The Tuesday Take: A New Dawn in Design

How Tokyo 1964 Redefined the Olympics

Image by Jérémie Souteyrat via Japan House

The date Tuesday, 26th of May 1959, the location Munich, and the 55th Session of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was underway. The excitement in the air was palpable, as for the first time in Olympic history a Japanese city was in contention to host the Olympics.

Alongside Detroit, Vienna, and Brussels stood Tokyo, and as tension reached its peak, the announcement was made: the Games were awarded to Tokyo with a resounding 34 votes out of 58.

The Olympics, Japan, and the world would never be the same.


 

The excitement was at an all-time high in Japan, and it was mirrored around the world, as these Olympics were to be one of many firsts. They marked not only a significant post-war recovery milestone following the devastation of World War II but also the first time the Olympics would be held in Asia. Additionally, it was the first time the Games would be broadcast internationally via satellite, making them a truly global spectacle. Most importantly, the 1964 games raised the standard of international Olympic and event design and its impact resonates to this day.

But how was this design-precedent-setting Olympics designed? Well, with the 1964 Games, the Japanese Olympic Committee aimed to raise the bar like never before. Preparation for the games was an exercise in meticulous planning and innovative design, led by some of Japan’s finest creative minds. The branding and design of the 1964 Olympics were entrusted to a team headed by Art Director Masaru Katsumi who in turn assembled an elite team of designers including Yusaku Kamekura, Yoshiro Yamashita, Hiromu Hara, Takashi Kono and Sori Yanagi.

Image by Jérémie Souteyrat via Japan House

Citius, Altius, Fortius -Faster, Higher & Stronger

Citius, Altius, Fortius -Faster, Higher & Stronger- These are the three Latin words that make up the Olympic motto and define the spirit of excellence in human achievement in sports, and when it came to the design of the ‘64 games, that spirit was quite evident. Up until 1964, the visual identity of the modern era Olympics had largely been stagnant, starting from the early 20th-century events influenced by the highly ornate Art Nouveau and later Art Deco styles to the totalitarian and grand aesthetics that dominated the 1930s and ’40s.


 

It was time to leave the illustrative and ornate ways of the past behind and introduce the world to a dynamic new way of visual representation and thinking using Graphic Design, Typography and Photography.

“Up until 1964, the visual identity of the modern era Olympics had largely been stagnant, starting from the early 20th-century events influenced by the highly ornate Art Nouveau and later Art Deco styles, to the totalitarian and grand aesthetics that dominated the 1930s and ’40s.”

Thanks to Katsumi and his team of designers, the 1964 Olympics were the first to employ three main aspects that began to define the modern era of the Olympics as we know it today: the use of modern aesthetics, a unified branding approach, and pictograms.

Kamekura Yusaku | Image courtesy of The Niigata Prefectural Museum of Modern Art via Japan House

The 1964 Games were the first to embrace a modernist design philosophy characterised by simple, clear, and minimal aesthetics. At the centre of this new approach, was the iconic visual identity for the games designed by Yusaku Kamekura. His vision was clear: to create a visual identity that symbolises peace and forward motion. This resulted in the creation of the iconic emblem featuring the red sun from the national flag of Japan, set against a stark white background, representing both the Japanese flag and a vision of global peace.

But that was just the tip of the iceberg of what was to come. The collective team then implemented a unified branding approach, featuring a comprehensive and cohesive visual identity anchored by the iconic Hinomaru sun emblem that was streamlined across all platforms.

From posters to tickets, brochures to venue decorations, and uniforms to signage, everything was connected seamlessly. In addition to the emblem, the consistent use of clean, modern sans-serif typefaces made everything easy to read and recognizable, this is when Helvetica was ushered into the global spotlight.

The colour palette was also minimal and restrained, focusing on the red and white of the Japanese flag, which not only reinforced the national identity but also maintained a distinctive sense of visual clarity and impact. Photography was also used for the first time in Olympic history in the design of the posters, a task that was quite difficult at the time. Every item connected to the Olympics conformed to these design principles.

Image from the Prince Chichibu Memorial Sports Museum via Japan House

Whether one was looking at a map, a game ticket, or an event poster, the design elements were immediately identifiable as part of the 1964 Games. Furthermore, given that the 1964 Games were the first to be broadcast internationally via Syncon 3, the world’s first geostationary satellite, the visual identity was designed to be highly effective on both black and white and colour televisions. This influenced the choice of stark, high-contrast colours and simple graphics that would be clear and impactful on the screen.

Perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of the Tokyo Olympics’ design was the introduction of pictograms for each sport. It was the first time a consistent, simple, iconic visual representation was used for each of the sports being contested. This allowed international audiences to easily follow along and navigate the event, transcending language barriers.

Pictograms for a series of 39 facilities and 20 sports were designed from scratch, and that even included the pictogram for telephones, a first-aid station, a bank and also men’s and women’s toilet facilities that we still use till this day. Major credit for this particular aspect goes to Masaru Katsumi along with Yoshiro Yamashita, who created this feature that has since become a staple in all subsequent Olympic Games.

Image by Jérémie Souteyrat via Japan House

Image by Jérémie Souteyrat via Japan House

Katsumi ​​drew profound inspiration from the elegance and tradition of Japanese family crests. These crests, with their distilled simplicity and symbolic depth, infused a sense of time-honoured artistry into the modern visual language of the ‘64 Games. It was a team effort in design that forever influenced the design signage in spaces from train stations to airports, hotels to event halls across the globe.

This unified branding approach not only enhanced the spectator experience but also elevated the Olympic Games into a new realm of global marketing effectiveness, establishing a benchmark for all future international events.

The level of detail seen throughout the design of the Tokyo 1964 Games was unparalleled at that time, showcasing how thoughtful design could transcend linguistic and cultural barriers. It placed Japan in the spotlight as a nation that had gloriously & peacefully risen again, all while uniting the world in a shared celebration of athletic excellence and international cooperation.

Image from the Prince Chichibu Memorial Sports Museum via Japan House

Image from the Prince Chichibu Memorial Sports Museum via Japan House

Image from the Prince Chichibu Memorial Sports Museum via Japan House

As we commemorate the 60th anniversary of the 1964 Olympic Games, it’s important to remember and honour the enduring legacy of that pivotal event and the Japanese designers who made it happen, which continues to inspire and shape the Olympics and global events to this day, a collective feat that surely is worth the addition of a fourth Olympic motto, Acrior.


 Images via Japan House Tokyo 1964: Designing Tomorrow exhibition. To see more go here.

 

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