The next time you go to the bathroom, take a closer look at the sign.

You know what I'm talking about? The stick figure in the triangle dress. Her head is just a circle detached from her body. 

You don't need to read a single word to understand, this is the women's restroom. So what does the women's restroom have to do with the Olympics?

Well, during the Olympics people descend on one place from all around the world. And with some many people and so many languages the challenge is to figure out a way to communicate in a global way. 

The answer: pictograms

Olympic pictograms are those stick figure pictures that depict each Olympic sport. Today they’re everywhere: at Olympic venues, on tickets and event schedules, on TV.

The first official Olympic pictograms appeared at the 1948 London summer games. They were simple drawings representing certain events, a bike for cycling, a basket for basketball, a pair of boxing gloves.  But that was before one German designer Otl Aicher revolutionized the design.

"I think he's the grandfather of the Olympic pictogram," said Brockett Horne, who directs the Graphic Design program at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore.

Aicher was commissioned to design the pictograms for the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. This was no small task.

This was the first games in Germany since Hitler's 1936 Berlin Olympics. The visual legacy from those games was the swastika. It was all over the athletic stadium where Jesse Owens ran. 

The German Olympic Committee was eager to erase that image; as was Aicher. He grew up in Nazi Germany. Refused to join the Hitler Youth and ended up deserted the army after he was drafted. This chance to re-design the German image for the world was huge.

"He was really interested in coming up with something that focused on the athletic events without any agenda, it shouldn't have any hint or tinge of propaganda," said Horne.

What could be more neutral than simple stick figures? Aicher created a grid of 21-stick figure athletes, biking, swimming, running. They were so elegant, so easy to read, that their influence began to be seen all over the place.

"No smoking, no diving, male and female restroom signs, the symbols that we see in use by Department of Transportation, these were all part of a larger international approach to creating a visual language that could help people communicate without words," said Horne.

Aicher's figures are so simple and so legible that you almost don't even notice them. Not noticing is exactly the point says typographer Fabio Haag. 

"We joke that that's why every type designer drinks a lot, basically we spend all this time refining letters that people won't even notice," said Haag.

Haag designed the font for the upcoming 2016 Summer Games in Rio. His font inspired the designers of the Brazilian pictograms.

"When designing the pictograms they would actually print out the letters cut them with scissors and start to play around to see if there was an athlete's movements in those letters," said Haag, "So the dot of an 'i' became the head and the shape of the 'j' became an arm."

Although the Summer Olympics in Brazil are still two years out but the branding, the font, the pictograms, were created years in advance all designed to evoke a Brazilian flare. 

Despite what Haag says about design going unnoticed, if do you pay attention, you will discover innovative changes from one Olympics to the next. Not only are pictograms global tools for communication, they're local, dare I write, glocal.

The pictograms from the 2004 Athens Games resembles the figures found on ancient Greek vases and the figures from the 2008 Beijing Games are based on a 2,000-year-old script written on bronze carvings. The 22 pictograms designed for Sochi are filled in with a "patchwork quilt" that looks like the colorful designs painted on a nesting doll.

Still, everything harkens back to Aicher's 1972 figures. His legacy lives on for every graphic design student and for anyone who ever visits a public restroom.

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Pictograms from the 1948 Olympic Games in London

Pictograms from the 1948 Olympic Games in London

Pictograms from the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City

Pictograms from the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City designed by Lance Wyman.


Virtual Olympic Games Museum

Otl Aicher's pictograms designed for the 1972 Munich Summer Olympic Games.

Otl Aicher's pictograms designed for the 1972 Munich Summer Olympic Games.

Pictograms for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games

Pictograms for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games

Pictograms for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil

Pictograms for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil


Sergio Moraes/ Reuters

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