Why We Should Really Be Concerned About the Visual Identity for the Tokyo Olympics

This is an edited transcription of a lecture I gave at Temple University Japan on November 25, 2015. このエッセイの日本語版はこちらです。

Identity design represents a specific refraction of the lens of Modernism — and it also represents the establishment of systems-based design.

In the 1800s, global visual culture was still predominantly driven by Victorian British aesthetics. You can still see aspects of this today, notably in the logo for the Coca-Cola Corporation. The original version was designed in 1886. It uses a very British style of script lettering. It reflects a lot of British tendencies toward decoration from the pre-modern era and is more than anything, a symbol of Empire. Modernism was a departure from this fussiness.

The Futurists,

The Bauhaus,

and De Stijl designers helped push cultural aesthetics forward and wildly influenced designers internationally in the pursuit of Modernism—a set of aesthetic pursuits and a streamlining of graphic expression to reflect a more mechanized time.

Modern graphic design can be described by:

Process values

  • to reject traditional forms and decorative elements
  • to seek a solution that was simple and direct
  • to be concerned with the process by which the designer worked
  • to use systematic methods rather than intuitive ones
  • to use rational, objective approaches to the solving of a graphic problem
  • to think about relationships in form and content

Formal visual values

  • to use geometric shapes: the circle, the triangle and the square

An aside: Interestingly, one of the facts rarely mentioned in the mythos of the Bauhaus was how notoriously sexist the school was — women were denied instruction in architecture, graphic design and product design and were instead relegated to the field of textile design.


  • to use sans serif typefaces
  • to show contrast in typographical material
  • to base work on pragmatic issues printing, paper sizes, photo engraving, standardization


  • The use of photographs and photomontage rather than drawings or illustrations
  • The use of silhouetted photographs with white backgrounds
  • The use of maps and diagrams
  • The use of graphic symbols and icons

This body of approaches, distilled through the use of systems to design, came to define Modernism, as well as to define the basis of identity design as we know it.

Modernism, Systems-based identity design & the Olympics

The 1968 Olympics were the first that truly exercised a holistic approach to identity. Previous Olympics were designed by a hodge-podge of designers, or did not look or feel like a unified, cohesive system (e.g. the 1964 Olympic design).

Lance Wyman, the primary designer behind the 1968 Olympics, put together a system that was truly cohesive.

The 1968 Olympic identity was very much driven by the typography behind it, notably the modular alphabet created by Wyman and his team.

Above, we see the tickets for the 1968 Olympics with illustrations by Wyman and his team (namely Beatrice Colle, Jose Luis Ortiz and Jan Stornfeld) with the color palette that they specified in use.

Here we see the Olympic typeface used in an Olympic newsletter.

This was in the pre-digital era, so the lettering was applied by hand. One of the beautiful things about the 1968 Olympic identity was its modularity—it was an identity which could grow and reflected the aesthetics of the time.

The step-and-repeat nature of the multi-stroke letterforms lent itself to very graphic applications, both in terms of an expansion of the logo…

… as much as to graphic abstraction of the identity, mirroring the aesthetics of Op Art, a then-recent movement in fine art.

The identity was also cohesive in its application—scale was important.

It was also notable for the way in which the identity inserted itself into the very fabric of the landscape.

The identity was extended out into postage stamps and other public goods, yet retained a unified aesthetic.

The Olympic icons and colors helped reinforce the feeling of the identity—feeling like a family.

This was the case no matter the scale with which they were used.

The text typography for the 1968 Games was sober and function-driven.

Yet, when paired with the more expressive logo and the display typefaces, the typographic aspect of the identity held together due to careful choices in terms of scale and spacing.

The 1968 Olympic identity was notable for its broad range of applications and for its popular appeal.

My personal favorite Olympic identity is that of the 1972 Olympics. Shown here is Waldi the dachshund, the very first Olympic mascot.

The identity was designed by Otl Aicher, alongside Rolf Müller, Alfred Kern, Thomas Nittner, Gerhard Joksch and Elena Winschermann. Aicher was an extremely important graphic designer not only for the precision and expression in his work, but for his design-oriented thinking, as well.

Throughout the nascent years of the Modern movement in graphic design, graphic designers would present sketches of their ideas to clients, and the resultant design would be a slicked-up version of a sketch.

Aicher emphasized the process of designing, and how the act of designing itself could and should inform the outcomes of a design project. His writings on this topic are extremely important.

The typographic scale shifts utilized in the 1968 Olympics were mirrored in the 1972 Olympic identity design, though were handled in a more pleasing way—the use of a single typeface family across a variety of sizes gave the identity a rigorous typographic base.

The entire identity was based on grid systems handled with deftness, care, and craft to ensure continuity and connectedness.

The typographic grids created allowed multiple languages to be communicated with ease. Even Waldi the dog was designed on a grid. The colors used for the identity were inspired by the locale of the Olympics—representative of the sun, mountains, and flora of the greater Munich area.

Every detail of the 1972 Olympics was handled with care by Aicher and his team, down to the placement of architectural elements and the design of Olympic banners and flags.

The Olympic icons were designed according to a tight grid and helped to inform information graphics all over the world.

Additionally, they were the most dynamic icons designed for the Olympics to date—the range of expression, spatial activiation, and sheer dynamism are overwhelming both at small scale…

… and at large scale.

This amazing range of colors, typography, form and structure was a unified system that promoted and codified the Olympics that year.

The mix was profoundly flexible when applied to editiorial design.

Cover designs for assorted sports’ rule books.

By creating visual ‘remixes’, Aicher and his team were able to imbue assorted series with a sense of liveliness as much as uniformity.

Informational booklets

Less ‘high profile’ ephemera that were part of the Olympic identity such as tickets and ID badges were also handled with care.

All of the posters for the Olympics incorporated flattened, multi-tone photography rendered in the style of illustration with the Olympic color palette and the typographic standards.

It was the same for cultural events associated with the Games.

The system was also applied to souvenirs…

… and to the interior and exterior design of the Olympics.

The identity system spread out into the public and was immersive.

The entire city of Munich was unified in the application of a design system for the Olympics that was consistent and cohesive.

This even came down to what Olympic staff wore in terms of uniforms.

If spectators or participants needed assistance, they knew who to go to.

And that was the really important thing about the Munich Olympics—it was consistent, friendly, inclusive, dynamic, expansive and really reflected what the Olympic Games might be: a global event worth celebrating.

Even when reduced to its core elements, it is understandable and rational while feeling open and human-centric.

The Olympic identities that followed were also systems-based, but held very little of the joy of the 1972 Olympics. Many were officious.

And others were rigid.

It wasn’t until the much-debated 2012 London Olympics that an identity design system for the Olympics filled with energy and vibrancy came along again. In short, three decades of blandness.

The Tokyo 2020 Olympic identity

Tokyo was saddled with a disheartening design by a college student for the candidate city competition for the past three years based upon unfair labor practices.

The scrapped logo for the 2020 Olympics

After Kenjiro Sano’s logo design for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics was recalled by the Olympic Committee under multiple allegations of plagiarism, The Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games have organized a public logo design competition for the design of the Olympics and Paralympics.

Here is one of the two templates provided to the public for the Tokyo Olympic identity competition which launched yesterday.

The Committee has created the parameters under which the logo should be created—a pre-determined visual formula.

And here is their sample template, offered in jpeg format. This is not a true system and is representative of a shift away from any type of intellectual investment in the design of the Olympics — additionally, the prize money for the competition is a paltry ¥1,000,000 (just over $8,000 in US currency).

Giving away your rights as a designer.

Beyond this, once submitted, the designer loses all copyright and intellectual property rights to having created the logotype — billions of dollars will be made on the back of this labor, and some company will be hired to apply the design across print, web, environmental signage, and a ton of other applications.

Design should express the richness of our era. I mean this in terms of the visual qualities and the semantic expression with which we should imbue symbols of culture. What the upcoming Tokyo Olympic logo represents is definitely that, but not in the way that many think.

When I speak of “richness”, I invoke the idea of capital in lieu of visual abundance and beauty. The Tokyo Olympic logo design competition is an example of speculative labor. It is the promotion of free labor and the devaluation of design as a sector of cultural production. Most likely, hundreds to thousands of individuals—including both laypeople and trained graphic designers—will submit logo designs to this competition. The Olympics, a for-profit entity flush with finances and gigantic sponsors, is asking for handouts.

Design competitions underlie cultural misunderstandings of design. The 1972 Olympic identity was great because it was designed from the ground up. The 2020 Olympic identity will merely be a piece of cultural hairdressing.

It is based on a wildly unprofessional relationship (the handout) and the fee for the winning design is wildly under professional standards in terms of payment.

The Tokyo Olympic logo design competition as speculative labor represents the further collapse of labor structures in the Neoliberal Era. Its probably just a bit of social media entertainment for many, but it is representative of something larger — graphic design, a relatively new sector of cultural production the name of which was only coined in 1938 — is threatened not only by the ubiquitous accessibility of ‘creative’ software and by contemporary notions that ‘anyone can be a designer’, but these notions are now being given further form by powerful global events.

The history of the Olympics is one of war — of idle armies training in times of peace. To me, a graphic designer operating from a position of married theory and practice, the 2020 Tokyo Olympic logo design competition represents the most vehement bifurcate embodiment of anti-intellectualism and anti-labor sentiments.

This competition is a retreat from past greatness and toward a dystopian future—not just for design (and designers), but for the public as well.

And worst of all, us Tokyo residents, we’re going to be stuck with this symbol for the next five years—a symbol of a crowdsourced future.


  • The description of Modernism at the beginning of this essay is a conflation and extension of the ideas of R. Roger Remington from his excellent book American Modernism. I highly recommend picking up a copy.
  • Images from the 1964 and 1972 Olympics’ identity manuals were sourced here.
  • Thanks to my colleagues at Temple University Japan for being such a great audience and for the lengthy (and at times contentious) discussion throughout this lecture—your participation is appreciated!

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