Olympic Design

Olympic and Paralymic mascots Miraitowa and Someity

Japanese Design

The Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics, postponed until summer 2021, will take place across forty-two venues as the Japanese capital hosts the Games for the second time. The organisers aim to promote unity in diversity, a vision that artist Asao Tokolo had in mind when designing the official emblem and athletes’ podium. He used ichimatsu patterns with different rectangular shapes to symbolise diversity and connection. His styling of traditional Japanese forms and patterns, as described by Hiroko Kurokawa in her chapter in the Encyclopedia of East Asian Design, is reflected in designer Ryo Taniguchi’s indigo blue and pink chequered Olympic and Paralympic mascots, Miraitowa and Someity. From traditional practices to new processes and modernization, Ritsuko Endo’s article in The Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Design provides a comprehensive guide to the rich history of Japanese design from the 1800s until today.

Olympic torch runner Yoshinori Sakai at the Tokyo 1964 opening ceremony

Tokyo 1964

The Tokyo 1964 Olympics were the first Olympics held in Asia and they had a transformative impact on design in Japan. The occasion initiated new building work, the development of commercial spaces, an increased demand for interior design and new graphic design enterprises. In ‘Modern Design in Japan (1957–1973)’, in the Encyclopedia of East Asian Design, Yasuko Suga traces design developments across post-war Japan and observes the 1964 Olympic designers’ shift from romanticized, pre-war imagery used in previous Games, towards fresh, high-tech visuals. Under the direction of art and design critic Masaru Katsumi (see Hiroko Shikita and Yasuko Suga’s article in The Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Design), a team of designers including Yoshiro Yamashita, who designed the pictograms, and Yusaku Kamekura, who designed the posters, established a modern visual language. Paddy O’Shea also describes the contrast between pre- and post-war Olympic designs in his encyclopedia article and highlights the different ways in which designers undertake the task of communicating identity.

Karin Janz -Bundesarchiv

Reinventing Public Space

In the chapter ‘A Space of Pure Possibility’ in Picturing Socialism, author J. R. Jenkins explores the X. Weltfestspiele (10th World Festival Games) in East Berlin and its impact on public art. Taking place in 1973, 37 years after Hitler’s 1936 Olympics, the X. Weltfestspiele was seen as an opportunity to create a positive, politically progressive visual identity and to reinvent public space. Jenkins looks at the inspiration and ambition shared between the designers of the X. Weltfestspiele and the Munich Olympic Games in 1972, providing an in-depth look at the designs of Axel Bertram, Rolf Walter, Lutz Brandt and Otl Aicher. John Patrick Hartnett also gives an overview of Otl Aicher’s life and work in his article in The Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Design.

Tokyo protests

Design Activism

Hosting the Olympics involves huge, rapid, urban transformations that can have devastating socio-spatial effects, and are often met with resistance. Jilly Traganou provides a critical overview of the history of anti-Olympic action in East Asia and the creative tactics employed by activists in her chapter, ‘Dissent by Design’, in The Encyclopedia of Asian Design, Volume Four: Transnational and Global Issues in Asian Design. Traganou examines design action involving subversive anti-campaign material, posters, symbolic appropriation, imagery and protest attire, in addition to designs generated through the Hangorin no Kai (No Olympics 2020) movement in Tokyo. Focusing on the Olympic Park in London, Chris Hay and Pat Brown look at the effects of the 2012 Games on local areas in their chapter, ‘Inside Out’, in Flow. Similarly, in Drawing Investigations, authors Sarah Casey and Gerry Davies highlight the work of artist Laura Oldfield Ford who, through the medium of drawing, investigates contested spaces in Britain’s towns and cities.

1964 Tokyo Olympics poster

DESIGNER FOCUS: Yusaku Kamekura

Yusaku Kamekura (1915-1997) was a hugely influential figure in post-war Japanese graphic design. His work for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, particularly his bold, photographic posters, are globally recognized and were pivotal in defining Japan’s national visual identity throughout the Games. Kamekura was born in Niigata Prefecture, Japan and later studied at the Institute of New Architecture and Industrial Arts in Tokyo. Inspired by the Art Deco posters of A. M. Cassandre and Russian Constructivism, he went on to produce an array of designs including posters for the Expo ’70 in Osaka (an overview of the first world’s fair in Asia is given by Clive Edwards in his article in The Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Design). Perhaps Kamekura’s most profoundly moving work was his poster, the first in the Hiroshima Appeals series, featuring flaming, falling butterflies. In 1978, he established and served as president of the Japan Graphic Designers Association (JAGDA) until 1993. As Sonoko Monden writes in The Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Design, Kamekura was a pioneer who significantly raised the reputation of graphic design in Japan. He died in 1997.



As Raiford Guins describes in his book, Atari Design, Pong was not just a new amusement product designed for an existing market. Innovative cabinet design was key to the success of the table-tennis themed arcade game, a success that shaped a brand, an industry, and spawned an incredible number of clone machines throughout the 1970s. Guins explores how Atari developed their products for new, diverse environments such as restaurants, department stores, country clubs, game rooms and airports, and they even installed machines throughout the Olympic Villages during the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. Considering shape, materials, form and design, and the contributions of industrial designers including Regan Cheng and Peter Takaichi, Guins looks at how Pong shaped a new gaming experience in the late 20th century.

Image credits:
Homepage: The Olympic Rings in front of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in Lausanne, 2020 (FABRICE COFFRINI / Getty Images)
Images above: 1) Tokyo 2020 mascots (Pool / Getty Images); 2) Olympic torch runner Yoshinori Sakai at the Tokyo 1964 opening ceremony (AFP / Getty Images); 3) Karin Janz with SC Dynamo Berlin, X. Weltfestspiele, 1973 (Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-M0813-752 / Photo by Friedrich Gahlbeck / Licensed with CC BY-SA 3.0); 4) No Olympics 2020 demonstration in Shinjuku, Tokyo (NurPhoto / Getty Images); 5) Yusaku Kamekura’s poster design for the Tokyo 1964 Olympics (Universal Art Archive / Alamy Stock Photo); 6) Pong, Atari Inc., 1972. Photographed at The Strong by Raiford Guins

Explore our archive of previously featured content here.