By: C. Justin Hall and Zachary Allen
Dawn of the Pictogram
From the wall paintings of cavemen to the stone carvings of ancient civilizations pictograms have been used as a form of communication since the beginning of recorded history. In fact, it is how history was recorded before the invention of more advanced writing systems such as alphabetic (Latin for example) or logographic (Chinese/Arabic characters). Even with the written language of today pictograms are still being used as a communication tool for everything from bathroom signage to road signage and everything in between, but the images you know today have not been around forever, the majority of them originated from Olympic pictograms. “Olympic pictograms are those stick figure pictures that depict each Olympic sport. Today they’re everywhere: at Olympic venues, on tickets and event schedules, on TV. They were simple drawings representing certain events, a bike for cycling, a basket for basketball, a pair of boxing gloves” (Porzucki).These pictograms serve as the premise of cross-cultural communication. Though design nuances change through the ages, the function and mission remains static.
It is highly debated, but most scholars say that Olympic pictograms made their debut appearance at the 1936 summer games in Berlin. One of the largest reasons behind this controversy is that these games took place at the height of Hitler’s Nazi regime. Others argue the first pictograms appeared at the London games in 1948. Either way, everyone agrees the pictograms we know today were created by Otl Aicher for the 1972 summer games in Munich. “This was the first games in Germany since Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Olympics. The visual legacy from those games was the swastika. It was all over the athletic stadium where Jesse Owens ran. The German Olympic Committee was eager to erase that image; as was Aicher. He grew up in Nazi Germany. Refused to join the Hitler Youth and ended up deserted the army after he was drafted. This chance to redesign the German image for the world was huge (Porzucki). This visual legacy would indeed be of monumental relevance. Culturally, this symbol is now one of ignominy and ordure. Such notoriety derived from a campaign of war, oppression, and genocide. Though this statement has a great level of subjectivity, the destruction and loss of life inflicted by the Nazi Party can indeed be quantified. Nonetheless, this flag embodies much history and, in some cases, experience. Looking upon a single image or picture can elicit numerous emotions and causes us to make instant correlations, as one may experience when looking upon the Nazi flag or any popular visual representation.
Pictograms were initially publicized via print. Although pictograms were contrived before the recording of time (vestiges and drawings of prehistoric cultures), their application to athletics did not become truly recognized until the 1936 Olympics. Because this era of time precedes digital, graphic design, the creation of a conceived image was much more challenging due to the limitations of color inclusion and meticulous editing. These images were transposed onto duplicable, tangible canvases or large pieces of paper. Once the desired image was composed, the artist could then be photographed and appropriately sized for mass distribution. These pictograms would be displayed in newspapers and magazines prior to the Olympic event. Though print was the primary medium of publication at this particular time, news of the image spread quickly. Pamphlets were also distributed to the audience members. See the pictographic pamphlet page here.
A Closer Look
Note the concrete, simplistic style of each image. Each picture is an obvious reference to some action or sport. For example, the boxing games were represented by a colorless glove emerging from an obscure, triangular ring. Hockey would be represented through a similar, simplistic design: two hockey sticks and a lighted sphere represent the sport. Although these designs lack aesthetic appeal and color, they are easily discernible. These pamphlets portrayed the order of events using pictograms as a primary means of communication. Little verbal language can be found on this particular page of the pamphlet due to the inadequacy of written language in such an environment. There are German captions despite the established ineffectiveness of written language with such visual information. However, only audience members had direct access to this information. The perspective population is incredibly small; thus, few copies exist. Thanks to progressive technology and new mediums of publication, information is more easily dispersed and these pictograms are easily obtainable if properly queried.
To create a universal identity, the images had to be evinced to the public. This is where television provides aid. The 1936 games would also be the first Olympic series ever televised. Viewers across the world would be introduced to a new collection of pictograms. Once displayed for all the world to see, the idea became a global application. Viewers and participants could easily descry visual information in a linguistically eclectic environment. Communication became facile and ambiguity diminished with the introduction of these pictograms. This visual revolution would be globally recognized. Every future Olympic host would utilize these pictograms for the sake of cross-cultural communication.
To this day, we see that pictograms are still prominently used; however, the look has certainly evolved. Pictograms no longer have a primitive, odd, dull look. Although antiquity is not necessarily an attribute to discouraged, the modern look of pictograms is much different than that of its earliest predecessors. The creation of the internet and the emergence of the digital age afforded visual artists new and intriguing ways of image creation and editing. Newfangled technology continued to revolutionize visual aesthetics and the ideal “beautiful” image. In the 1964 Olympics, Katsumi Masaru revolutionized pictogram design by adding witty nuances and outlines before such newfangled, graphic designing computer programs had been created. Pictogram designs of the past.
Masaru and his designer team would intensify the appearance through bold, exclamatory typography and witty dissimilation. The pictograms provided in the link above are attributed no textual information. The images are autonomous and need no supplemental language. The figures in these images have girth and size. This is highly contrary to the previous usage of “stick” figures. The conventional person, disregarding elaborate motive, is depicted as a small, thin outline with arms and legs. Masaru takes a rather uncanny approach by adding bulk to the figures. This creates a unique, more realistic portrayal of the human athlete. Perhaps this was a means of establishing some level of verisimilitude. Another prominent, clever attribute is the void space. Any clothing worn by the figure is represented through omission. There is a blank space where the uniform would hypothetically hang across the athletes shoulders or encompass the torso. The void, whitespace blends with the background. The same concept applies to any shorts or lower-body undergarments the athlete may wear. By using less visual space (in this case omitting information), a clever design is contrived. A visually appealing image is created.
To appropriate the size and format according to canvas, the images were initially composed on a white, x and y grid. Careful geometry had to be implemented to ensure symmetry. Grid lines provide an objective, definite means of image composition. Quantitative graphs had to be utilized in order to create absolute symmetry. Graphic designing programs had not come into existence; therefore, these designs had to be drawn by hand over a palpable document. Space and separation were key considerations when composing these elaborate, unique designs. Masaru and his team constructed these bold images using exact colors and shades. Once a definite (colors had not been implemented) shade had been selected, the bulk and density of each pictogram had to be diligently selected to accurately and uniquely portray each Olympic event. The Masaru team also gave much rumination to the angle of appearance. Some pictograms called for slanted alignment and angled figure placement. Refer to the Masaru cycling and track pictograms. The model athlete is angled. Because of this, degrees had to be determined and taken into consideration. The pictogram appropriation process was based upon some determined outcome or goal determined by Masaru. To achieve his vision and desired result, much geometry and graphing had to be completed to ensure the ideal level of contrast and size. Once finalized, the graphs were printed onto a blank document (grid lines were obviously removed).
Masaru and his team sparked a pictogram revolution. Visual innovator Otl Aicher attributed color to the unique, bold style of Masaru’s work. His glamorous work would be first evinced at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany. Click here to see the Otl-Masaru collaboration. The bright orange background is visually attractive, especially in contrast with the snow white images: a creamsicle effect is created. The structural design is very similar to that of the 1964 Olympics due to Otl’s collaboration with Masaru. Like Masaru’s pictogram, the images are slanted, sharp, with a similar omission effect. The process, like the look itself, it also comparable. Graphic design programs had unfortunately still not come into effect. These pictograms had to be hand-drawn and transposed onto a tangible document after necessary cropping and editing applications. Despite this technological disadvantage, Otl’s intriguing usage of color revolutionized the pictogram look.These distinguished traits indicate the style did not undergo complete transformation; it was simply modified. Otl’s creativity derives eminently from the color. Such careful and creative contrasts evoke desired emotions. This diverse usage of color indicates Otl took a more psychological approach in his work. Despite the similar Masaru look, there is obvious indication of incredible progress and explorative thinking.
These images and their colors were meant to elicit feelings of joy, excitement, as well as unification. Design History journalist Marta Almeida identifies a prominent rhetorical message of global unification through these colorful pictograms (7). Otl uses a plethora of color to proclaim his message of global unity. Such colors represent a digression from any Nazi affiliation and serve as a visual apology to the world for all the tyranny and oppression wrought by the notorious Nazi party. All colors on the visual spectrum are used excluding the black an dark red used to represent the Nazi flag and party. A happier, more vivacious mood is created through Otl’s colorful pictograms indicating a new Germany and a new ideology.
Aicher’s design was elegant, simple, and straightforward. He used a series of 21 “stick figures” to represent individual events. Everything from biking and running to swimming and equestrian sport, all could be represented with stick figure pictograms that anyone who spoke any language could easily understand. “Aicher sought advice from Masaru Katsumie, the designer charged with creating the concept of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Together they resolved fundamental organizational issues and Aicher’s team subsequently simplified the pictograms developed for the Tokyo Games which depicted typical movements for the various sports.” (Phaidon) Although there have been some minor changes made to the images over the years the general idea can still be seen in the pictograms of today.
Modern Interpretation of Visual Information and Pictograms
As previously broached, modern forms of technology have revolutionized the manner in which information is created and dispersed. Pictographic innovators began to utilize graphic designing programs. These programs allowed for much versatility and editing. The 2016 Rio Olympic pictograms (already created) reveal the latest, innovative style of Olympic pictogramming. These images are obviously inclusive of color and differ greatly from the 1936 Olympic pictograms. The following images are incredibly bright and give a tropical aura: View more on the Rio pictograms. Such sync of color certainly indicates a genuine revamp of aesthetic appeal. There is an intricate blend of light and dark shades of the same color within a single image. Because of this, we see that there must have been some form of graphic interface involved. The designer team likely utilized Adobe Illustrator. This designer program allows users to draw a tangible sketch of their creation. Once draw, the image is then scanned to a computer. Once the tangible document is digitalized and uploaded, the user then uses the Adobe Illustrator program to crop, dilate, minimize, fill, and shape the image in any desired manner. The user also has unlimited discretion when attributing color to the image. This is how such an intricate blend of color is given to the particular image. The images also have a specific outline. The shape pf the actual image is fitted to the character in each pictogram. Some characters are centered to left, some to the right. Some characters are positioned to at different x and y values than others. This differentiation of alignment indicates some digital, graphical design had to have been applied to the given image. Complex, seemingly impossible recreations by hand are facilely generated through such graphical designing programs custom to most Mac and Windows products in today’s market. Once more, visual enhancement is made possible through the emergence of the digital. Despite these innovations in visual appearance, these pictograms still serve the same purpose of universal communication in an eclectic, diverse global setting of numerous languages.
The creation and revolution of the Olympic pictogram did so much more than simply give the viewer a colorful, pretty image to observe and admire. These pictures identify a common denominator evident in all forms of written language: diction based on existence. This implies all words, despite their etymology, are based upon visual interpretation. The actual meanings of words are obviously arbitrary and in no way a reflection of what the word represents. The visual information, however, is completely relevant to the actual definition of any given term. When these pictograms were initially contrived, their reasoning was solely based upon visual representation. As previously stated, the information detected with the eye is processed through the brain and made into logic. When we see the image of the Olympic event, we can make automatic correlations between the image and our personal viewing of the event. The recollection of information is easy when something so basic is displayed. Naturally, when we see a picture of a tennis racket or see a particular logo, we can associate that visual information with a particular sporting event.
This descrying of visual information as well as the correlations made throughout this document appeal largely to the field of hermeneutics: the knowledge and study of interpretation. Universality is the ultimate, hermeneutic goal of pictograms. The more populations accommodated, the better. People will easily interpret information that is pertinent to their immediate objective. In this case, the objective is identity. The picture above is a theorized embodiment of the hermeneutic process. We experience events (sensory encompassing) in segments. We make sense of this sensory information (in this case, visual), and experience eventually apply our entire understanding to a given situation (contextualization). This is a cyclical process because interpretations themselves are equivocal. Anything can change our perception at any given moment or experience.
Any viewer of any Olympic event will see the pictogram and make an easy, yet unique connection. Even if the viewer is unfamiliar with the given event, the visual information given in the pictogram will provide much clarity to the viewer. This visual information becomes relevant in every way as people interpret these events and the actions they represent become, “meaningful to the actors and to the other social participants” (Little 1). The information is not only galvanized to the immediate audience, but to the world. As diverse forms of publication emerge, these images become part of part of our culture. Such examples may be viewed not only in Olympic broadcasts and pamphlets, but on bathroom doors and traffic signs as well. Though there may be the occasional supplemental text, these images will primarily represent themselves as entities not confined by the bonds of written language. Ways of descrying information have revolutionized due to the pictogram. Their application to Olympic publication and broadcast is certainly pertinent to the unification of language in a condensed, global setting.
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