The links tying the historic Olympic Games Tokyo 1964 to their modern 2020 counterpart are everywhere, and none more so than through the two sets of instantly recognisable pictograms. These small, invaluable graphics made their worldwide debut 57 years ago in the Japanese capital, and it’s no surprise that the two people tasked with designing the modern versions cast their eyes back towards their forefathers.
“I have worked on this project as if I had received a baton to inherit our tradition and pass on to the next generation,” said Kota Iguchi, designer of the kinetic pictograms which will add a 21st century twist to the genre.
Pictograms were invented under the watch of Tokyo 1964 artistic director Katsumi Masaru, as a non-verbal means of communicating to the mass of foreigners expected to arrive in Japan for the nation’s first Olympic Games. The figures illustrating men’s and women’s toilets came first, and the simple, instantly understandable design was applied to sports, using photographs as a background.
It was a masterstroke, and the concept has been used not only at all the Olympic Games since, but all over the world. Iguchi, a motion graphics specialist, has been as much in love with the designs as anyone.
“Static sports pictograms were first introduced at the Tokyo 1964 Games, and are said to be created from the idea of communicating through emojis instead of an alphabet, because the alphabet wasn’t widely used in Japan back then,” Iguchi explained. “I can empathise with this type of idea as it is a typical Japanese way of thinking.
“And when I applied the idea to today's world, I thought the idea of kinetic pictograms was a natural process.”
In order to get the pictograms moving, Iguchi needed a 2020 static design upon which to work. Up stepped local designer Masaaki Hiromura. He too had no intention of straying far from the example set back in 1964.
“I sensed not only simplicity, but also a glorification of each sport and the genuine enjoyment of sport in the design. I found that Japanese simplicity and minimalism had an affinity with my design, and I wanted to inherit that philosophy,” Hiromura confirmed.
“Like the 1964 designs, we too ended up with the idea of creating a design to let people feel a pure joy of sport and the excitement of competition, rather than just making it look neat and tidy.”
The key requirement for Hiromura was maintaining a single concept that can be understood by people of all ages and nationalities. It is a design thread that not only connects the 1964 Games to their 2020 counterpart, but also has run through every edition of the Games since.
Pictograms changed little in design from 1964 until the 1990s, when a semblance of national identity started to creep in. First in Lillehammer in 1994 came a design based on the famous 4,000-year-old rock carvings of a skier found in Norway. These were followed by pictograms influenced by a boomerang at the Olympic Games Sydney 2000, while the Athens 2004 versions incorporated the feel of the ancient Olympic Games. By Turin 2006 and Vancouver 2010 there were 3D designs to contend with.
It is perhaps no surprise that, working on the back of all this history, Iguchi took his time to ensure his contribution would be the right one.
“The first thing I did was to give movement to the track and field pictogram,” he said. “I created more than 50 prototypes, and I suggested in a pattern of movement (that the) static pictogram ‘appears’ and ‘disappears’.
“From there, I watched a lot of videos of sports competitions and studied the movements of various athletes to recreate such moves. My works were scrutinised by professionals in each sport category. Adjustments were made to every tiny detail of movement. Finally, it took more than a year for me to complete all 73 kinetic pictograms by myself.”
Such a labour of love seems well worth it, especially when Iguchi considers the impact his work may have, like that of his compatriots before him.
These are the first ever kinetic pictograms in Games history, they were created to highlight how dynamic, innovative, and special #Tokyo2020 will be! ✨— #Tokyo2020 (@Tokyo2020) July 19, 2021
Let us know your favourite @Olympics sport! 👇#UnitedByEmotion | #StrongerTogether pic.twitter.com/Zb4vOgIcsz
“I hope that kinetic pictograms will be created again by the local people in the next Summer Games in Paris, and the LA Games in 2028 and beyond,” Iguchi said, before adding: “The kinetic pictogram was already created by the local creator for the Beijing 2022 Winter Games.
“If people all over the world continue to pass the baton to others like this, this new challenge that Japan initiated in 2020 will be inherited forever. It’s fun just to imagine whether the Paris pictogram moves will emphasise the beauty of the city, as Paris always does, or whether Los Angeles will create something quite entertaining like our general image of America. I’m excited to know.”
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