This year’s Olympics has a confusing logo for a confusing time. After delaying the Games last year to curb the spread of COVID-19, Olympic organizers have chosen not to update the logo for 2021. The resulting identity, a checkered circle representing the year 2020, arrives to feel both dated and too relevant – a blatant reminder that COVID-19 remains a clear and present threat.
It hasn’t always been that way. The Olympics produced some of the most exciting brand identities of the last century. Take Lance Wyman’s Op Art-inspired branding for the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, which still features prominently throughout the city more than 50 years after the gold medal final. The Olympics have long allowed host cities to communicate their hopes and ambitions to the world, and the best Olympic logos are like a welcoming committee, inspiring viewers to find out more.
We asked six renowned graphic designers to identify the greatest Olympic logos of all time. Their choices range from the iconic Wyman brand of 1968 to the other (decidedly more successful) Tokyo logo for the 1964 Games.
A giant red sun – perhaps symbolic of Japan’s rebirth after WWII – rises above the golden Olympic rings. It is a symbol of renewal, hope and the ideals of the Summer Olympics. But it is also an instantly recognizable and memorable symbol for the Games, which is a key requirement for an international event. Designer Yusaku Kamekura said, “People may have thought that this big red circle represented the Inomaru. [Japanese National Flag], but my real intention was to express the sun. I wanted to create a fresh and vivid image through a balance between the big red circle and the Olympic five-ring mark. Legend has it that Kamekura created the work just hours before the deadline, which I find appropriate for the Olympics, where quick times are rewarded with gold. —Hamish Smyth, Partner, Order
The best Olympic logo has to be Lance Wyman’s for the 1968 Games in Mexico City. Wyman was just 29 when he flew from New York to Mexico with his wife Neila and partner Peter Murdoch to enter a two-week competition for the position. Their rushed entry was a masterpiece, with the Olympic rings organically blending into the lower bowls of the numbers 6 and 8, and radiant outlines hinting at ancient Mexican folk art and 60s psychedelia. 50 years later, you can still see the logo all over Mexico City. And that’s one way of judging an Olympic logo: does it survive the event? The 68 Games were a huge event for Mexico, and the Wyman logo captured the moment and has since become an enduring patriotic symbol for the country. —Gary Hustwit, filmmaker and founder, Oh You Pretty Things
This logo and identity system is probably one of the design elements I have referred to the most in my own practice. It still seems like it could work just as well today as it did then. I have always loved the story of its creation: an international competition, Lance Wyman and his partner saw Mexico with a fresh outlook and [were] inspired by Mexican art with bold lines, geometric shapes and vibrant colors. At the same time in New York, there was a whole trend in optical art going on, and he married both. A contemporary approach with a heritage influence that has stood the test of time! —Lisa Smith, Executive Creative Director, Jones Knowles Ritchie
Although it is considered superb work today, [Otl] Aicher’s efforts were initially rejected by much of the German public and media. Not initially part of the global logo competition to choose the Olympic logo, creating Aichler’s identity was a very personal task. Aicher had been an avowed opponent of the Nazis, had seen several of his fellow Resistance fighters executed, and had ultimately spent the last years of World War II in hiding. For Aicher, as for Germany, the 1972 Games were a necessary step in overcoming the stain of the Nazi regime. Hence the theme of a bare optimism of the event, “The Happy Games. This theme was fully personified in Aicher’s creation of a surprising, incredibly abstract brand embodying expressive modernism. With its dynamic movement and energy, the radiant spiral logo illuminated the new German nation, signifying progress, harmony and a new beginning. —Eddie Opara, Partner, Pentagram
Although as an Israeli these Olympics represent a historically violent event for me, they have my favorite logo. Beyond movement, dynamism and exuberance, it has virtues that are not found in most other Olympic designs. One of the main considerations when designing a logo for the Olympics is the relationship with the colored circular rings, which are always present. Otl Aicher’s logo is not colorful, but rather a stark black and white and consists of straight lines and sharp angles. The magic is in the contrast with the rings. The two designs resonate together beautifully because the Munich brand radiates from a circular center. This balance is very difficult to achieve, and Aicher in doing so also created a three-dimensional illusion that foreshadowed many future innovations in identity design. —Sagi Haviv, partner, Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv
Los Angeles 1984
The Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games logo kind of incorporated my Platonic ideal of sports design. It evokes nylon tracksuits, national pride and the indefatigable power of the lines of motion. A classic from the era of Whitney Houston’s national anthem in America. Can’t wait for LA28. —Jennifer Kinon, Partner, Champions Design