Mexico City, Olympic Games' pictograms, 1968

The Smithsonian magazine recently featured an interesting article on the history of the Olympic pictograms. Those little graphic symbols that represent the Olympic disciplines, which have helped to overcome language barrier, and have become an essential feature to the Olympic Games.

With just few hours left to the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 London Olympic Games, we, too, would like to celebrate the pictograms that made history, and the one that failed.

Everything began in 1936, when pictographic gestures were introduced for the first time at the Berlin Olympics. However, because of the Third Reich association they went pretty much unnoticed. The first attempt to employ a system of symbols communication dates back to 1948, precisely the last time London hosted the Olympic Games. But they were closer to illustrations than actual pictograms.

In 1964 the Japaneses paved the way and created the first pictograms designed specifically to form a universally understood language for the Olympic Games of Tokio. They were conceived by a team of designers led by Katsumi Masaru and inspired in part by Otto Neurath and Gerd Arntz's isotype, an early (and still completely current) infographic form.

Next came the 1968 Mexico Olympic Games. Created by Lance Wyman, an American graphic designer, they mixed Mexican folk art with the hippy psychedelic culture of the time. The result was striking and colorful. The boldest of all.

The 1972 Munich Olympic Games gave birth to the most famous pictograms. Designed by Otl Aicher, and acclaimed by many as smart and elegant, indeed they have defined the genre. Functional and neat, Aicher's design is “a very good example of German cold geometry” (design professor Carlos Rosa). They were used again at the Montreal games in 1976

Since 1972 designers have tried at each games to create something new and original, but Aicher’s influence on the pictograms system stayed very strong.

1980 Moscow Olympic Games' pictograms were designed by a young architecture student, Nikolai Belkov: rounded corners for squares and silhouttes, but they just look like another versione of Aicher's pictograms.

Pictograms for the Los Angeles Games in 1984 showed bodies made up of essentially 10 conical shapes which pretty much resembled the MTV visual language of the time. Still, a modified version of the Munich ones.

1988, in Seoul. Buyong Hwang initial design was considered too similar to Aicher’s and their use was forbade by the Canadian Olympic committee that had acquired rights to Aicher’s pictograms. He then designed a new series. Did he, really?

Brushstroke forms in place of the strict geometrical shapes with three essential elements, head, arms and legs, were the final design for the pictograms of Barcellona Olympic Games, in 1992. Still, not much originality.

Inspired by Corinthian and Attic vases, the Atlanta's pictograms in 1996, moved to the physical features of the silhouettes. The result is a bit too iconic.

As for the Barcellona’s pictograms, the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney were centered on three elements, but the brushstroke took the shape of the Boomerang, the traditional aborigenal weapon.

Inspired by the black figures of the Ancient Greece’s vases, Athens' pictograms in 2004 finally brought a breath of fresh air.

2008 Olympic Games in Beijing were the first pictograms with an actual name: “Beauty of Seal characters”. They were based on Jingwen, the script found on 2,000-year-old bronze carvings, combined with modern graphic to obtain very graceful and easy to use pictograms. Simply beautiful.

And so you have made it to the end. After a disastrous logo, have a look at what the agency Someone designed for the London Olympic Games. Two versions: a silhouette for visibility and a dynamic for decoration and banners. Both versions tries to convey the speed, the energy, the excitement and the power of the games. But do they rival Aicher’s design?

According to designer Steven Heller they "look as though a child did them: primitive perhaps, but not in a good way". We could not agree more.

P.S.: Olympic pictograms are copyrights of the respective Olympic Organizing Committees.