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 horse, 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 see are designed to represent the country or city where the Olympics are happening,” says Joel Grear of Malcolm Grear Designers, who created the pictograms of the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta. You see this in the wispy curves of the pictograms in Rio, which bring to mind the Brazilian landscape. Sydney’s use of boomerangs in 2000 is another obvious example. Famed designer Lance Wyman drew from pre-Hispanic glyphs when designing the beautiful pictograms of the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City. In every case, 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 assumes you know what you’re looking at. A good one provides just enough visual handholding to ensure the message is clear. “The goal is for it to be immediately 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 form, and three squiggly lines. (Spoiler: It’s a triathlon.)
The International Olympic Committee could avoid ambiguity by standardizing the pictograms. After all, the clearest way to depict tennis will always be with a racquet. This almost happened with the Montreal Olympics in 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. “It’s part of a broader brand identity system so it needs to feel coherent with all the other elements,” says Gary Holt, who cofounded SomeOne, the London studio that worked on London’s pictograms four years ago. The design 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.
As a result, many Olympic pictogram designs are highly stylized. All of Sydney’s icons feature at least one boomerang. Beijing’s are calligraphic. Meanwhile, designers like Grear believe the pictograms should emphasize athleticism over culture. 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 drawings to Atlanta and receiving Polaroids of athletes standing against a white wall showing the correct form. The studio wanted to use a slam-dunk to denote basketball, but “at that time, women didn’t dunk, so it had to become the dribbler,” he says. SomeOne, too, used reference imagery of athletes when creating the icons for the London Games. “Even though they were made out of angular lines, they were mapped on top of photographs of individuals,” Holt says.
Mexico City eschewed bodies altogether, depicting events primarily through sporting equipment. “The stick figure icons were sometimes confusing when the sports were similar,” Wyman says. “Our approach worked well in different ways, the pictograms were bold and worked well on signs from a distance or small on printed material.”
Compared to those in Wyman’s graphics, the sports depicted in Rio’s pictograms can be difficult to tell apart. Handball is distinguished from basketball by a single curved line that represents the hoop. At a glance, you could confuse diving for trampoline. Of course, a poorly designed street crossing 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.