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My Favorite Iconic Designs for the Olympics

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John Clifford, the author of Graphic Icons: Visionaries Who Shaped Modern Graphic Design, talks about some of his favorite designers of Olympic icons.
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The 2014 Winter Olympics are now in full swing at Sochi, Russia. While most people are interested in the sporting events, I tend to focus on the design. It must be an interesting challenge to convey the excitement of the Games while communicating to the whole world. Many great designers and firms, such as Ludwig Hohlwein, Lance Wyman, Deborah Sussman, and Wolff Olins, have taken on this high-profile job over the years, and the designs have ranged from excellent to average to just plain bad. Interbrand designed the identity this time, with a simple, digital look that includes the web address as part of the logo. Two of the most iconic designers for the Olympics, though, are Japan's Yusaku Kamekura and Germany's Otl Aicher.

All eyes were on Tokyo, Japan during the summer of 1964. For the first time, the Olympics were to be held in an Asian country and broadcast in color. The people of Japan wanted to show the world that they had rebuilt after the devastation of World War II, that they were no longer the enemy, and that they were a force in the technology industry. Yusaku Kamekura's logo and dynamic posters—the first in Olympic history to use photography—are perfect examples of his ability to combine European modernism with traditional Japanese aesthetics. His work showed the world that Japan was a force in the design world as well.

Figure 1 1964 Tokyo Olympics poster.

When the Olympics were held in Munich, Germany in 1972, organizers hoped to move past the 1936 “Nazi Olympics” in Berlin, which Hitler used for his own propaganda, and show the world a bright and happy face. Otl Aicher and his design team developed colorful posters and a logo based on the sun. To transcend language barriers among the international audience, Aicher relied on visuals rather than text as much as possible. He developed a system of pictograms to identify the different sports and to provide general wayfinding information. He reduced the human image to the simplest of geometric forms, yet kept it recognizable. Aicher wasn’t the first to design pictograms for the Olympics, but he was the first to base each one on a grid, establishing a unity of form lacking in earlier, more illustrative versions.

Figure 2 Olympic pictograms.

Both Kamekura and Aicher went on to have long, noteworthy careers, but their designs for the Olympics will always stand out to me.

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