Decoding The New Olympic Pictograms

At the Olympics, designers get to consciously shape our sense of history as we experience it. Here’s how that role has evolved over the decades.

Decoding The New Olympic Pictograms
[Photo: Jamie Squire/Getty Images]

This post has been adapted from the original.


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. Imagery and easily understood iconography is a necessity at 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.

[Image: Pyeongchang 2018]

The iconography of Olympic events, often referred to as pictograms, has a long, historic, and storied past. With every Olympic Games comes 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 directions to outsiders who come to visit, as well as the more esoteric job of capturing the hosting city’s ethos. 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 25, the unveiling of the new set of pictograms for the 2018 Olympics, by the Pyeongchang Organizing Committee. As per 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 which 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.

[Photo: Sergei Bobylev/TASS/Getty Images]

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 be 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.

[Image: courtesy International Olympic Committee]

The Munich games of 1972 were not the first to include 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. Aicher’s pictograms marked the debut of the circular head, the 45- and 90-degree angled lines, and the simplified body shapes that would become standard stick figure iconography not just in the Olympics but throughout the world–even the design schema developed by the U.S. Department of Transportation was based on it.

[Photo: Henning Schlottmann/Wiki Commons]

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 1970s or ’80s that didn’t reference it almost entirely.

Los Angeles Olympic Pictograms, 1984. Lake Placid Olympic Pictograms, 1980.
[Image: courtesy International Olympic Committee]

Within a tight design 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 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 ’80s iconography.

Pictograms of the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics, by Radomir Vukovic. [Image: courtesy International Olympic Committee]

Grading on Interpretation

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.

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.

Barcelona Summer and Albertville Winter Olympics Pictograms.
[Image: courtesy International Olympic Committee]

And then another evolution occurred, 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. [Image: courtesy International Olympic Committee]
Sydney Summer Olympic Games Pictograms, 2000.
[Image: courtesy International Olympic Committee]
Athens Summer Olympic Games Pictograms, 2004.
[Image: courtesy International Olympic Committee]

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 system’s look and feel.

The 2000s saw a rapid 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.

Pictograms of the Turin Olympic Games, 2006. [Image: courtesy International Olympic Committee]
London Olympic Games Pictograms, 2012. [Image: courtesy International Olympic Committee]

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

Which brings us to Pyeongchang, 2018.

PyeongChang, 2018.
[Image: 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 emblem’s 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 Aicher’s work in the ’70s and ’80s. It embraces the gestural design qualities of the ’90s. And maintains the reverence for the cultural infusions of the early 2000s.

Pyeongchang 2018 pictograms. [Image: PyeongChang 2018]

Rather than challenge us to reinterpret the symbols of 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.

Josh S. Rose is executive creative director at Weber Shandwick, formerly EVP, group creative director at Deutsch. Rose is also an accomplished photographer and writer.