Tokyo, 1964

The first Olympic Games to be held in Asia premiered on October 10, 1964, in Tokyo, Japan. The Tokyo Games were rife with symbolism: The Olympic torch was lit by Yoshinori Sakai, who was born in Hiroshima the day the city was destroyed by the atomic bomb, and the Games were regarded as Japan’s announcement of its successful reconstruction following World War II. 

But the symbolism was also literal: To communicate with Olympic visitors who didn’t speak Japanese, the Tokyo Games invented a set of pictograms, a method of communication designed to be “independent of language and culture.” The Tokyo pictograms were regarded as groundbreaking, and every Summer Olympics since has featured its own unique set of pictograms.

The Tokyo pictograms were one of 28 pictogram families from around the world selected for study by the United States Department of Transportation as part of an effort to create a system of unified transportation pictograms. The pictograms used at the Tokyo Games are part of a historical continuum but also represent a shift in modern visual communication, both in the design of the pictograms and the reasons for their use.

The Olympics punctuate history, and the pictograms produced for Olympic Games over the past 75 years have been intimately tied to the political conflicts of that time. The Olympic Games used pictograms on at least two occasions before Tokyo: Both the Berlin and London Summer Olympic developed an ad hoc set of pictograms as part of their hosting preparations.

Berlin, 1936

The Berlin Games (1936), planned to “project the image of the Third Reich as a modern, economically dynamic state with growing international influence,” and were the first Games to feature to pictograms designed to represent sport. These pictograms were more than signs, they were a declaration of the abilities of a fledging state, and therefore may be read as artifacts of their time. In this context, the Tokyo pictograms represent a break with nationalist themes of earlier Olympics, defining the archetype for future Olympic pictograms and codifying the idea that pictograms could be used as a lingua franca.

Pictograms continued to be used as political tools: The 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow opted to invent its own set of pictograms rather than purchase the rights to use the pictograms from the Munich and Montreal Olympic Games, in part due to a boycott of the Moscow Games by western countries. More recent Summer Games have used the pictogram families as opportunities to reinforce the ‘brand’ of their city or country: Sydney, in 2000, based its pictograms on the Aboriginal Australian boomerang, while Athens, in 2004, introduced pictograms meant to echo Ancient Greece’s black-figure vases. The history of the pictograms is intimately bound up with the history of the Games themselves.

The break with the past represented by the history of the Tokyo pictograms is also evident in their design. The Tokyo pictograms are clear, dynamic, minimalist caricatures of reality, remarkable for their neutrality. The simplicity of the Tokyo pictograms adds to their utility: It would be easy to reproduce them in any media, at almost any size. Their content has been reduced to the most basic forms and shapes possible, By relying on our intuitive knowledge of physical forces to communicate (the ball suspended above a pictogram’s outstretched arm is not floating in mid-air; it has either just been hit or is about to be), the pictograms effectively represent objects, people, and motion, and the relationships between all three. The pictograms are monochromatic (black on white) and use simple shapes (circles, rounded rectangles, lines) to relate ideas.

London, 1948


The Tokyo pictograms are also more sophisticated than their London or Berlin counterparts, using silhouettes, basic shapes, and negative space to communicate. This absence of detail strengthens their message; the London and Berlin pictograms seem more like illustrations of the Olympic events and less like signs for them. Berlin’s pictograms relied on synecdoche: Two crossed oars represented rowing, a set of waves represented swimming, etc. This commonality was visually reinforced by placing each motif against a thick ring, explicitly reinforcing the notion that the Berlin pictograms were a set, while the consistent visual language of Tokyo’s pictograms—shapes, colors, motifs—accomplished this implicitly. Additionally, Tokyo’s pictograms show athletes engaged in sport while lacking explicit cultural references: Tokyo’s runner appears as a figure pitched forward in motion, Berlin used a winged track shoe, and London showed a man jumping over a hurdle. The people represented by the Tokyo pictograms also lack racial attributes or gender. The pictograms are purposefully without culturally specificity so as to bridge the distance between cultures. 

The design, in turn, reinforced the reasons for the Tokyo pictograms’ use. The Tokyo pictograms, unlike earlier sets of pictograms, do not telegraph the culture of the host country. Instead, the Tokyo pictograms purposefully redesigned an alien object to emphasize and express a belief in the power of the supra-national cultural nature of the Olympic Games. Just like the Olympic Games themselves, the pictograms are nationally bound but must also represent supra-national ideals.

But Olympic pictograms do not just speak to visitors from other countries, they themselves migrate across borders. German graphic designer Otl Aicher, selected to design pictograms for the 1972 Munich Olympic Games, followed the example of Tokyo and used “stereotyping and systematization to reduce the motifs to an almost idealized abstraction.” Aicher’s Munich designs, in turn, migrated to Canada, where the rights to these designs were acquired by the Canadian Olympic Committee, and used, unmodified, at the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games. That Canada would opt to use German pictograms based on Japanese designs emphasizes both the supra-nationalism of the Games and the ability of the pictograms to communicate independently of culture. Aicher’s work also made it to America, where the US Department of Transportation considered it alongside the Tokyo pictograms and 26 other signage families. The pictograms, designed to represent supra-nationalism, became supra-national themselves.

The Tokyo pictograms influenced and defined a modern era of signage. They built on earlier representations of sport, in Berlin and London, to create a visual language accessible to all Olympic visitors. The pictograms’ monochromatic palette and caricatures of people, objects, activities, and events set the standard for the design of future pictograms. This design, in turn, emphasized a belief in cross-cultural exchange instead of national isolation. The design of these pictograms is intimately bound up in the history and beliefs surrounding their creation. The Tokyo pictograms are a cultural artifact, demonstrating aspects of a world now half a century removed. 


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Adapted from a paper written for AMST 424 – Introduction to the Cultural History of Things. Sources below.

Abdullah, Rayan, and Roger Hubner. Pictograms, Icons and Signs: A Guide to Information Graphics. London: Thames & Hudson, 2006.

Bowlby, Chris. “The Olympic torch’s shadowy past.” BBC News. 5 Apr. 2008. BBC. 23 Oct. 2008 <;.

Kopytoff, Igor. “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process.” The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Ed. Arjun Appadurai. New York: Cambridge UP, 1988. 64-91.

Prown, Jules D. “Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method.” Winterthur Portfolio 17 (1982): 1-19.

Symbol signs: the complete study of passenger/pedestrian-oriented symbols / developed by the American Institute of Graphic Arts for the U.S. Department of Transportation. 2nd ed. New York, NY: American Institute of Graphic Arts, 1993. – Official website of the Olympic Movement. 2008. International Olympic Committee. 23 Oct. 2008 <;.