Drawing From The Past

A Deeper Look at PyeongChang’s Olympic Pictograms

Can you name all 24 events at the Winter Olympics at PyeongChang from memory? Of course not, nobody can. But I bet you could do really well if I showed you illustrations of each event. You can try it here.

Imagery and easily-understood iconography is a necessity of an event like the Olympics, with so many cultures coming together in one place. Visual symbols create a universal language that everyone can understand. They cut through complexity and put everything you need to know into one image.

So, easy right? You just draw some figures playing sports. Not so fast. There’s more involved in developing these little floating head athletes than you could possibly imagine.

The iconography of Olympic events, often referred to as pictograms, has a long, historic and storied past. For every Olympic Games, there comes with it a hosting city looking to make a good impression. And the design and illustration that surrounds the event is the carefully-crafted representation of all that goes into making that impression — both in the utilitarian job of providing easy direction to outsiders who come to visit, as well as the more esoteric job of capturing the hosting city’s ethos. So, as is often the case with design, it’s a much bigger job than it looks from the final product.

For a design firm, this is their Olympics, too.

So, it was with wide eyes that the design community watched, on January 25th, the unveiling of the new set of pictograms for the 2018 Olympics, by the PyeongChang Organizing Committee. As usual, the announcement comes with a brief explanation of the concept behind the approach:

“They have been designed based on the Korean alphabet known as Hangeul. This is a system of letters that is unique to Korea and it was also used in the design of the official Games emblems. From the 16 vowels and 14 consonants of Hangeul that exist, four consonants and three vowels were selected and have been reflected in the pictograms.” — POCOG Press Office

The new icons quickly went into effect, appearing in nearly every aspect of Olympics communications: signage, tickets, programs, clothing, TV graphics and pretty much anything else you can imagine.

But beyond the utilitarian nature of pictograms, the styling of the symbols created here become part of the indelible experience of the games, and the country who hosted it. And therein lies the true power of pictograms — in the Olympics, designers get to consciously shape our sense of history as we experience it. There’s nothing quite like it.

The Evolution Of Olympic Pictograms

With the weight of the world on these kinds of decisions, a designer must lean on the achievements of the past and so a designer of Olympic pictograms is highly-aware of the formative work of prior games.

For a moment, consider what it might be like if you were to take on this all-important assignment. Where would you start?

Probably with Otl Aicher.

Pictograms of the 1972 Munich Olympic Games, Otl Aicher

The Munich games of 1972 were not the first to design Olympic icons, but they might be the most seminal. That year, Otl Aicher and his team created a set of symbols so iconically well-balanced and smartly conceived it hit a note that reverberated for decades afterward. This was the debut of the circular head, the 45 and 90-degree angled lines and simplified body shapes that would become standard stick figure iconography not just in the Olympics but throughout the world — the design schema developed by the U.S. Department of Transportation was based on it.

The formal structure of the Aicher pictograms did what a great design system does: it created rules. And rules are easy to follow.

The design system was so good, it’s hard to find a set of pictograms for Olympic games throughout the 70’s or 80’s that didn’t reference it almost entirely.

What’s interesting about design is that within a tight system like this, small variations can have big meaning or symbolism. A design firm can spend months thinking about a particular line weight, curve, or set of shapes that will make up this new graphic alphabet.

And some of the variations on a theme can create an entirely different vibe for imagery. For example, the speed lines in Radomir Vukovic’s take on Aicher’s classic pictogram forms for the Sarajevo Winter Olympics in 1984 create an unmistakably 80’s iconography.

Grading on Intrepretation

It was only a matter of time, however, before designers rejected the strict grid of pictograms past and pushed into more expressive territories. That time was 1992, when both Barcelona and Albertville made bold strokes with design that elevated the pictogram game to a new level.

Notice the painterly, imperfect, almost calligraphic lines. Some of the designs even veer into the abstract. This is the pendulum swing of design, at its best. It feels loose and easy. Jazz, to Aicher’s methodical classical, structured compositions.

And then another evolution occured, perhaps even more meaningful. This design awakening took on the task of introducing cultural history into the pictographs. In 1994, Lillehammer gave us some Norwegian rock carvings. In 2000, Sydney threw some boomerangs into the effort. And in 2004, Athens found inspiration in the artwork of ancient Greek vases.

1994 Lillehammer Olympic Games Pictograms.
Sydney Summer Olympic Games Pictograms, 2000.
Athens Summer Olympic Games Pictograms, 2004.

Suddenly, a certain cultural pride and historical responsibility found its way into the Olympic pictogram that would further influence all the work that followed.

A Sign Of The Times

Following along with the changes in pictograms through the years is interesting for cultural reasons, but also as a study in how new design technologies influence a look and feel.

The 2000’s saw a sharp advancement in design software and the pictograms of the Turin Olympic Games in 2006 and London in 2012 feel likewise touched by a more advanced set of tools. Witness a whole new level of craftsmanship in the presentation of volume, transparency, form and color.

London Olympic Games Pictograms, 2012.
Wall display at the London Games, 2012.

A quick look back at just the last few decades of Olympic branding shows just how much variety, thinking and creativity is being demanded from the designers who take on the assignment every few years.

Which brings us to PyeongChang, 2018

Seeing the core branding emblem of this year’s Olympic games up against the previous games here shows a return to simplicity. Gone are the complex shapes and intricate design moves. Instead, heavily symbolized and simplified elements emphasize concept over a desire to impress.

The symbols derive directly from the pronunciation of PyeongChang and represent “harmony of Heaven, Earth and Man” on the left, and “snow, ice and athletic stars” on the right.

Combined, the emblem and pictograms are practically a study in Olympic imagery history — an almost impossibly elegant mash-up. It reestablishes the simplified head and body shapes of the 70’s and 80’s. It embraces the gestural design qualities of the 90’s. And maintains the reverence for the cultural infusions of the early 2000's.

Rather than challenge us to reinterpret the symbols of the Olympic iconography entirely, the new designs take a more inclusive and humble approach. A set of figures made of history, yet ready to take on the history about to be made.

That’s design gold.

Thanks for reading. And enjoy the 2018 Olympic Games!

I’m just a boy, standing behind this camera asking it to love me. Top Writer on Photography, Prof of photojournalism, Leica Akademie Instructor, lover of tacos.

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