How design helped The Washington Post’s Olympics coverage stand out from the competition
In an era where icons and emojis are ever-present and making our communication more visual, having a unique design is critical
by Álvaro Valiño
When the The Washington Post Graphics team approached me about the idea of creating a customized set of pictograms for the 2016 Rio Olympics, it was still March of 2016, plenty of time before the games.
They weren’t convinced about using the official set of the games and they thought that developing their own pictograms could help to brand the Post graphics around them. In an era where icons and emojis are ever-present and making our communication more visual, this makes total sense.
For Rio, The Post’s graphics team wanted a strong visual identity, separated from the usual style. This new style provided a new life and a different language to the visual pieces created for the event. Everything was based on a set of pictograms commissioned for the occasion that transcended the mere indicative function. I agreed with them and we discussed that the new set of pictograms should be geometric.
With this in mind, and my love for pictograms, I started an early exploration around the idea of the summer Olympic games and the shape of the human body as reduced to its essential geometric forms.
There are good examples of geometric designs in the rich tradition of Olympic pictograms, I was building on the work of giants. Just to cite the most game-changing example, Masaru’s pictograms for the 1964 Tokyo Games were an absolute breakthrough. They were the first systematic approach to iconography and the parent of all modern Olympic pictograms. Another great example is the highly styled and super-normalized work of Otl Aicher for the 1972 Munich Games.
I made loose sketches and from those I decided to follow two geometric principles. First, I would use a circle, actually a circumference, like the rings that compose the Olympic emblem. Secondly, I would use a five-pointed star, referencing the five rings. These five points could represent the head as well as the four limbs of the human figure. Soon enough though, I felt very limited drawing different postures and gestures. One interesting result is that this early exploration helped to create a symbol that ended up being the logo that the Post used to brand the games coverage.
From this point I decided to keep the idea of the circumference for the head of the pictograms, and to build the body from it, using only lines. A ring is not a solid circle — I played with this concept and followed it through with all varieties. Later this proved to help me differentiate the head from balls in sports such as basketball, soccer or volleyball.
The end of each stroke would be rounded but only for the human figures. This provided a different treatment than for sport equipment, such as, a pole, a paddle or a bow. The equipment finishes in a butt cap and milter join to create two levels of each element.
For a past project I had used the Vitruvian man by Leonardo to design a chair, and I again borrowed from the master for this project. I created a grid on top of him that helped me to define the proportions of the figures.
Athletes ended up being 6 modules tall with the torso comprising 2 modules, legs 3, and the arms 2.5.
The grid and proportions looked solid, so it was time to check if this system worked well for different disciplines. I tried to be restrictive regarding the angles used to build each figure, so the complete set would look consistent, but allowing for exceptions when necessary along the way.
The biggest challenge in this type of work is to represent a dynamic activity like a sport with a static sign, a pictogram. This is a work of synthesis, to reduce the most iconic movements or poses of the athletes to the basic shapes with restricted angles but remain identifiable. At the same time, I find there is an aesthetic pleasure representing the maximum with the minimum elements, without sacrificing meaning.
The restrictions of the grid and proportions help to create a consistent and recognizable system of pictograms. It’s as important that pictograms work well individually, so sports represented are easily identified, but also collectively, as a family with common features. As Nigel Holmes defines it, it’s collaboration similar to that of a Jazz group, it depends in the interaction of the players. A great help is that these pictograms live within the Olympic context so identification is easy to readers/users familiar with sports and the well-known events of the games.
After testing the grid and proportions with several sports, the Post Graphics team and I agreed that it was time to pitch the system to the graphics and design departments. I prepared a 15 page PDF with the look and feel of the pictogram system, to make clear this was not just a collection of pictograms. It contained possible uses and some visual explorations where the pictograms played an important role. There were also some pages with color tests, that at this point were just mere exercises looking for the expressiveness of the five Olympic colors in conjunction with the signs.
It was critical to test the pictograms at small sizes, because they had to work well in schedules and tables, just as identifiers or labels, so this document include tests on different scales using the grid.
While finishing this document I started to think of possible ways to animate the pictograms. In this case the challenge was reversed, to start with a static image, the pictogram, and to convey the characteristic movements of an athlete for each sport. My idea was to make them more like a sign-in-motion than a traditional animation.
The proposal was warmly received and they gave me the green light to go ahead with the complete set of pictograms with the addition of animations for the main disciplines. These were selected by the Sports Department.
In order to develop the complete set of 41 sports, I watched videos on the Olympic channel of YouTube and consulted sports imagery at olympic.org. I found excellent reference material to work with. But sometimes I found myself standing in my office, posing and trying to imitate the key moves or positions of certain sports. I don’t have the most athletic body, but these explorations helped me internalize some of the gestures.
Following the grid and general proportions, I found common angles and postures between sports. This helped to speed up the process and give a consistent appearance to the whole set.
At this point I defined the use of color. The idea was to create two levels: black for the human figure and color for the sport elements. Some followed color conventions like blue for water in swimming or rowing, green for grass in field hockey or soccer, or yellow for sand in long jump or beach volleyball.
I delivered a 14 page PDF, which included the complete set of 41 official pictograms, plus 13 extra additions including different events within gymnastics and athletics. The document included suggestions for how to scale the pictograms, the use of color, and possible further developments like celebratory flash cards, a podium or flag celebration, or even suggestions for using them as the base for interesting illustrations.
The Post chose 9 disciplines to be developed into animations. They were, Athletics (running), Swimming, Boxing, Diving, Golf, Wrestling, Gymnastics, Soccer, Basketball and an extra, a winner celebrating. I’m happy with the results of most of them, but my favorite is boxing. I don’t like the sport, but there is something very nice in the way that the pictogram moves with those big circled gloves.
The pictograms were a success and from the start of the Olympic games and they were used profusely by the graphics and design departments. They even made it to the front page of the printed version on August 5th!
The schedule or the medal counter are natural environments for them, but they are also used wisely on flash cards and in other less conventional ways, like this interesting graphic about the kind of body types that work better for different sports.
I was thrilled to see them live and surprised by the different uses the talented group at the Post Graphics made of them.