Graphic design and the ’64 Tokyo Olympics – just look!

Next week, Tokyo celebrates 50 years since it hosted the summer Olympics in 1964. You see reminders of this historic year most everywhere you go these days, plastered on pillars in subways and printed on free plastic fans at museums as you try to generate a hint of a breeze on a sunny afternoon.

There has already been so much written on Tokyo’s next chance to take the global stage in 2020, when it becomes the first Asian city to host the summer Games for a second time. Naturally, comparisons, questions and criticisms of hosting the Games are abound this year, as the city celebrates the memory of a successful and momentous first Games while bracing itself for a bumpy six years ahead.

In the spirit of commemoration, I thought I’d forego the comparisons (for today, at least) and instead highlight one of the most ingenious facets of the ’64 Olympics: its unparalleled use of graphic design.

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Tokyo ’64 revolutionised the role of design in communicating messages to both an international and linguistically diverse group of elite athletes and a global audience spanning the many far-flung corners of the globe. Its sheer simplicity and accessibility was, and is, utter brilliance.

The gear that set these wheels in motion had actually been oiled four years earlier in 1960, at the World Design Conference which was also held in Tokyo. There, top minds from the design world at the time – including Japanese architect Kenzo Tange, Italian designer and artist Bruno Munari and Swiss graphic designer Max Huber, discussed why and how contemporary graphic design could and should be made useful for the masses.

Recognising the need for a basal, common understanding that could cut across languages and cultural barriers at such an international event, Tokyo ’64’s Olympic design team, led by design critic Masaru Katsumi alongside graphic designer Yusaku Kamekura, did away with the use of words, opting instead for pictograms. This was the first time ever that graphics were being systematically used. The result? Just look!

The pictograms you see here were pioneering work at the time and paved the way for similar symbols to be used at subsequent Games. The work of Tokyo’s Olympic design team would also influence the use of signages and pictograms globally. Sugoi-ne (amazing!). It’s hard to imagine a time before they became such a natural and familiar part of the Olympics.

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The Tokyo ’64 Olympic pictograms depicting various sports

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Above and below: another set of pictograms was also developed to provide service-related information – familiar toilet sign anyone?

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A culture magazine I picked up here earlier last week featured a short commentary by local design director Koichi Yanagimoto, who touched on how the use of these pictograms in the ’64 Games permanently changed the development and prevalence of contemporary graphic design.

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When modern design first emerged in the later half of the 19th century it was used only by a select few, but the ’64 Olympics, he wrote, “brought it to the masses and the concept went on to permeate the daily lives of the public.”

Today – be it in Tokyo, Singapore or Seoul, I can’t imagine getting around bus stations, airports, shopping malls or hotels without the use of pictograms. That must be testament enough to the legacy left by Katsumi-san and his team.

The dateline for submitting emblem designs for Tokyo 2020 opened earlier this month and will close next Friday.

There will be undoubtedly intense pressure on Tokyo to set the bar even higher than it did in ’64.

But if Japan could, half a century ago, be so forward-thinking as to completely revolutionise the way in which design could be universally understood, I wouldn’t bet against the Land of the Rising Sun’s ability to impress again, more than half a century later.

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