Olympic Games—The Design Documents Over a Century of Olympic Visual Identities

The book shows how Olympic design encapsulates global politics and culture; in doing so, it serves as a de facto history of 20th-century graphic design.

The Estadio Azteca in Mexico City was painted with Lance Whyman’s graphics on occasion of the 1968 Olympic Games. Courtesy Niggli Verlag

Fascinated by the 1972 Munich Olympics, graphic designer Markus Osterwalder began documenting, collecting, and studying Olympic design artifacts as an eight-year-old in Ecuador. Olympic Games—The Design (Niggli Verlag, 2020) is the triumphant result of his 30 years of preparation and an estimated one million hours of research. This 14-pound, 1,552-page, linen-bound, and slip-cased pair of books is the first comprehensive volume documenting the visual identities of the Olympic Games from Athens 1896 to Tokyo 2020. 

Whenever possible, Osterwalder interviewed designers and creative directors to record their stories, and supplemented his own collections (everything from posters to medals to programs gathered over decades) with additional material from the worldwide archives of the Games. With more than 6,500 images paired with richly detailed text, the volume illustrates how every four years, designers around the world rise to the challenge of creating contemporary visual systems in response to the same enduring 125-year old design brief. 

To call Olympic Games—The Design an exhaustive publication is like saying that the Queen of England owns some jewelry. The title’s clean, Swiss design arranges the material into a clean hybrid of an art book and reference volume—one could see this as an artistic version of the Oxford English Dictionary about the Olympics. All but one of the 58 chapters are devoted to individual coverage of each edition of the Games, documenting everything from official ephemera such as posters, programs, and event admissions tickets to medals, torches, badges, pins, mascots, souvenirs, and uniforms. One chapter presents the history of the Olympic rings, and five gate-fold sections throughout the volumes give an overview on key design topics from the birth of the Modern Games to the present.

Sussman/Prejza’s Look of the Games estsablished a visual schema for use on billboards, pavilions, and street furniture. Courtesy Niggli Verlag

The book marches readers through a timeline representing a de facto history of graphic design. The look of the Tokyo ’64 Games, for example, created by an invited team of renowned Japanese designers under the direction of Masaru Katsumi, epitomizes the minimal Modernist graphic design of the day. For the first time, photography appeared on the posters, color was used in a focused and targeted manner, and typography became an important part of the visual identity. The inaugural use of pictograms was a true breakthrough; Japanese is not widely spoken outside of Japan, and so another way of communication had to make the Olympic wayfinding systems legible to athletes, journalists, officials, and tourists.

In a similar vein, Lance Wyman’s much-lauded identity for the Mexico ’68 Games epitomizes the best design of the late 1960s, blending psychedelia with corporate graphic design in a surprisingly unified approach. A bright palette of 19 colors derived from Mexican folk art, cuisine, and botany married beautifully with the op-art–inspired typography and clean pictograms to create a distinctive and flexible identity system in which all elements converged in a single narrative.

Los Angeles ’84 was the first truly globally televised Games—its broadcast ran for 180 hours and was viewed by the largest television audience in history. This required visually uniting approximately 75 locations across Southern California into a single, telegenic, and festive Olympic campus—a daunting task, given that the sites were up to 150 miles apart. Designer Deborah Sussman and her team at Sussman/Prejza (in collaboration with architects, landscape architects, graphic and industrial designers, fabric designers, and transport system designers) created an overall Look of the Games, transforming streets, sports facilities, and public areas into a sea of bright structures variously described as an “invasion of butterflies” or “urban confetti.” The lively color palette with a South Californian/Latin American flair lent a sense of excitement, unity, and history to the event. 

The Olympic Games have never been just about sports; each event encapsulates global politics, culture, community, collaboration, and design. Olympic Games—The Design documents it all, through the lens of graphic design.

You may also enjoy “The Cooper Union Showcases Costantino Nivola’s Impact on New York City.”

Would you like to comment on this article? Send your thoughts to: comments@metropolismag.com

Categories: Arts + Culture