The Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics is capturing much of the world’s attention at the moment, and though the athletes are front and center, just as they should be, design is also prominently featured. From the opening ceremony (malfunctions notwithstanding), to the athletic uniforms, venues, advertising, online resources and mobile apps, the entirety of the Olympic Games is nothing if not designed. This is nothing new, of course. Design has been playing a significant role in the Olympics for decades, albeit to varying degrees, and we’ve come to expect the visual fanfare that is now part and parcel of these events. Just as there is historical precedent when it comes to the Games themselves, there is also historical precedent regarding the pictograms -- that is, symbols representing objects, words or concepts -- that are an integral part of the Olympics.
In a 2010 nytimes.com motion graphic piece titled "Olympic Pictograms Through the Ages," Steven Heller provides commentary on various attempts at remaking the pictogram wheel. His critique, equal parts entertaining and informative, distills some of the key issues down to a succinct four minutes wherein he explains the merits of certain pictogram systems over others in a way that designers and non-designers alike can appreciate.
I certainly have my own favorites. I’ve already written about Lance Wyman’s contributions to the Mexico City Olympics in 1968; as one of several design team directors, Wyman’s “Mexico68” logotype and pictograms, which were integrated into every visual facet of the games, are a testament to the power of design in serving a variety of practical functions as well as creating a sense of place unique to that particular event in that particular area, at that particular time in the world. Just marvelous.
And it might be thanks to my ethnic Swiss/German roots as well as my Swiss Style design education that I find Otl Aicher’s system—including the collateral pieces such as posters, brochures, packaging, etc.—to be simultaneously well-organized and eloquent. (Yes, grids and structure can yield beautiful, expressive design.) The visual language that Aicher developed for the pictograms alone is impressive, and serves as a reminder of how often we take good design for granted. When design is doing what it’s supposed to as a communication device, we often overlook the amount of effort that goes into the process of making a complex system visually consistent, effective and easy to understand.
As one of the most recent incarnations of Olympic graphics, the sochi.ru / 2014 logotype has distinguished itself in unabashedly paying homage to the digital era. I’m not sure what I think about the implications this might have for the branding of Olympic Games in the future. Nor is the family of pictograms particularly memorable—I might be in the minority but find the forms to be too child-like given the degree of athletic rigor we expect from Olympians. Beyond that, I’m gratified to see typography getting the love and attention it deserves. Rather than being an afterthought, overshadowed in the visual hierarchy by another mark, the stylized type is the logo, seamlessly integrated with the Olympic rings. (The play of the “hi” of “sochi” against the “14” of “2014” is a nice touch.)
Not every design system developed for every Olympic Games can hope to surpass those that have come before it. As a ritual of sorts, however, re-envisioning what currently exists for a different place, time and context presents an interesting challenge. I tend to be rather critical about design but can only hope to imagine what an extraordinary experience it is to participate in such a highly anticipated (and publicized) process. My excitement about the Olympics has waned over the years, due in part to the accompanying media frenzy. Yet, beneath the layers of slick advertising and commercialization of sport, there is still something captivating about the fundamental language of design, and the historical significance of pictograms in particular that provides an unending foundation for creative interpretation. If the rollout of the Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic pictograms are any indication, we've only just scratched the surface.