to think Ray Kurzweil is a kook if you cling onto the past or even worse, can’t come to terms with it.

Futurists are not people who live in fear, who aren’t so mired in reality they can’t envision what the future looks like. Futurists are dreamers and even more, they are believers in their own dreams. They are inventors and they are creators and they are problem-solvers.

Wikipedia defines futurists as “scientists and social scientists whose speciality is to attempt to systematically predict the future, whether that of human society in particular or of life on earth in general.”

But I don’t believe futurists are so much predictors of the future as they are drivers of it. Thomas Edison was just as much of a futurist as Martin Luther King. They had an inherent, insatiable need to create change based on an undying discontent with their current surroundings and circumstances. To quote Edison, “Restlessness is discontent and discontent is the first necessity of progress. Show me a thoroughly satisfied man and I will show you a failure.”

So does future make the man or does man make the future? I think futurists make the future. One is able to predict the future by creating it. So the real question is, what kind of future do you want to create?

PS – Tomorrow (Wed, Apr 20) I predict a large group of people will gather at Public Bar in DC to talk about futurism, the future and Japan: dcfuturists.eventbrite.com